Good Friday Meditation - Behold The Man!


20210402At the hour when Christians around the world contemplate Christ's death on the cross, Neil MacGregor and the Revd Lucy Winkett stand before one of Rembrandt's masterpieces 'Ecce Homo' in London's National Gallery. For Neil, the painting opens a great range of questions and responses. It was (almost certainly) intended to serve for an engraving, for private meditation at home. In good Dutch Protestant fashion, it closely follows the text of John's Gospel - the clock at the sixth hour, the rabble shouting that they have no king but Caesar. It forces the viewer, us, to confront the question, Who is this man? Is he a king? and if so, what kind of king? On the answer, everything will depend — for him, for the Jerusalem crowd, and for us. It is about the difficulty of perceiving true light; unusually, Jesus is in shadow, the Jewish priests in light; on the head-dress of the High Priest are the letters YHW and EL; the choice between Caesar and Christ is clear— and Jesus is disconcertingly, and humbly, lower than the bust of Caesar — his kingdom not of this world.

Rembrandt set the scene in front of a municipal building resembling Amsterdam Town Hall (now the Royal Palace), inaugurated in the year this print was created. In 17th-century Holland convicts were often sentenced outside, which coupled with the fact that many of the observers in the foreground are in the dress of the day, suggests Rembrandt was attempting to make contemporary viewers feel like participants in the drama, and, perhaps, complicit in the judgement. Perhaps that same challenge is there for us, too.

Producer: Andrew Earis

Neil MacGregor and Rev Lucy Winkett are inspired by Rembrandt's Ecce Homo this Good Friday