Encounters in the Fitzwilliam: Guido Reni’s Ecce Homo

Henry Coleman 16 February 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Guido Reni’s Ecce Homo is a little hidden away, tucked besides a few other paintings in a corner of wall next to the door. It is in the Baroque room amongst vast Titian and Van Dyck canvases, which could distract the eye from anything, particularly a relatively small painting like this. The room is long, ornate, and splendidly over-the-top, filled with lounging nudes in rich colours, or packed scenes of motion and drama. Ecce Homo couldn’t be more different. It’s drab, muted, and has only one figure, who is not doing anything particularly interesting. Yet every time I go into that room, it is this painting which catches my eye. No matter how much fun the parade of massive figures in flowing robes is, the sheer liveliness of these works can get monotonous.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Guido Reni’s work shows the figure of Christ holding a staff, and that is it. It is a monument to stillness, with no sense of sound or fury about its protagonist. And the Christ of this painting is a protagonist, rather than a hero; he has a small and quiet halo, but apart from that he looks all too human. His body is only just holding itself up; his expression is exhausted; his grip on the staff is loose. His head is tilted away, and he seems lost for good in thought. I am not religious, but the imperative of the title – ‘behold the man!’ – somehow still grabs me. I am unable to not look at this figure who is completely unaware of the viewer’s presence, and who is granted an unguarded moment which he does not often get in Western art.

The phrase ‘ecce homo’ comes from the Biblical passage in which Pontius Pilate displays the captive Jesus, but here Reni has stripped the scene down to its essentials and then stripped most of those, too. The gentle light offers no hint of spectacle to this newly universal image. The absence of a cruel tyrant transforms it totally; the suffering which has overtaken our figure now seems strangely internal, a reflection of the dark blank background he emerges from. This is not a painting of a man being tortured, but a much subtler and more urgent image of a man in pain – who still holds onto his robe with a graceful touch, using the last of his strength to hold himself together. It is not quite enough: the only hint of motion in this image is the fact that its fabric seems to be falling away, leaving his pallid skin open in its full, shocking vulnerability. It is this guarded, withdrawn openness which makes this painting so powerful for me. Although his muscles are taut and straining, this Christ is brutally aware of his frailty; it is his humanity which keeps me coming back to his haunted gaze and fading life.