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Pontius Pilate, Anti-Semitism and the Passion in Medieval Art.

Pontius Pilate, Anti-Semitism and the

Passion in Medieval Art

Colum Hourihane

Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009. 496 pages.

8 color ills. 187 halftones, $57.50, cloth.

Colum Hourihane's impressive survey of the representation of Pontius Pilate in western European art during the Middle Ages begins and ends with the same fundamental question: "Quid est Veritas?"--a question attributed to Pilate during the ordeal of Christ's trial. From the start, Hourihane acknowledges the complexities involved with answering such a question in relation to Pilate. His linear approach to the visual corpus of Pilatian imagery centers on the quest to understand how and why the figure of Pilate changed through the centuries, commencing with the middle of the fourth century and concluding as late as the sixteenth century with an outlying image by Hieronymous Bosch, although the study focuses on the period before 1500. Drawing from a variety of media--stone sarcophagi, ivories, manuscripts, frescoes, wood sculpture, metalwork, textiles, panel paintings, woodcuts and engravings--the book is a prime example of a classic and comprehensive iconographic study, a rarity these days.

One senses that Hourihane has left no stone unturned; the vast and detailed investigations into the multifaceted biblical character of Pontius Pilate will offer scholars the chance to explore the depths of such a methodical approach. The author also makes great effort to contextualize the works of art that he discusses, by sketching the broader politico-historical backdrop. For instance, the political and judicial situation in the Roman province of Judea before and during Pilate's life is outlined, which is important groundwork in that it illustrates how the struggle between the Romans and Jews over power and authority influenced later artists' representations. Pilate is a figure that could be recast to fit specific agendas, resulting in great variation, inconsistencies and contradictions among the body of medieval depictions of him in both images and text. Hourihane sums up Pilate's dramatic character as one that "waivers [sic] from the weak to the controlling, the clever to the manipulative, the victim to the master, the positively evil to the believer who acquiesced to the wishes of the others" (370).

The material evidence that testifies directly to the existence of Pontius Pilate, fifth prefect of Judea from 26-37 CE, is slim. Besides a few surviving bronze coins minted during his governorship and the 1961 discovery of a limestone found in Caesarea Maritima inscribed with Pilate's name and title, the principal sources postdate his lifetime. The literary evidence addressed in Hourihane's book covers a diverse arc--from biblical (all four Gospels, Acts and Timothy), historical (Philo of Alexandria, Flavius Josephus, Cornelius Tacitus) and theological (Origen, Eusebius, Chrysostom) to apocryphal (especially the Gospel of Nicodemus or Acta Pilati), hagiographical (Legenda Aurea, Meditationes Vitae Christi) and the dramatic (La Vengeance de Nostre-Seigneur and other Passion Plays). Hourihane has mined these sources and threads quotes throughout the book in order to offer a well-rounded view of Pilate as a historical and legendary figure.

Hourihane's book traces the often surprising and circular development of Pilate's image in Christian thought and artistic representation. In the earliest period, depictions of Pilate's role in the trial of Christ from the fourth through the sixth centuries effectively concentrate on the confrontation between the material, temporal world and its authorities, embodied in Pilate, and the spiritual world and divine authority, embodied in Christ. Hourihane explores the common early Christian iconography of Pilate washing his hands and argues that, at this stage, Pilate was often shown as a Christian. The washing of the hands can be interpreted as absolving one's sins but also as a form of baptism--conversion, salvation and deliverance are achieved through the baptismal waters. As such, Pilate's image is still associated with the temporal authority of his office, but an authority that he now doubts and one from which he disassociates himself by this gesture.

From the sixth until the eleventh centuries, some images of Pilate are "revisionist"--they are based on older models but interject new readings into the prefect's role in the trial and Passion of Christ, while other images, particularly in the twelfth century, introduce totally new iconographies, such as Pilate and the titulus (201-04), Pilate asked to guard the sepulcher (208-10), the release of Barabbas (210-15) and the Ecce Homo (220-26). During this broad period, a shift from a more positive view of Pilate to more a negative one occurs. For instance, in the ninth century, Pilate begins to be cast as a king. He is enthroned, crowned and holds a scepter, a symbol of secular authority, but he is also regarded in this position as a judge who is associated with the betrayal of Christ by his failure to intervene against the Jews. By the end of the tenth century, however, Pilate himself appears as a Jew, a non-believer. The idea that he was a weak judge was linked to "The perception of Pilate as succumbing to the wishes of the Jews as well as his overall inability to set Jesus free" (118). During the eleventh century, Pilate's Jewishness is often linked with the devil. He becomes an agent of the devil (146).

