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Behold the Man

I didn’t see the Mel Gib­son movie, “The Pas­sion of the Christ.” I was dis­ap­pointed, how­ever, by a small moment in the pre­view. The mak­ers made a big point of hav­ing the movie be in the orig­i­nal Latin and Ara­maic. When Pon­tius Pilate parades the tor­tured Jesus before the Jew­ish crowds, he says, “ecce homo,” which means, “behold the man.” He is attempt­ing to demon­strate to the potentially-rebellious Jews that Jesus is no divine Mes­siah, only a mor­tal man who can bleed, suf­fer, and be made to sub­mit to Roman author­ity like any­one else.

My pedan­tic quib­ble is this: Pilate pro­nounces “ecce” wrong. He says, “eche.” I’m no Latin scholar, but it is my under­stand­ing that there are no soft “C” sounds in clas­si­cal Latin. It should be pro­nounced “eke,” just as Cae­sar would have been pro­nounced “kaisar,” not “seesar” the way we say it today. The soft “C” pro­nun­ci­a­tion is from Medieval Church Latin, which did not exist circa 33 A.D. Any real schol­ars should feel free to cor­rect me on this.

I know, I know. Who cares? It just irri­tated me. Thanks for let­ting me get that off my chest.

What’s all this have to do with art? It’s only tan­gen­tial. I’ve been think­ing about and look­ing at Renais­sance depic­tions of the adult Jesus lately. Artists were called upon to paint var­i­ous moments from the life of Jesus. Artists at the time pro­duced this kind of reli­gious art for cus­tomers and patrons who paid for con­ven­tional work that rein­forced the reli­gious con­ven­tions of the time. They some­times man­aged to tran­scend the lim­its of the mar­ket­place, how­ever, with orig­i­nal work that is pro­foundly moving.

Here I’ll com­pare a late 15th cen­tury Ger­man painter, Hierony­mus Bosch, with that of the 16th cen­tury Ital­ian, Car­avag­gio. I’m doing that sim­ply because I find their reli­gious work com­pelling, and because I can’t do jus­tice to the full range of this kind of work in a blog post (it would take a very long book).

Bosch Ecce Homo Here, for exam­ple, is “Ecce Homo,” by Bosch, from about 147580.
Bosch Ecce Homo Here’s is another one of the same scene by Bosch from the 1490’s. I like the ear­lier one better.
Bosch Christ Carrying the Cross This is Bosch’s “Christ Car­ry­ing the Cross,” from about 151516. It seems more like the work he’s most famous for—chaotic paint­ings of hell. In this one, the com­po­si­tion is an almost ran­dom spread of grotesque fig­ures sur­round­ing Jesus as he is forced to bear the cross.
Bosch Christ Mocked And this is my favorite Bosch depic­tion of Jesus. It’s “Christ Mocked,” from about 14951500. In it, Christ stands patiently while a group of grotesque fools make fun of him. Using car­i­ca­ture freely, he cre­ates a strong sense of human­ity in the jux­ta­po­si­tion between Christ and the fig­ures sur­round­ing him.
Carravaggio Ecce Homo Here is an “Ecce Homo,” by Car­avag­gio from about 1606. Here he shows his typ­i­cal mas­tery of com­po­si­tion, light, and dark­ness to cre­ate a dra­matic and mov­ing scene.
Carravaggio Taking of Christ This is Caravaggio’s “Tak­ing of Christ,” from about 1598, in which the Romans are led to Jesus by the trai­tor Judas. Look at the way that the dra­matic light­ing is used to lead the eye across the com­po­si­tion from right to left—the oppo­site direc­tion than we nor­mally expect.
Caravaggio The Entombment But Caravaggio’s most mov­ing depic­tion of the adult Christ is his amaz­ing, “The Entomb­ment,” from about 16021603. Car­avag­gio makes Christ into a mere corpse, with­out any of the tra­di­tional indi­ca­tors of divin­ity such as a halo or crown of thorns. In doing so he empha­sizes Jesus’s human­ity and the gen­uine grief of the mourn­ers. Once again, he leads the eye from right to left into an unusual, but effec­tive, focal point.

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4 Responses

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  1. N. L. White says

    Accord­ing to High School Latin and my Latin Dic­tio­nary you are cor­rect. No soft “c” sound in what is con­sid­ered true Latin pro­nun­ci­a­tion. How­ever, there is much of Latin pro­nun­ci­a­tion that has been left to it’s edu­cated scholors to deter­mine from his­tory as the lan­guage itself has not lasted in spo­ken form out­side of some church denom­i­na­tions which as you pointed out have taken lib­er­ties with it themselves.

  2. David says

    Thanks, N.L.

    The Roman Empire in the early 1st cen­tury was a big place and I’m sure there were lots of regional accents. It just seemed silly to hear Medieval Church Latin in a movie that takes the trou­ble to have the actors speak Latin in the first place. Obvi­ously, I’m being very self-indulgent in my pedantry here.

  3. clark Culp says

    I’m cer­tainly no Latin scholar; I have enough trou­ble with my native Amer­i­can Eng­lish, but isn’t Cae­sar pro­nounced with a soft “C”?

    • David says


      I’m not a scholar either, but my under­stand­ing is that the clas­si­cal Latin pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Cae­sar is “kaisar,” not “seesar.” Eng­lish speak­ers don’t pro­nounce it the way the Romans did. They had no con­cept that “ce” is pro­nounced as an “s.”

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