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Panel detail

North Door Panels

Panel XVI - Christ before Pilate

Panel XVI - Christ before Pilate
Panel XV - The Flagellation
Panel IX - The Transfiguration
Panel XV - The Flagellation
Panel IX - The Transfiguration

Panel details:

Jesus in front of Pilate - PDF
Jesus in front of Pilate - PDF

Matthew 27,24:”when Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it”.

The Trial of Jesus is an episode narrated in the four gospels (Matthew 26,57 to 27,26; mark 14,53 to 15,15; Luke 22,54 to 23,35 and John18,13 to 19,16). It is a long and complex event. Jesus goes through several stages of judgment lasting for many days. This episode gives us the framework of religious fulfilment in the life of Christ, as well as a clear historical view on the political forces and administrative power in the territory at that time. The trial took place in four phases: the evening of the capture; Jesus led from the garden of Gethsemane to Anna (former high priest and Caiaphas’ father-in-law) for the first interrogation; the next day Jesus is taken to the sanhedrin where Caiaphas, the scribes and the elders await him, and Jesus is sent before Pontius Pilate who, following his first interrogation sends Jesus to Herod Antipas, the king of Judea who subsequently sends Jesus back to Pilate.

The questioning of Jesus before the sanhedrin ended as Caiaphas had expected. Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy, a crime for which the death penalty was inflicted. The authority to enforce the death penalty, however, was reserved to the Romans, thus the trial was transferred before Pilate and the focus was on the political aspect of the judgment of guilt. Jesus had declared himself the messiah and had claimed his royal lineage. The claim of messianic lineage was a political offense that had to be punished by Roman justice.

The Roman governor Pilate used to sit in judgment early in the morning. Jesus was led to Pilate’s headquarters by his accusers and presented as a villain worthy of death. It was the day of the “parasceve” for the Easter holiday in which ritual purity was mandatory. Jesus’ accusers, the priests, could not set foot in the judgment hall, thus they negotiated with the pagan Roman governor outside, in front of the building. Johnnarrates this fact. All four gospels agree on the essential aspects in the description of the trial proceedings while John is the only one that relates the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in which the question of Jesus’ royalty arises. The historian Flavius Josephus as well as Philo of Alexandria portrays an entirely negative image of Pilate, while in other testimonies he appears resolute, pragmatic and realistic.

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the jews and many of the gentiles. He was [the] Christ. and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day”.

This passage is taken from “Josephus on Jesus” but is considered by many historians as a Christian interpolation or rather, they simply tampered with the text to “embellish” the commemoration and celebrate the historical representation of Jesus.

The image of Pilate in the gospels depicts the Roman prefect as a man who could intervene brutally, if he deemed it appropriate for public order. He also knew Rome’s domination in the world was due not least to tolerance of foreign gods and the pacifying force of Roman law.

The accusation was that Jesus declared himself king of the Jews; it was also true that Rome could actually recognize regional kings (for instance, Herod antiba), but they had to be authorized and obtain the description and delimitation of their sovereign rights from Rome.

A king that did not have this authorization was considered a rebel who threatened the pax Romana, was considered guilty and faced the death penalty. During the interrogation Jesus makes a proclamation to Pilate’s question: “are you a king then?” Jesus answered, “you say i am a king. for this i was born and for this i came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (John18, 37).
Even before Jesus had said, “my kingdom is not of this world. if my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that i should not be delivered to the jews; but now my kingdom is not from here” (John18, 36).

This declaration, or as it were “confession”, put Pilate in a complicated position. The accused claimed kingship of his kingdom, though he proclaimed the total diversity of his kingship, which must have been decisive for the Roman judge: no one is fighting to become king and there is no threat to the Roman laws. Following the questioning, Pilate had a clearer idea of what he already knew about Jesus. Jesus was not a political revolutionary, his message and his behaviour did not constitute a danger to Roman rule and if Jesus had broken the laws of Torah, he, a Roman citizen, was not interested. It seems that Pilate also had some superstitious fears concerning this extraordinary figure. Pilate was a sceptic, of course, but he was also a man of ancient times, so he did not exclude that gods or beings like gods could appear in the guise of human beings. Johnsays that “the jews” accused Jesus of making out to be the son of god, and adds: “therefore when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid; (John19, 8).

