Christ bends, protects his groin. Thorns gouge
his forehead, and his legs
are stippled with dried blood. The part of us
that’s Pilate says, Behold the man.
We glare at that bound, lashed,
and bloody part of us that’s Christ. We laugh, we howl,
we shout. Give us Barabbas,
not knowing who Barabbas is, not caring.
A thief? We’ll take him anyway. A drunk?
A murderer? Who cares? It’s better him
Than this pale ravaged thing, this god. Bosch knows.
His humans waver, laugh, then change to demons
as if they’re seized by epilepsy. It spreads
from eye to eye, from laugh to laugh until,
incited by the ease of going mad,
they go. How easy evil is! Dark voices sing,
You can be evil or you can be good,
but good is dull, my darling, good is dull.
And we’re convinced: How lovely evil is!
How lovely hell must be! Give us Barabbas!
Lord Pilate clears his throat and tries again:
I find no fault in this just man.
It’s more than we can bear. In gothic script
our answer floats above our upturned eyes.
O crucify, we sing. O crucify him!
This poem was originally published in The Never-Ending (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991) and is reprinted here with the permission of the poet.
Ecce homo (Latin for “Behold the man,” from John 19:5) was a popular subject in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art, depicting the beaten Christ being presented by Pilate to a bloodthirsty mob. Taking one such image as his inspiration—a painting by Dutch Renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch—Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominee Andrew Hudgins penned a poetic narration of this critical moment in salvation history. His “Ecce Homo” draws out the madness of those grinning faces of Bosch’s.
Bosch is known for his grotesque portrayals of humanity. Here he depicts the crowd as a pack of beasts moving in for the kill, gnashing their teeth and crying out Crucifige eum! (“Crucify him!”). The elegance of the golden calligraphic lettering stands in stark contrast to its depraved content, which Hudgins highlights in his poem. He writes that the crowd “sang” the words in chorus, sent them “float[ing]” up, but he also calls out these singers as “demons . . . seized by epilepsy.” Having been persuaded by their dark inner promptings that evil is “easy” and “lovely,” they become overtaken by it. They convulse, and Christ pays the price for it.
Two of the faces in the crowd are visibly closed-mouthed, looking on with indifference. But this behavior is presented as no less repulsive than outright participation in the mob violence.
Ecce Homo images are meant to show us not just Christ but ourselves. As we behold the suffering God-man, we also behold the evil in us that inflicted that suffering.
In the book The Cross: Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ, Morton T. Kelsey writes,
Each of us has underneath our ordinary personality, which we show to the public, a cellar in which we hide the refuse and rubbish which we would rather not see ourselves or let others see. And below that is a deeper hold in which there are dragons and demons, a truly hellish place, full of violence and hatred and viciousness. Sometimes these lower levels break out, and it is to this lowest level of humans that public executions appeal.
In the cross this level of our being has thrust itself up out of its deepest underground cellar so that we humans may see what is in all of us and take heed. The cross is crucial because it shows what possibilities for evil lie hidden in human beings. It is the concretion of human evil in one time and place. Whenever we look upon the cross, which was simply a more fiendish kind of gibbet [gallows], we see what humankind can do, has done, and still does to some human beings. It can make us face the worst in ourselves and in others, that part of us which can sanction a cross or go to watch a crucifixion. The cross is the symbol, alive and vivid, of the evil that is in us, of evil itself.
Not surprisingly, the patrons of this painting chose not to identify with the overtly evil mob. They were painted into the bottom left corner in the much more flattering role of pious devotees, uttering the words Salve nos Christe redemptor (“Save us, Christ Redeemer”). (They at least acknowledge their need for saving.) For whatever reason, their likenesses were painted over sometime in the sixteenth century. In 1983 the Städel Museum in Frankfurt removed this top layer of paint as best they could, which is why the figures have a ghostly appearance.
Many churches, as part of their Palm Sunday liturgy, shout out as a body, “Crucify him!” as a way of owning up to their own culpability in Christ’s death. Inevitably there are one or more people in the congregation who refuse to participate, whether out of discomfort or self-righteous pride. By seeing themselves as apart from the mob, thinking, “If I were there, I would have defended Jesus from these crazies,” they fail to confront the evil in their own hearts.
This is the invitation that Bosch and Hudgins extend to us in their respective works: to see ourselves in the savagery.