Jesus on Trial
The Sanhedrin, Pilate
The four gospels all narrate the trials of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate. The images in all eras generally hew closely to the gospel narratives, so they should be easy to "read" for anyone familiar with the New Testament.

JESUS BEFORE THE SANHEDRIN

In John's gospel Jesus is arraigned first before Annas and then before his son-in-law, the high priest Caiaphas. While Annas is interrogating him, a temple guard slaps him for what he considers the impertinence in Jesus' answers. We see the slap in this fresco in Croatia. Then Annas sends Jesus to Caiaphas. The other gospels omit Annas: upon his arrest, Jesus is taken directly to Caiaphas, who finds him guilty of blasphemy. Then the temple guards and others strike Jesus, spit on him, and subject him to a blind man's buff. Master Morata's Passion Altarpiece has a panel depicting this trial and another panel for the buffeting.

THE RELUCTANCE OF PILATE

Next Jesus is taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Pilate is loath to condemn Jesus, and in Matthew his wife even sends him a message advising, "Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him" (27:19). (She is seen making her plea in a frame from the Morata altarpiece.) But the crowd insists, so Pilate washes his hands as a sign that "I am innocent of the blood of this just man" (27:24). The washing is by far the most common element in images of the trial, from the paleo-Christian sarcophagi, ivories, and mosaics through medieval and baroque images to modern representations in "Stations of the Cross."

SCOURGED, CROWNED WITH THORNS

Pilate ordered Jesus scourged, and for good measure the soldiers also put him in a scarlet cloak and crown of thorns and sarcastically hailed him as King of the Jews. The scourging is usually represented with Jesus in a loincloth at a pillar (example). The mockery with the crown and cloak is pictured in this Tintoretto and with a pointed irony in this sarcophagus panel, where the crowning is reimagined as a reverent crowning of a man of true dignity. The pain and sorrow caused by these torments is represented in medieval and early modern statues intended for Holy Week processions. In some Jesus sits sadly in the cloak and crown with his hands bound and blood flowing over his body (example). In others he stands at the pillar in a pitiable state (example). In (one case) the blows have beaten him to the ground while he is still tied to the pillar.

ECCE HOMO

In John's gospel Pilate orders the scourging in hopes that it will be enough to satisfy the Jews, so when Jesus has been beaten bloody he shows him to the crowd (image). He tells them, "Behold the man" (19:5), which in Latin is Ecce homo, a phrase that art historians apply to portraits of Jesus as he would have appeared to the crowd – with his scarlet cloak and crown of thorns, tied wrists, and often the reed that the soldiers had given him as a mock sceptre and then used to beat his head (example). Paintings of this type served as objects of meditation. Statues, such as this one from Sicily or this one from Mexico, were used in Holy Week processions.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-02, 2016-12-12.

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Jesus addresses the San­he­drin: Church of Sant'Apol­li­na­re Nu­ovo, Ra­ven­na, 6th cen­tu­ry. (See the de­scrip­tion page.)


Most images with Pilate have him wash­ing his hands, but some focus on an ear­lier mo­ment in the trial. This Ital­ian ex­ample is from the 14th cen­tury. (See the de­scrip­tion page.)

MORE IMAGES: JESUS & CAIAPHAS

  • 9th century: Fresco in Müstair, Switzerland.
  • 12th-13th century: a detail in the great Easter Candle Holder in St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome.
  • 1874: a stained glass window combining the arraignment and the beating.

MORE IMAGES: JESUS & PILATE

  • Early 4th century: a sarcophagus
  • Mid-4th century: Sarcophagus panel with Pilate washing his hands.
  • Late 4th century: Sarcophagus side panel with Pilate washing his hands.
  • 9th century: Pilate washes his hands in this fresco in Müstair, Switzerland.
  • 12th-13th century: This mosaic in Monreale, Sicily, shows Pilate at the moment when his wife is sending her message about Jesus.
  • 16th century: A griffin sits beside Pilate in this relief from Piazza Armerina, Sicily.
  • 20th century: Subirachs' statuary group at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona omits the wash basin.

MORE IMAGES: THE SCOURGING

MORE IMAGES: ECCE HOMO