A heavily political and potent image of denunciation and humiliation, the Roman leader Pontius Pilate, the man who sealed the fate of Jesus Christ, declares to the braying crowd 'Ecco Homo'; 'this is the man'. Framed from behind, this startling canvas Ecce Homo, painted by Antonio Ciseri in 1871, is a truly compelling vision of public judgement in the modern era, seen through the telescope of the Biblical world of the Christian messiah. It is a huge and ambitious portrayal, staggering in height and scope, which forges an aesthetic blueprint that would be taken up over half a century later in the Biblical epics of twentieth century American cinema. Currently housed in the Galleria dell'Arte Moderna, Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Ciseri's little-known canvas encapsulates an era that witnessed a radical revision of how a painting is staged, imbuing it with startling modernity and presence. Owing to his unique eye for drama, Ciseri's painting feels almost like a photographic reproduction of the scene and was certainly influenced by the ever more sophisticated medium of photography.
Ecce Homo is without doubt a fresh take on the popular theme. Caught as if in an instant, Ciseri's imagined reproduction of the scene has a documentary quality to it. A precursor to many of the crucial modes of photographic and film expression that would be developed later, the antagonist Pilate has his face hidden by the gloom of the shadows, and the mass of people calling for Jesus' death form a shapeless mass. The artist instead draws attention to the periphery figures, whose intimate experience of the event allows the viewer to enter into their world as a fellow witness. When first exhibited following its commission by the Italian government, Ecce Homo met with great critical acclaim. With a heady mix of archeological accuracy and documentary realism, Ciseri forged one of the most masterful visions of the judgement of Jesus.
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