France, Private Collection.
Unlike its pendant depicting the Mater Dolorosa (private collection), the master’s painting has not been located.
Two extant replicas associate the Ecce Homo with the Mater Dolorosa. The first, apparently by Solario’s studio, is conserved in the Hermitage Museum. The second is a copy by Simon de Mailly, called de Châlons, signed and dated 1543 (Rome, Borghese Gallery).
Ecce Homo iconography takes shape in the second half of the 15th century in Italy based on the Gospels of Matthew and John. The first is, in fact, the only one to talk of a reed in guise of a scepter which the Roman soldiers mockingly placed in Jesus’ right hand after having clothed him in a purple cloak and crowned him with thorns (Matt. 27:28-29). On the other hand, John goes against the other Evangelists in affirming that Pilate, without having given clothes back to Jesus, presented him to the people of Jerusalem after the Flagellation, rather than before (19:5).
Ecce Homo, a heart-rending image of the suffering Christ held up for mockery, forcefully affirms the human nature of Jesus and puts the viewer in the place of those to whom Pilate states “Behold the Man!” At the dawn of the 16th century when the importance of individual piety was being affirmed, such devotional pictures offered more than a support for prayer and instead became the source of intense painful meditation.
Andrea Solario used the iconography of Christ with the Reed in the painting conserved in the Poldi-Pezzoli Museum in Milan. In his monograph on this artist from Milan, David Alan Brown dates this picture painted in tempera on wood to 1495. In it can be detected the painter’s Lombard training, the memory of Antonello da Messina and the Venetian masters from Solario’s years in Venice in the early 1490’s, the luminous modeling from Flemish art which he discovered thanks to the Venetians, and also the ascendance of Leonardo da Vinci who was working in Milan. This early date means this panel is the first in a long series of Ecce Homo by Solario, as the incessant variety of the same theme fascinated and inspired him.
Furthermore, in the version produced about ten years later (tempera and oil on wood, 58 x 43.4 cm., Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, inv. A817), Solario tilts Christ’s head more, puts a rope around his neck (borrowed from the iconography of the Carrying of the Cross), covers his right shoulder, and adds two figures, Pilate, and a Roman Soldier.
A new version of Ecce Homo, and that which most affected Solario’s contemporaries dates from his sojourn in France. Cardinal Georges d’Amboise, a major collector of Italian art who was preoccupied with embellishing his château in Gaillon, brought the artist there in 1507, as this patron was probably enthralled with Solario’s copy of the Leonardo’s Last Supper which was painted for the Hieronymite refectory at Castellazzo (lost) and which was considered absolutely perfect. The three years which Solario spent in France decorating Gaillon resulted in a rich production of easel paintings which became almost as famous, such as the surprising Head of Saint John the Baptist and the Virgin with a Green Cushion (Paris, Louvre Museum, inv. MI 735 and 673). What rendered these works particularly appealing to the French were the combination of the painter’s style which clearly manifested Leonardo’s novel expressive art, the artist’s technical skill, northern acuity of his drawing, splendor of his colors, along with the virtuoso rendering of light.
In France, Solario painted two very similar Ecce Homo pictures: the first, of imposing dimensions and with a dark cloak ; the second, substantially smaller, as a pendant or in a diptych with the Mater Dolorosa. In the second picture, the artist reduced the frame, turned the head of Jesus to make it more frontal, attenuated the traces of the flagellation, and added a deep purple strap to the scarlet cloak. Although now lost, it is known on account of a seemingly contemporary studio replica conserved in the Hermitage and a copy signed “SYMON DE CHALONS EN CHAPEINE MA PEIN” and dated 1543. A painter originally from Champagne active in Avignon between 1532 and 1562, Simon de Châlons was, it seems, at the origin of a variation of Solario’s Ecce Homo which was slightly larger and above all frequently copied: the ribbon is blue, the rope arranged differently, and Christ’s expression is softer .
Our panel is obviously derived from the same prototype as the Hermitage version and the picture by Simon de Châlons, which has the same dimensions. Our picture has more in common with Nordic rather than Italian technique, as can be seen in the careful angular modeling, opaque glazes, clear light, bright pink hues of the ribbon, delicacy in certain details such as the tear on the Lord’s cheek, as opposed to schematization of others such as the rope, not to mention the fine strokes especially in Christ’s hair. Similarly the gold highlights – absent from all other known versions or variations of Solario’s Ecce Homo do not appear in Italy in this period, but are still frequent in France, especially on devotional images. Here, the fine gold lines along the edge of the deep red cloak and the ribbon emphasize the entanglement of the crown of thorns and also embody the consequent rays of light emanating from it.
The style of our work and its direct relationship with Solario’s lost original make it possible to place its creation in France, some years after the artist’s departure in about 1510. As opposed to multiple later replicas, here the least details of the original are preserved, such as the broken end of the reed, the ribbon’s color, and the off-center position of the knot. Our picture thus appears as a quintessential example of the art of the first French Renaissance which was nourished as much by Nordic as Italian influence.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work
Dominique THIEBAUT, Le Christ à la colonne d’Antonello de Messine, exh. cat. Paris, Louvre Museum, 1993.
Sylvie BEGUIN, “Andrea Solario en France,” in Silvia Fabrizio-Costa, Léonard de Vinci entre France et Italie, “miroir profond et sombre,” Caen, PUC, 1999, pp. 82-98.
Sylvie BEGUIN, Andrea Solario en France, Paris, Louvre Museum, coll. “Les Dossiers du département des peintures,” 31, 1985.
Marie-Claude LEONELLI, Marie-Paule VIAL, La Peinture en Provence au XVIe siècle, Paris, Marseille, 1987.
David Alan BROWN, Andrea Solario, Milan, Electa, 1987.