The Medieval Review 10.05.01

Hourihane, Colum. Pontius Pilate, Anti-Semitism, and the Passion in Medieval Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. 491. $55.00 ISBN 978-0-691-13956-2. .

Reviewed by:

Sara Lipton
SUNY- Stony Brook

In May 2003 a group of scholars was convened jointly by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League to examine the allegedly anti-Semitic script of Mel Gibson's then- unfinished film The Passion of the Christ. Among the various troubling features identified by the panel, the report singled out the film's "sympathetic depiction" of Pontius Pilate: "The script fundamentally misconceives the relationship between...Pontius Pilate and the Temple authorities led by Caiaphas. Caiaphas served at Rome's pleasure. Yet the script shows him bullying Pontius Pilate with an amazing control of the Jewish mob. Pilate even states he fears Caiaphas is plotting a revolt. This is a total reversal of the historical reality of Judea under Roman rule." An appendix to the report adds that far from having an aversion to shedding innocent blood, as the movie implies, Pilate was described as particularly brutal in contemporary secular sources. [1] The scholars were so concerned about the portrayal of Pilate because throughout Christian history assessments of Pilate's role in the crucifixion have almost inescapably intersected with attitudes toward Jews. When Pilate is presented as a passive or reluctant participant in the events of the Passion, the Jews tend to be deemed that much more culpable.

In Pontius Pilate, Anti-Semitism, and the Passion in Medieval Art Colum Hourihane sets out to explore the multiple dimensions of this millennia-old relationship between Pilate and Jews, as represented in medieval Christian imagery. The scope of the book is impressive, covering artworks in a wide range of media from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries. The bulk of the visual sources stem from western Christendom, but Hourihane also treats images from the eastern Mediterranean, Armenia, Byzantium, Scandinavia, and Ireland. Chronologically organized chapters vividly detail the changing iconography of Pilate and probe a complex array of artistic, intellectual, and devotional developments that contoured representations of that elusive and ambiguous figure.

A brief Introduction lays out the book's theme and approaches, emphasizing the fact--amply demonstrated throughout the body of the book--that historical perceptions of Pilate have been characterized by variety, ambiguity, and contradiction. Hourihane expresses perhaps undue faith in our ability to uncover "the historical and human character" (1) of Pontius Pilate--the data does not allow us to hypothesize about the motivations of the historical Pilate, or even to assume that the narrative of his behavior (washed hands, etc.) is historical. And readers might question the possibility, not to mention advisability, of rehabilitating Pilate's reputation (5). The next four chapters provide essential background information. Chapter One consists of a brief overview of government and Roman-Jewish relations in Roman Judaea. Chapter Two offers the first-ever survey of the major late antique and medieval Jewish and Christian texts that refer to Pilate, ranging from Philo and Josephus through the New Testament, Talmud and Midrash, and both early and later apocrypha and legendary material. This is a useful and long overdue scholarly contribution, though more might perhaps have been said about the language and origins of each text. [2] Chapter Three reviews some archaeological finds and some further second-, third-, and fourth- century texts that touch upon Pilate. Chapter Four sketches the main outlines of Gospel and patristic accounts of the trial of Christ, noting that early Christian texts tended to downplay the responsibility of Rome, and that Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Chrysostom all underscore Pilate's doubt, hesitation, reluctance, perhaps even admiration for and faith in Christ. As the book is primarily an iconographical study, this chapter is not designed to systematically or comprehensively survey patristic exegesis, but to suggest the range of possible approaches available to early Christian and medieval visual artists.

Hourihane then turns to the iconographical analyses that form the heart of the book and constitute its singular contribution. Chapter Five offers a fascinating study of the representation of Pilate in early Christian art, far more comprehensive than any that has yet appeared (usefully supplemented by an Appendix of early Christian images). Not surprisingly, there are few depictions of Pilate dating to the period before Constantine, but from the fourth century he began to appear frequently on sarcophagi and in manuscript illuminations, mosaics, and ivory panels. He is nearly always shown seated and washing his hands before a standing Christ; the setting as well as Pilate's cross-legged pose and costume evoke Roman imperial imagery and consequently emphasize the prefect's status and authority. However, Pilate's gaze does not always accord with this authoritative aspect: although he sometimes looks directly at Christ, as one would expect from a judge, he also frequently turns his head away. Hourihane reads this gesture as exculpatory, designed to "convey [Pilate's] inner conviction that Christ was innocent" (56). There are, of course, other possible readings--as Hourihane notes, Origen described Pilate as "unfit or unable to look on Christ" (80)--but in any case the gesture certainly serves to distance this representative of imperial Rome from the consequences of the judgment, and so graphically to introduce the question of moral responsibility. Hourihane likewise sees the visual emphasis on Pilate's hand-washing as implying Pilate's absolution (72), noting that the gesture parallels Christ's Washing of the Apostles' Feet and evokes the ritual of baptism (76), marking Pilate as a Christian convert (80). Various early Christian texts (Tertullian, Eusebius, and the Acta Pilati, in particular) lend support to this reading. But the visual parallels adduced by Hourihane could equally support a different assessment of Pilate, contrasting Christ's humility in tending to his disciples (and Peter's in protesting Christ's self- abasement) with Pilate's arrogance, and/or highlighting the distance between a physical, bodily (i.e., pagan) conception of purity and a more purely spiritual (Christian) one.