If Pilate condemned Jesus would he perhaps go against divine power? Should he expect the wrath of these powers? Obviously, Jesus’ accusers realized this sentiment and played one fear against another. They opposed the superstitious fear of possibly being in the presence of a divinity, with the very real fear of being out of the favour of the emperor. The statement: “if you release this man, you are no friend of caesar” (John19, 12), is a threat. Finally, the concern for his career was stronger than the fear of facing a divine power. Pilate tried not to condemn Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel he also speaks of the intervention of Pontius Pilate’s wife who tried to dissuade her husband from issuing the death sentence. According to the gospel of Luke (Luke 23: 6-12) before handing over Jesus to the crowd that wanted him crucified, Pilate sent Jesus before Herod Antipas.

Herod Antipas was in Jerusalem for the passover. It is relatively certain that the Hasmonean palace was located in the centre of the city, just to the west of the temple. The high priests who had accused Jesus also attended the meeting. The accusations are not reported in the gospel of Luke. According to the Evangelist, the king did not seem to be interested in the trial and instead showed great interest in the ability of Jesus to perform miracles. Jesus did not answer any questions nor did he perform any miracle. Disappointed by the interrogation, Herod did not issue any sentence, but he and his soldiers insulted and mocked Jesus, then sent him back to Pilate.

Pilate tried another solution to the death sentence the Jews invoked and since it was the passover, the custom to release a prisoner, he let the people choose between Jesus and a murderer named Barabbas. According to Johnand especially to Luke, Pilate scourged Jesus before the final sentence, which was initially proposed as an alternative to capital punishment. The evangelist Luke wrote: (Luke 13-15) “and Pilate, when he had called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, said unto them, ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people: and, behold, i, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him: no, nor yet Herod: for i sent you to him; and, lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto him. I will therefore chastise him, and release him. the people decided to free Barabbas.

Matthew narrated the episode of Pilate washing his hands before the crowd, saying: (Matthew 27,24) “I am not responsible, he said, of this blood; see to it yourselves.”The saying, washing one’s hands to indicate the act of a person who does not take sides and lets others make the decision derives from Pilate’s gesture. When Pilate presented Jesus flogged to crowd he uttered the words “ecce homo” (behold the man). John19,5): “then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them,” behold the man! ‘”

It is often said that the gospels, according to a pro-Roman politically motivated tendency, portrayed Pilate as a positive figure, gradually putting the responsibility of Jesus’ death on the jews. Pilate, as described in the gospels, is a righteous man who tries in various ways to save Jesus from death. This description is in direct contrast with the information we have about him from sources outside the gospels that describe him as cynical, cruel and ruthless, who inflicted death sentences too easily. Pilate’s hesitancy in not inflicting the death penalty on Jesus must therefore not be related to only humanitarian or superstitious reasons, but political, also. Perhaps the fear of a possible uprising of Jesus’ followers, due to the triumphal welcome, according to the gospels, he received upon his arrival in Jerusalem.

Other texts that refer to Pilate in relation to Jesus are, as mentioned, an excerpt from the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus dating back to 93 or 94 and also origen, one of the leading writers and Christian theologians in the first three centuries. On two separate instances, origen wrote that Josephus did not believe Jesus was the Christ. This leads one to think that origen possessed copies of the writings of Josephus on Jesus that were not in the Testimonium flavianum. An article written by the Roman historian Tacitus dating from the year 116 or 117 seems to contain a mistake: Pilate is assigned the role of prosecutor and not prefect. This title, according to some scholars, came into use only in the year 44. Since Tacitus had proven his competence in other contexts, this could be explained as an interpolation (such as josephus already mentioned) by Christian copyists who were not aware of the incongruity in the context of the work. Others point out that Josephus attributed the term “attorney” also to Coponiio, the first “prefectus cum jure gladii” when Judea had just become a Roman province. This reveals some confusion in the use of terms by the various ancient historians. Prefect indicated a military role, while prosecutor indicated a financial role.

