Pilate washes his hands

Pilate washes his hands

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What detail has the artist added to emphasize Jesus’ helplessness as he faces Pilate?
  2. The painting shows the wife of Pontius Pilate standing behind him, whispering into his ear. How did she try to warn him?
  3. Was it a good thing, that Pilate ignored his wife’s warning?

Painting of Jesus and Pontius Pilate

When he (Pilate) was seated on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him . . .’ When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing . . . he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person (Matthew 27: I9, 24).

Surrounded by soldiers but unbowed, Christ awaits Pilate’s decision. His wrists are bound and the long sleeves of his blue robe cover his hands, so that he appears entirely helpless.

Pilate holds his hands over a golden basin as a servant pours water over them from a jug — a public disclaimer of responsibility. His lovely wife, who has failed to persuade him to save the prisoner, leans out from behind the throne.

Rabanus Maurus presenting his thesis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz

Rabanus Maurus presenting his thesis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz

Medieval authors, following Rabanus Maurus, envisaged Pilate’s wife as a tool of the devil, who sent her a dream in a last effort to prevent Christ’s death on the cross and thus to thwart the plan of salvation.

The artist of the Book of Hours has again given Pilate a hat that looks like an exotic tasselled bloom. Is it meant to show him as effete? The whole picture seems flowery, with its array of bright red, pink, pale green, and warm brown lighted in golden yellow.

Herman’s flat-faced men have their habitual brutish look. In their company the malevolent old man in a rose and white mantle intently watching the scene is exceptionally expressive.

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The wife of Pilate

The road to Calvary

Barabbas or Jesus?

Barabbas or Jesus? The Book of Hours

Painting of Pontius Pilate and the crowd

Pontius Pilate offers the crowd a choice: Jesus or Barabbas. From the Book of Hours of the French nobleman the Duc de Berry

Questions for Bible study groups

  • How did the artist depict Pontius Pilate? Was it historically accurate? Does it matter?
  • Why couldn’t the Jewish people go into Pilate’s judgement hall?
  • Who is watching from a barred window?

Pilate, in a curving hat and safely standing well above the hoi-polloi, addresses the Jewish crowd, offering in accordance with custom to release one prisoner at Passover. They ask not for Christ but Barabbas.

One dramatic man at the center, arm flung up in excitement, has his back to us, his focus entirely on Pilate.

Since the Jews could not enter Pilate’s judgment hall before the Passover for fear of ritual defilement, the governor speaks from a high exterior pulpit. To accommodate it part of the ivy border has been erased.

At the barred prison window (right) there are two faced – the criminals who will share crucifixion with Christ.

Pontius Pilate offers the people a choice: Jesus or Barabbas. Book of Hours, Duc de Berry

Pontius Pilate offers the people a choice: Jesus or Barabbas. Book of Hours, Duc de Berry

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Paintings of the Passion of Jesus

Joseph’s story

Jesus & Pilate

Jesus before Pontius Pilate, painting

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. How does the artist show the ruthless power of Pontius Pilate?
  2. What clues can you pick up as to the time of day, the mood of the hearing, and the impatience of Pilate?

Painting of Jesus before Pilate

A kneeling soldier eagerly repeats the accusations to the Roman governor, who sits on a throne like that of Caiaphas’ – clearly linking the two men, one Jewish, the other Roman, in complicity. Pilate holds the sword of authority, just as Caiaphas did.

Pilate raises an admonitory finger before Christ, who is held in the grasp of mailed fists. Jesus’ face seems to have been flattened: is this just damage to the paint, or is it meant to suggest the buffeting Jesus has already undergone at the hands of the soldiers?

A priestly adviser to Pilate covers his mouth with his hand, as if to silence himself.

The confusion of the moment is conveyed by a banner that flutters over Jesus’ head. The burning taper reminds us that is is early morning, still almost dark. And there is even more darkness to come.

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More paintings of Jesus & Pilate

Jesus questioned by Caiaphas

Gospel text for this story

The road to Calvary


Jesus scourged by soldiers

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. How has the artist depicted the brutality of the beating/scourging of Jesus of Nazareth?
  2. What implements of torture are shown that the gospels do not mention?
  3. What is Jesus’ demeanor at this dreadful moment?

The flagellation of Jesus

A short officer, strutting like a cock, and two underlings wield scourges while a youth raises a birch high above his head. A kneeling assistant pulls on the rope that holds Christ to the column.

The painter’s oddly proportioned figure of Christ is more pathetic than noble, with its rivulets of blood coursing down Jesus’ almost naked body. Jesus’ head is bent in resignation.