By the end of the twelfth century, Pilate is almost always depicted as a Jew and as a guilty judge; this furthers emphasizes Christ's innocence, as does the introduction of Pilate's wife, Claudia Procula, into the visual repertoire (discussed at length, 126-42). According to Matthew (27:19), Pilate's wife, who is not referred to by name in the Gospel, had a dream, though the details are never revealed. Claudia Procula then informed her husband not to be involved in the judgment against an innocent man; her inclusion in the scene of judgment thereby reflects Pilate's guilty conscience in the figure of his wife's reproach and underscores Christ's innocence. Images of Pilate from the twelfth century also demonstrate a renewed interest in authority, jurisprudence and the law. Many images from this period underscored the theological dispute outlined in the fifth-century text, De Altercatione Ecclesiae et Synagogae Dialogus. Some images from this time positioned the viewer to choose a side "with or against the protagonists, and this choice in many ways reflects the diversity of arguments as to what role those who killed Christ had in the polemics of the twelfth century" (184). The disputational literature from the period, as well as many of the images of Pilate, clearly juxtaposed the Old Law (Synagoga) and the New Law (Ecclesia), the non-believer and believer, Pilate and Christ (189).

Representations of Pilate during the thirteenth century were greatly influenced by the growing number of devotional, apocryphal and hagiographical texts. Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea and the Acta Pilati (from the Gospel of Nicodemus) had a considerable effect on the ways in which Pilate was cast in art. According to Voragine, Pilate was not the only one guilty for Christ's death; the blame was extended to include Judas and the Jews (234). While still depicted negatively as a Jew, Pilate's treatment by artists and writers centered on the trial as a question of truth. Some writers, such as Bonaventure, argued that Pilate made his final decision out of malice, while others, like Voragine, took the position that "Pilate's judgment was not true, as he did not judge Jesus according to the truth and was therefore not worthy to raise the question of truth" (234). The focus in this era was often on the wicked and evil nature of Pilate. The trials of Annas, Caiaphas and Herod Antipas entered the visual corpus of Pilatian imagery, and the physical suffering of Christ began to be more graphically emphasized, with Pilate often shown taking a more active role in the trial and subsequent torture of Christ--he oversees (and sometimes even participates) in the flagellation (272-89).

Finally, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, an even greater emphasis on Pilate's fallible humanity was expressed, coupled with an intense interest in showing the humiliation, suffering, and degradation of Christ. Pilate was viewed still as a corrupt, weak judge and the fascination with Christ's tormentors continued, culminating in the association of Pilate, as a Jew, with a rabid dog (357-63). In addition, the connection between Pilate and Judas, which can be found as early as the twelfth century in art, is re-established by the middle of the fourteenth century (324-28). They are both blamed for Christ's death, as traitors and non-believers. In fact, it was widely claimed during this period that Pilate himself had paid Judas to betray Christ. On the whole, the depiction of Pilate during the majority of the Middle Ages was stereotypically negative.

One weakness of the book concerns Hourihane's use of the terms "anti-Jewish" and "anti-Semitic." The terms are not used interchangeably and clearly have different meanings for the author. For example, early on Hourihane comments: "He [Pilate] can vary from being a symbol of anti-Jewishness to one of anti-Semitism" (3), but the author does not explain this distinction. A stronger, clearer argument could have elucidated for the reader what exactly the author intended when describing one image as having "anti-Jewish" sentiments and an other as being "anti-Semitic." Readers will likely come to deduce that for an image to be denoted as "anti-Semitic" by Hourihane, it must include explicit, grotesque bodily caricatures of Jews, which he often describes as physical deformities--bulging eyes, mocking grins, "flying" moustaches or eyebrows, sharp noses, and "pejorative" beards, emphasized by the figure shown in profile.

This issue, in turn, leads to a comment about the title of the book: Pontius Pilate, Anti-Semitism and the Passion in Medieval Art. Despite the multitude of examples discussed by Hourihane that clearly illustrate Pilate with Jewish character traits (and hence that can be described as anti-Jewish), anti-Semitism is not the central focus of his book. For instance, in the conclusion, Hourihane states: "There is very little overt anti-Semitism in these images, but we can frequently see subtle elements that are less than favorable" (372). Similar comments are made in several other places in the text (190, 198-99, 215, 236). In the end, the images discussed in the book that can be described as anti-Semitic relate to the physical disfigurements of Christ's tormentors, mockers and flagellators--"Christ killers" with whom Pilate was often associated. One question that is not addressed by the author concerns the possible reception of these images in the Middle Ages: would a typical medieval spectator have perceived such a nuanced distinction between an anti-Jewish image and an anti-Semitic one? Hourihane answers the question, without posing it, when he states: "It is ironic that by the end of the Middle Ages he [Pilate] should have gone from being a tormentor of the Jews to being represented as one of their elders. Making Pilate a Jew extended the role of the nonbeliever in Christ's death and certainly simplified the picture regarding Christ's persecutors" (371). The tendency in the Middle Ages, it appears, was toward simplification not nuance, at least in regards to the characterizations and representations of Jews and other non-believers.

Colum Hourihane's survey of the changing role of Pilate in medieval art offers valuable insights into the working methods of the art historian who seeks to examine a broad range--both in terms of media and period--of thematically linked material. This book will appeal to art historians, historians of religion and the law, and those interested in religious studies, among many other fields. Hourihane provides a wide-range of sources and shares his in-depth knowledge of the subjects at hand. In the end, the ambiguities, the uncertainties, "the grey" that shrouds Pilate's character offer a commentary on his famous question: Quid est Veritas? Upon finishing this book, both author and reader come to a similar conclusion: there is no one truth.

Kate Dimitrova

New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University
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Author:Dimitrova, Kate
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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