The Ethiopian orthodox church follows the tradition that, after the trial of Jesus, Pilate converted to Christianity and the Church venerates him as a saint, celebrating his anniversary on June 25th. According to other traditions, he committed suicide. The story of Jesus’ trial is narrated also in literature. Antoine De la Sale, the fifteenth century French writer and traveller discovered a legend while travelling in central Italy. Vespasian brought Pontius Pilate to rome where he was killed and his corpse put on a cart pulled by oxen, transported to the slopes of mount Vettore in the Sibylline mountains and thrown into a lake, which now bears his name. Numerous resorts vie for the honour of being the birthplace of Pilate or giving him hospitality on his return to Italy, following the evangelical episode. In San Pio of Fontecchio (Aquila) there is a mountain called mount Pilate, where local tradition places the villa where Pilate retired before dying. In recent times, the discovery of the remains of Roman buildings has further encouraged this legend.

The novel the Master and Margarita by the russian writer Mikhail Afanas’evic Bulgakov is a novel within the novel focusing on the meeting between Pilate and Yeshua (the Hebrew name for Jesus). Bulgakov rewrites the trial of Jesus in the gospels. In the chapter, “forgiveness and eternal refuge”, Pilate looks with blind eyes at the moon, condemned, along with his only friend and faithful guardian, a dark skinned dog (... he who loves must share the fate of the object of his love), to sleep for two thousand years in a lonely place, but unable to sleep when the moon is full. In the story the procurator of judea (1902), by the French author Anatole France, Pontius Pilate, old and bitter, is in the company of a fellow soldier reminiscing about the old days of service in Palestine, the litigation and the non-governability of the Jews, the actions taken and the criticism received, awards and sanctions by the imperial bureaucracy. He has no memory, though, of the episode of condemning a subversive by the name of Jesus of Nazareth that local authorities demanded and obtained.

The iconographic representations of the judgment of Jesus before Pilate are certainly drawn exclusively from what was reported in the gospels, where the episode in which Pilate washed his hands becomes the focal point of the narrative. Artistic depictions of the episode date back to early Christian art represented both in paintings and reliefs.

The panel representing the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate created by Lorenzo Ghiberti belongs to the group of panels produced in a later stage of the work on the north door. Ghiberti abandoned the late gothic style that characterized his early work on the north door and this composition is clearly Renaissance style. The episode is arranged in a classical architectural setting, where a series of round arches between pilasters support an entablature in the background. In the foreground, Pilate’s bench is three- dimensional, projecting outward.

Pilate is seated in a niche of the apse, which is decorated with classical Roman plant motifs on the capitals and the base. There is a lion’s head on the throne where he is seated, which in classical iconography is used as a symbol to emphasize Pilate’s power. The focal point of the panel is the centre where an attendant is pouring water over Pilate’s hands as he washes them. The scene depicts Pilate with his back turned to Jesus who is standing to the left in the panel, partly covered by a soldier guarding him, in the foreground. Jesus is almost a secondary figure, standing still, caught in a moment of resignation, a forewarning of his fate. The figures of the temple priests are positioned on the right side, in front of Pilate. One figure has his back turned to the viewer in the foreground, another on the far right of the panel, in the foreground, is caught in an attitude of defiance, and other figures behind these are placed on a different plane to give depth to the perspective of the scene. The composition focuses on the moment when Pilate washes his hands ready to give Jesus to the Jews. The scene almost emerges from the quatrefoil frame, which is characteristic of the panels created in the later stages and a prelude to Ghiberti’s choice to abandon this format when he created the Gates of Paradise.