Perhaps the man at the right wearing a tiara and looking at the scene with conspicuous determination is Pilate. The artist, who could never resist strange headgear, has provided the high priest’s companion with a fantastic red Mongolian hat.

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Jesus scourged and mocked

Jesus & Caiaphas

Caiaphas, High Priest, Book of Hours painting

Jesus judged by Caiaphas

Jesus judged by Caiaphas

”And they that laid hold on Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest . . . and all the Council sought false witness against Jesus to put him to death” (Matthew 26: 57,59).

Caiaphas, wearing a miter and holding a sword of justice, listens intently to the evidence that Christ has claimed that he could destroy the Temple and build it up again within three days.

The soldiers keep a firm grip on Jesus, who stands quietly watching Caiaphas

Notice how the artist has arranged the figures: there is a yawning gap between Caiaphas, sword in hand and on a throne, and Jesus, standing surrounded by enemies, almost hidden by the figures of people who would like to kill him.

A 19th century painting of this event, by James Tissot

A 19th century painting of this event, by James Tissot

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Jesus questioned by Caiaphas

Peter's story

Agony in the Garden

Garden of Gethsemane, painting

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What are the symbols in this painting, and what do they stand for?
  2. What is the pious legend of the bridge in the painting?
  3. What is the message of this painting?

Christ’s agony in the garden

Painting of Christ's agony in the garden

After the Last Supper Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane. Within the garden, which in this miniature is bounded by a wattle fence, he knelt in prayer.

There is no attempt at historical accuracy. His impending death is symbolized by the gold chalice, the Communion wafer, and the small cross that floats between him and God the Father – all in the top left of the painting.

Having ended his prayer, Jesus returned to the apostles, crossing the plank that bridges the stream of Cedron (Kidron).

Legend of the bridge

According to the contemporary pilgrim Ogier d’Anglure this was the little bridge that had once been composed of the wood of the Cross, and indeed the artist marked the plank with a cross in his miniature of the Agony of Gethsemane.

Christ comes to rouse the slumbering apostles and to warn them of the impending betrayal. A serpent creeping out of a crevice foretells the arrival of Judas with the soldiers, who will soon march down the road from Jerusalem.

Deeply sorrowful, Christ bends and lays his hand gently on James.

Peter, wrapped in his blue cloak, is propped on one arm, his hand near the pommel of a sword he has brought to defend his master. John, a mere youth, has fallen into a deep sleep and leans heavily on the older disciple.

A message in the shaping of the painting

The figures of the three apostles are united with Christ by the conical hill behind. Notice its rippling surface as well as the curling folds in the violet mantles and the repeated curves in the composition. The brook of Cedron winds around the hill, its ripples represented by strokes of yellow and transparent green over gold.

The entire scene glows with yellow and gold. It is the most sophisticated and most perfect miniature in the manuscript.

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Christ's agony in Gethsemane

Peter's story

The road to Calvary

Salome & John

Salome, Herod, Herodias – and John

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What are the reactions of Herod, Herodias and Salome to the decapitated head of John the Baptist?
  2. Look at the watching courtiers – they seem more intent on gauging the mood of their king than on looking at the gruesome object on the platter. Why might this be so?

The banquet is over, the table has been cleared, and Salome enters bearing her promised reward on a platter. With a deep curtsey she holds it out before Herod.

In earlier representations the princess is something of an acrobat, and here she bends back so far that without the strong vertical of her white veil she would seem in danger of falling.

Herod and an elegant young man look down at the head whereas the other courtiers watch intently for the Queen’s reaction. Herodias, who plotted the death, leans away and calmly, without looking down, plunges a knife in the John’s forehead. Herod, beneath his scarlet canopy, half rises and raises a hand in horror.

Charles V of France, brother of the Duc de BerryThe Golden Legend does not describe this deed, which was little known and perhaps represented here for the first time. Jerome records it, but Jean de Berry and his entourage had almost certainly seen visual evidence — of a kind. During the Fourth Crusade the supposed head of St. John was brought from Constantinople and placed in a chapel in the cathedral of Amiens.

Set in a reliquary in the form of a platter such as Salome carries here, the skull was only partially enclosed, and pilgrims were told that a cleft in the left temple had been made by Herodias’ knife (see this skull below).

