Christ Before Pilate

(The Delivery of Jesus to Pilate, Pilate’s Trial)

The icon of Christ before Pilate represents an episode of Good Friday – the trial of Jesus Christ by the Prefect of the Roman province of Judaea. Judaic high priests brought Jesus Christ to Pontius Pilate after sentencing Him to death and appealed to Pilate to affirm their conviction. An account of Pilate’s trial is found in all four gospels: “When morning came, all the chief priests and elders of the people plotted against Jesus to put Him to death. And when they had bound Him, they led Him away and delivered Him to Pontius Pilate the governor.” (Matthew, 27: 1-2). Having spoken with Jesus Christ, Pilate said “I find no fault in Him” (John. 19: 4). But people, ignited by high priests, demanded the execution of Jesus Christ. “When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just Person’.” (Matthew. 27: 24). The Evangelist Matthew also reports that “While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him’.” (Matthew. 27: 19). All the above scenes could have been depicted on the icons dedicated to Pilate’s trial.

The icon of Jesus Christ before Pilate is part of the Passion cycle. Similar Passion cycles were widespread in the Byzantine monumental painting and mosaics. One of the earliest examples is mosaics of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, made before 526. In the upper tier of the southern wall are 13 mosaics depicting the Passion, among which is a scene of Pilate’s trial. The same episode is also encountered in a book miniature, for example, in the Rossano Gospels (circa 550).

The icons depicting the Passion scenes could be part of the festival tier icons that were placed on the altar fence. The festival rows on the altar fences of Byzantine churches have been known since the 11th – 12th centuries. The oldest Russian festival tiers are first encountered in the 14th century. Since the 15th century the festival tier was included in the high iconostasis that became established at that time. The most developed among the iconostases survived since the 15th century is the festival tier of the iconostasis in the Church of the Dormition in the Monastery of St. Cyrill of Belozer, dating ca. 1497. It was composed of twenty five icons, nine of which depicted the Passion scenes. Among them is an icon of The Delivery of Jesus to Pilate, currently kept in the Andrei Rublyov Museum in Moscow. The icons representing the Passion of Christ could be later singled out as a special Passion tier.

The icons representing Pilate’s trial could equally belong to the analogion icons, such as two double-sides tablet icons depicting sixteen Passion scenes from the set of the analogion icons of the late 15th century, formerly kept in Novgorod’s Church of Saint Sophia. The tablets representing the Passion scenes were put on the analogion of the Saint Sophia Cathedral on Good Friday to illustrate the reading of the Twelve Gospels.

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.