The Forgotten Sign, Because Humility Just Isn’t on Our Agenda 12

Am I my brother's keeper?

Am I my brother’s keeper?

When I give tours at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York, I like to stop by this paining and not say a word. Eventually, someone asks, “What’s this painting about?”

Most people do not see what’s going at first or even second glance. Surprisingly, some people never see it until you tell them the title of the painting, and even then, some still don’t see what is going on. 

Jesus is pushed to the background, almost invisible. His red garment bleeds into the scenery, as his faded profile is escorted out of the picture. The focus isn’t on Him, but on Pilate, washing his hands (the title of the painting, by Mattia Preti). All eyes — our eyes, the eyes of the crowd, and even the eyes of the servant boy — are on him.

Pilate looks toward us, not to the crowd, as if he is begging for our justification. We catch him in the act of washing his own hands. This is a remarkably feeble gesture, an attempt at justifying himself, and it isn’t working. There’s an overbearing sense of condemnation lingering over this portrait. And it’s glaring — at you!

The irony of this snapshot consists in what is barely seen. Jesus Christ is the just man condemned to death. It is a rare scene in art for Jesus not to be the focal point of a painting where he is depicted (I can think of Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus sleeps on the boat, as another example). And still, the central figure of this painting would not even be recognized for who he is if Jesus were not there. In a way the artist does not want us to know this is Pilate at first, because he wants us to reflect — in more than one sense of the term.

The painting reflects, like a mirror, back on the viewer, converting us into the focal point, rather than Pilate. This is a call to see ourselves for who we are and to ask ourselves, have we washed our hands of this crime too?

And is it working?

Unless I wash your feet, you can have no part of me

Unless I wash your feet, you can have no part of me

In contrast, we turn to another scene to find Jesus assuming the humble position of a servant washing his disciples’ feet. Again, the Lord does not condemn. And again, he is rejected.

Peter cannot tolerate this gesture. He’d rather wash his own feet than watch Jesus on his knees, stripped down to his waist, taking on the work of a slave. Humility just isn’t on his agenda. He won’t have it for himself, nor will he have it from God. Fortunately, Jesus is able to persuade him. And then, after admonishing his disciples to imitate him and wash each other’s feet, this humble gesture is quickly forgotten.

This may just be the most forgotten of all passages in the Gospel. I find that odd. Jesus says, “Unless you are born again…” and “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood,” and “Do this in memory of me” and we take those things seriously. This passage has the same signals and queues that those other passages have and yet we don’t respond in the same way. Could it be, because like Peter, humility is not on our agenda?

There’s something in our fallen nature that doesn’t love humility. Something in us wants us to justify ourselves. We’d rather wash our own hands than let God wash us.

We would rather defy the judgment of our own conscience than embrace humility.

Still, Christ does not leave the picture. He is still there as a forgotten sign inviting us to add a little humility to our agenda.

12 comments

  1. Loved it! I never even noticed the face of Christ in the background crowd–I was fixated on the compelling gaze of the main figure. Whom I did not identify because I missed the figure of Christ. I had interpreted it as a man sitting at a cocktail table at a crowded bar, with questions in his mind, and wondered at the Rennaissance clothing and what the story was. I would have been one of the students asking what the painting was about. The odd thing, at least at the size this painting shows up on my monitor, is that the left knee of Pilate looks the bent head/face/portrait of an old man, at nearly exactly the same angle as the head of Christ. Unless that is a trick of my computer, it must mean something, although I don’t know what.
    All so very interesting.

    • In the museum this 81×72 inch painting makes a stronger impression. Its position on the wall causes you to look up at Pilate as if you are one of the onlookers in the crowd on ‘this side’ of his platform. His anachronic renaissance garb places him in the period of the painting instead of Christ’s time, allowing the 17th Century viewer to relate to him as their contemporary, and obviously a man of luxury and means.

      I see the white knee as a baroque style misdirection queue. The knee clothed in white protruding from underneath a dark ermine robe predominates over Christ and draws our attention first, but since we are more attracted to faces over knees we quickly and subconsciously seek out the knee’s subject to find Pilate’s shiny brow, which takes our gaze further from Christ. As with most baroque paintings all the postures and movements in the painting deliver this same effect. The angling of the knee is significant in this way too, by balancing the composition. The soldier’s shoulder and elbow, Pilate’s knee, Jesus’ head and shoulder, the guard attending him, and the bar of the cross, all in the lower third of the painting, angle in the same direction to compliment Pilate’s upper body posture — while the soldier leans out of the painting to open up the view more for Pilate (notice how the soldier’s posture mirrors the cross to deliver another balancing and misdirecting affect). The servant with the pitcher leans in from outside of the painting drawing our attention back to Pilate. A spear with its blade cutting toward Pilate divides the scene, separating Pilate (and ourselves) more from Christ. The line of the spear frames Pilate’s head along with the African boy at same angle that all the other elements follow. Everything serves to cause us to miss the two most important things, namely, Christ going off to be crucified, while at the very center of the painting, Pilate is scrubbing his hands.

      Meanwhile, there’s a faint stream of white smoke in the distance. Habemus Papam? Probably not. But aside from the fixed architecture and Pilate’s throne, it is the only thing in the painting that moves straight upward — this little detail also serves to balance the composition.

      I don’t observe a face in the knee, however the protruding knee, which deliberately stands out, could have this metaphoric significance. The knee is a symbol of both weakness and supplication in the ancient world. It is a weak point that can potentially end an athlete’s career, and for men engaged in sword battles, one that could endanger their life, because if you deliver a good strike the knee, the whole man goes down and remains vulnerable. Thus, in Ancient literature, people begging for their lives would fall on their knees and grasp at the knee of their adversary, as to show their own weakness and remind the other of his weakness too, while they plead for mercy. Only a merciless thug would slay a man in this position, unless that man truly deserved to die.

      Does the blatant knee in this painting suggest that Pilate is subconsciously aware that he needs mercy like the rest of us, particularly, for what he has just done? Or is it to invite us to consider to whom we should look for mercy — to the judges and rulers of the secular world, or to the one whose Kingdom is not of this world? Could it be a (sort of) subliminal prelude to the scene on the cross with the good thief? Whatever it may be, this piece leaves much room for contemplation.

      • Thank you for this. This is fascinating.
        I am surprised that you don’t see a face in the knee, because it looks exactly like that–but then, I see faces in woodgrain and animals in the shapes of clouds, too. So that must be all that that is.
        I learned much from your reply, and will spend more time looking at this painting with your explanations in mind.

  2. Very interesting your apreciation.I to wolud are there and to can see this wonderfully pic.Thanks for your explication.Love and like.

  3. I have fun with, result in I found just what I was taking a look for.
    You’ve ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a
    great day. Bye

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