The chapel of the Baptist had been recently rebuilt by Cardinal Jean La Grange, who was prominent at the court of Charles V, the brother of Jean de Berry, who often visited Amiens . In fact, in the winter of 1407 — when the painting of the Belles Heures was far advanced — he spent a week there. With his devotion to the Baptist and his passion for relics it seems probable that the Duke himself suggested a miniature that would show Herodias enacting her vengeful deed.

supposed skull of John the Baptist, preserved in the Cathedral at Amiens

supposed skull of John the Baptist, preserved in the Cathedral at Amiens

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Elizabeth, John's mother

The Jordan River

John executed

Salome receives John Baptist’s head

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Why was John executed by Herod Antipas?
  2. How was he executed?
  3. What symbols does the painting contain?

Salome receives John’s head

John the Baptist reproached Herod for his marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias, whose husband, Philip, was still living. He thus earned the hatred of Herodias and was thrown into prison.

At the King’s birthday feast Salome, the daughter of Herodias by her first husband Philip, so pleased Herod by her dancing that he promised to give her anything she wished. At her mother’s prompting she asked for the head of the Baptist.

In the painting above, the executioner with a two-handed blow severs the head of John as he leans out of his prison. Perhaps this posture of St. John was influenced by early miracle plays, in which a stuffed torso was thrust out of an aperture and the false head struck off.

Salome stands waiting, her veil clasped by a high diadem and her skirt lined with royal ermine. Often she has a bowl, but here she holds a platter of impressive size with a wide, flat edge. She has gathered up her skirt and sways gracefully away from the gruesome sight.

The execution is watched by an official and two companions, one of whom puts a hand on his shoulder and looks curiously at the scene – something like a scene of execution in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco in S. Francesco, Siena, whose theme was good and bad government.

The official wears a high fur Busby. He holds a very large, twisted candle as a reminder that fire and light (and later fireworks) are associated with midsummer night, the birthday of John, who came to bear witness ”to the true Light” (John 12.9).

Smoke rises from the chimney of the banqueting hall, where Herod and his guests await the return of Salome with John’s head.

 Salome receives John's head

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The Jordan River

Baptism of Jesus

Baptism of Jesus, Book of Hours painting

John baptises Jesus in the River Jordan

What’s unusual about this painting?

  • The painter, whoever he was, has shown the Jordan more as a pool than a river, and the miniature is unusual in other respects.
  • For example, the Baptist holds a situla, a sort of bucket or pail with a handle, which suggests an association between the water he pours from a scoop—oddly with his left hand—and the baptismal water mixed with oil and chrism blessed annually on Holy Saturday.

Christ bends humbly forward with hands crossed on his breast, a position that, though popular later, was rare at the time.

John baptises Jesus in the River Jordan

What did the artist do that was new?

  • The artist’s perfect control of color is evident than in this miniature, with its masterful simplicity and its harmony of tan, gold, pale green, violet, and blue.
  • He has introduced new pictorial devices, such as the almost transparent loincloth and the equally transparent water that spills over Christ’s head and body, ending finally in the marvelous limpid blue of the pond in which he stands.

One unusual aspect—the omission of the Holy Spirit—the miniature shares with the Baptism in the Duke’s Tres Belles Heures de Notre Dame, painted shortly before. Since the Trinity was first mentioned on this occasion artists usually represented it by painting a dove above Jesus’ head.

Here Paul preferred to preserve without interruption the mosaic of red, blue, and gold which extends from the fiery cherubim supporting the figure of God the Father, to the bowed head of the Son.

What is the artist saying about the Trinity?

He stressed the unity of the God-head, by giving the Father and the Son the same gesture of crossed hands.

He also dressed God the Father in a robe of violet, a shade deeper than Christ’s seamless garment, which is so beautifully displayed by the angel.

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The Jordan River

Elizabeth, John's mother

John Baptist

John the Baptist in the wilderness

Question for Bible study groups

  1. Who are the figures in this painting?
  2. Why are there animals? What do they represent?

Painting of John in the wilderness

The commanding figure of the Baptist stands in an uncommonly green and fertile ‘desert’. Wrapped in a supple camel skin of a beautiful golden brown reversing to red, he leans to the left, as if addressing an unseen multitude.

John is flanked by two very different figures, neither of whom can be securely identified. Both have their eyes fixed on the Lamb, the symbol of Christ.

The grave, bearded man on the left is tonsured and wears a monastic habit. He could represent a member of the Jewish priesthood who wants to hear what John has to say or he could be someone else entirely.

The bears, boars, and a lion in the background are simply meant to signal to the viewer that John is in an untamed wilderness. Bears were among the Duke of Berry’s favorite emblems.

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Elizabeth, John's mother