The Latin title ‘Ecce Homo’ is taken from the Bible, and means ‘Behold the man!’ These words were said by Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus, as it is told in the Gospel of Saint John (19: 5). Pilate presents a scourged Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd, who, urged on by their priests, demand his execution, insisting that they have no king but Caesar.
Ecce homo is a standard component of cycles illustrating the Passion and Life of Christ in art. It follows the Flagellation of Christ, the Crowning with thorns and the Mocking of Christ, the last two often being combined. The usual depiction shows Pilate and Christ, the mocking crowd and parts of the city of Jerusalem, but from the 15th century devotional pictures are found of Jesus alone, in half or full figure with a purple robe, loincloth, crown of thorns and torture wounds, especially on his head. Similar subjects but with the wounds of the crucifixion showing are termed `Man of Sorrows’, also Misericordia.
Initial depictions of the ecce homo start to appear in the 9th and 10th centuries in Syrian-byzantine culture. Western depictions in the Middle Ages that often seem to depict the ecce homo more often than not only show the crowning of thorns and the mocking of Christ which actually precedes the ecce homo in the Bible. The lone figure of a suffering Christ who seems to be staring directly at the observer, enabling us to personally identify with the events of the Passion, arose in the late 13th century, probably in Burgundy but then rapidly became extremely popular, especially in Northern Europe.