'Note how the light illuminates Pilate'

Ecce Homo, 1891, 150in by 115in, by Antonio Ciseri (1821–91), Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Bridgeman Images.

Jeffrey Archer says:
‘I’m drawn into this magnificent painting as if an onlooker in Pontius Pilate’s court. Note how the light illuminates Pilate, who’s announcing to the crowd “Behold the Man”, and then look more closely over the balcony at the exquisite detail of the hundreds of faces staring up at Christ. The anguish on the face of the woman on the right is a painting in itself.’

Jeffrey Archer’s latest novel, The Sins of the Father, is published on March 15.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Antonio Ciseri came from Ronco, Switzerland, and trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, where he later taught. He began his career as a painter of religious and history pictures. His best-known painting for a church is The Martyrdom of the Maccabees, S. Felicita, Florence. He also established himself as a portraitist. Among his sitters were Cavour, architect of Italian reunification, and Victor Emanuel II (previously King of Sardinia), first monarch of a united Italy since the 6th century.

From 1853, Ciseri had the Florentine studio once used by Ingres. In 1868, he was elected a member of an important Arts committee (Consiglio Superiore della Pubblica Istruzione), which required regular visits to Rome and seems to have encouraged him to concentrate on portraiture for the last 20 years of his life. One of his later sitters was Humbert (Umberto) I, Victor Emanuel’s heir, who was assassinated in 1900. Humbert memorably said: ‘Remember, to be a king all you need know is how to sign your name, read a newspaper and mount a horse.’

Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), the image of Christ crowned with thorns, first appeared in the 9th century andhas challenged artists ever since. It illustrates John 19.5: ‘Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!’ The picture was commissioned by the Italian government in 1871, but was not finished until the year Ciseri died. It was in his studio, after his death, that it was first exhibited.’

This article was first published in Country Life, March 14, 2012