An Anatomy of Rembrandt’s 'Christ Presented to The People'

We introduced some highlights from the upcoming Old Masters Evening Sale at Christie’s in London in our previous article. The brief introduction has aroused the interest of many readers on how to appreciate Old Masters works. We are going to give an anatomy of selected masterpieces, starting with Rembrandt’s Christ Presented to The People.

Rembrandt's Christ presented to the people (‘Ecce Homo’) that will be offered at the coming sale

Christ presented to the people (‘Ecce Homo’) by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669) is estimated to fetch in the region of US$3m-5m. ‘Ecce Homo’ is probably known to many as the title of the last original book written by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Other than that, ‘Ecce Homo’ (meaning ‘behold the man’) refers to the Latin words used by Pontius Pilate when he presented a scourged Jesus Christ to a hostile crowd shortly before his crucifixion.

From left to right: Pontius Pilate, Barabbas and Jesus

Christ presented to the people (‘Ecce Homo’) depicts the New Testament scene in which Pontius Pilate asked the people of Jerusalem to decide whether Jesus or Barabbas should be spared execution. The brutal-looking figure with a moustache and shaved head standing between and just behind the two principal figures was Barabbas, leader of a bloody insurrection. Christ was roped together with the rebel commander.

Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of ‘Ecce Homo’|1871

According to the New Testament, Jesus was brought to Pilate by the Sanhedrin, who accused Jesus of sedition against Rome by opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and calling himself a king. After questioning Jesus, Pilate found no fault with Jesus, so he seemed reluctant to allow the crucifixion of Jesus.

Mihaly Munkacsy's 'Christ in Front of Pilate'|1881

Following the custom of the Roman governor to release one prisoner at the Passover, Pilate brought out Barabbas and told the crowd to choose whether to release Barabbas or Jesus, in the hopes of getting Jesus released.

Incited by the chief priests to shout against Jesus, the hostile crowd demanded the release of Barabbas and requested the crucifixion of Jesus. In spite of his unwillingness to condemn Jesus, Pilate was eventually forced to give in when the crowd and the Jewish leaders became unruly.

Back to the painter, Rembrandt (1606-1669) was regarded as the greatest artist of Holland’s ‘Golden Age’. He was born around 1,600 years after Jesus’ death. So when he created the present work, he tried to infuse some elements of his own time to the historic story of Jesus being brought to the crowded by Pilate.

He placed the scene in the a contemporary setting. The building behind the terrace resembles a typical Dutch town hall or court house. A modern example that we can find is Royal Palace of Amsterdam (image above), which was built as a city hall during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century before it became the Dutch Royal House.

At the centre of the work, Rembrandt placed a statue of Justice on the left and a statue of Fortitude on the right, satirically contrasting the unfairness and injustice faced by Jesus in front of the crowd.

The crowd of spectators witnessing the event was dressed in clothes from Rembrandt’s era, including the young man with a feather hat, an old man with a walking stick, a woman carrying a toddler, and an elderly with headscarf.

The woman looking from the window above was Pilate’s wife, who tried to persuade her husband not to condemn Jesus to death. A reference to her can be seen in a single sentence by Matthew, ‘When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, "Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him."’

Next to Pilate was a boy holding a jug of water and a large bowl in which Pilate will shortly 'wash his hands' in after the affair, echoing a scene from the Gospel of Matthew where Pilate washed his hands with water in front of the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man's blood; see you to it.’

At the right corner below the terrace, there was a dramatic shadow cast by a bearded old man in profile. He was the only figure who has a clear and dark shadow in the work. His iconographic significance is up to your interpretation.

Christ presented to the people (‘Ecce Homo’) that will be offered at the coming sale

Christ presented to the people (‘Ecce Homo’) in the collection of National Galleries Scotland

Rembrandt also created another version of the print but much of the original crowd was removed, thrusting the viewer into direct confrontation with Christ’s fate. That version is now in the collection of National Galleries Scotland.

Lot information

Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn (1606-1669). Christ presented to the people (‘Ecce Homo’).

Lot no.: 22
Painted in: 1655
Plate 38.2 x 44.7 cm.
Sheet 38.7 x 44.8 cm.

  • Gabriel von Cronstern [II], probably acquired in the 1760s from Pierre Yver in Amsterdam.
  • By descent in the family of the Grafen Plessen-Cronstern, Schleswig-Holstein; their sale, Christie’s, London, Important Old Master Prints from a German Family of Title – Part I, 10 December 1991, lot 54.
  • Samuel Josefowitz (1921-2015), Lausanne; acquired at the above sale.
  • Then by descent to the present owners.

Estimate on request (in the region of US$3,000,000 - 5,000,000)

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s London
Sale: Old Masters Evening Sale
Lots offered: 61
Sale date: 2018/7/5|7pm