Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Vulgate Verse: ecce homo

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I am commenting on some of these verses here in this blog, focusing on the verses that have a special significance for religious literacy and cultural literacy in general, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

The verse I have chosen to comment on today is one that is famously still used in its Latin form: ecce homo, "Behold, the man" (in Greek, Ἱδού ό ἄνθρωπος).

The context is John, Chapter 19:
Exivit ergo iterum Pilatus foras, et dicit eis: Ecce adduco vobis eum foras, ut cognoscatis quia nullam invenio in eo causam. Exivit ergo Jesus portans coronam spineam, et purpureum vestimentum. Et dicit eis: Ecce homo.
Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. 5 Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!
This phrase has retained its currency in Latin because it is used as a kind of shorthand in the art history tradition to refer to that genre of pictures which shows the scourged Jesus, crowned with thorns, presented to the audience.

There are two main types of "ecce homo" paintings. One type can be considered an illustration of the scene in John, showing not just Jesus, but also Pilate, and perhaps something also of the setting and even the audience to whom Pilate is speaking. You can this fully contextualized scene in an "Ecce homo" painting by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1480). Click on the image for a larger view:



Another type focuses in on the figure of Jesus alone, out of context, sometimes staring dramatically at the audience of the painting itself, sometimes with gaze downcast. Here is an example in scultpure, 15th-century, from France. Click on the image for a larger view:



As a result of its continuing vitality through the art history tradition, the phrase "ecce homo" has become a kind of Latin saying in its own right. Nietzsche provocatively titled his own memoir, Ecce Homo. And, in a sheerly comical usage, wikipedia informs me about the British television show, Mister Bean, starring Rowan Atkinson: "At the beginning of episode two onwards, Mr. Bean falls from the sky in a beam of light, accompanied by a choir singing Ecce homo qui est faba - Behold the man who is a bean."

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