Chapter Six, "Pilate and the Passion Sequence," covers a broader time span (the sixth through the tenth centuries) and a far more diverse set of images. The iconography established in late antiquity was somewhat revised, while the elaboration of Passion iconography led to the introduction of many new scenes. Key themes of this chapter include the transformation (via changes in costume, setting, and accessories) of Pilate from a Roman governor to a Germanic ruler, a tendency to group Pilate together with the Judaic high priests and elders, the insertion of Pilate into scenes of the Flagellation, and the creation of the first illustrations of Pilate's wife. The variety of this imagery makes generalization quite difficult, but Hourihane persuasively argues that in their aggregate they promote a more negative assessment of Pilate's character and motivation than was apparent in the early Christian period. Attempts to explain this trend are somewhat more tentative--Hourihane notes that little was said about Pilate by early medieval exegetes (84); the texts he does cite consequently range from Origen (third century) to Rupert of Deutz (twelfth century). Throughout the discussion Hourihane offers insightful remarks that indicate potentially fruitful avenues of research. He observes that Pilate's wife, who on the basis of a dream urges her husband to release Jesus, "reinforces a contrast between formal judgment and personal truth" (128), suggesting that examination of the development of penitential theology might shed light on the iconography. And he is surely right to emphasize the importance in this period of kingship and empire (123).

The remaining four chapters address the explosion of Pilatian iconography in the high and late medieval West. Chapter Seven ("Jewish Beginnings: Characterization in the Eleventh Century") argues that in this period Pilate began to be portrayed as a Jew; artists also began to show increased interest in the form of the praetorium. Hourihane links both these developments to the rise of cities and intensification of commerce and believes that the former is, in part, a response to the prominent role played by Jews in trade and money- lending. Firm evidence for the prevalence in the eleventh century of Jewish money-lending--or even for Christian stereotypes of Jews as moneylenders--is, however, lacking. Chapter Eight ("The Legal Perspective: The Twelfth Century") highlights two key iconographical trends: Pilate is identified ever more closely with Jews, whose culpability in the crucifixion is now given graphic expression, and he takes on "a more formalized legal slant" (173), holding items and making gestures associated with law courts and legal (as well as religious) disputation. Chapter Nine ("Pilate in the Expansion of the Passion: The Thirteenth Century") tackles the dizzying proliferation of scenes and episodes featuring Pilate in this century of intense artistic innovation. It becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate Pilate from Caiaphas and/or Annas; Pilate is also now liable to be depicted as befriending Judas, witnessing the crucifixion, supervising the Flagellation, and consorting with physically distorted tormentors of Christ--all of which "leaves little doubt as to the negative perception of [Pilate's] character" in this period (295). Chapter Ten ("The Established Image in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries") tracks the continued use and further elaboration of this imagery to the end of the Middle Ages. A recurring theme of this chapter is the changing uses and new genres of Christian art, which necessarily affected representations of Pilate. The chapter thus offers an instructive example of the complex interaction of form, content, and context. Although the book is organized chronologically, the temporal limits of the chapters are not always systematically observed: images from later centuries sometimes illustrate discussions of eleventh- and twelfth-century developments, rendering the narrative of iconographical evolution occasionally difficult to follow.

The brief summaries provided above hardly do justice to the range of topics and artworks touched upon throughout the book. The Irish monopoly on early medieval sculptural representations of Pilate (111), the mutually reinforcing interplay of biblical iconography and legal imagery (173), the proclivity of German artists to illustrate obscure scenes from the apocrypha (313), the fact that Pilate's apparent age varied widely from one period and place to the next (353)-these are but a few of the many striking observations to be found here. If the sweeping scope of the study precludes in-depth examination of individual artworks and their immediate contexts, it effectively lays the groundwork for many such studies, and will doubtless inspire scholarship for years to come.

It is inevitable that a work of this scope will invite some criticism from experts in individual fields. Scholars of Jewish-Christian relations might question some characterizations of Jewish history (for example, the statement that "in the ninth and tenth centuries, antagonism toward Jews increased" [117-118], which is supported by reference to an eleventh-century source, or the description of Philip Augustus's expulsion of the Jews from the Ile-de-France [289], which implies a more general and permanent expulsion than was the case, or the identification of the thirteenth century as "the high point in terms of Jewish persecution [368]). Some of the book's assertions regarding Pilate's "Jewishness" should be greeted with caution. To identify the eleventh century as the beginning of this trend is problematic because, as Hourihane himself notes, no firm Jewish iconography had yet been established (in fact, many of the illustrations in the latter part of the chapter are twelfth century and later). Beards and devils were far too common to constitute identifying Jewish signs, and until about 1150 pointed hats signified antique authority rather than Jewishness. Starting in the mid-twelfth century Pilate does often bear signs typically associated with Jews in contemporary art, but the association was neither as universal nor as automatic as is suggested here. Moreover, in many of the illustrations whose captions state that Pilate is "portrayed as a Jew" or "wearing a Jewish cap" the differences in dress, feature, and manner between Pilate and the high priests and Jewish crowds seem as salient as the similarities (see, for example, Figures 74, 79, 102, 139, 144). On the whole it seems more fruitful to ask "what qualities are assigned to Pilate, and with which characters does he share them?" than to focus too narrowly on whether Pilate is portrayed "as a Jew." This is not to say that Hourihane is wrong to assert that medieval artists constructed a visual relationship between Pilate and Jews. In fact, it suggests that Pilate's significance to the history of anti- Jewish imagery may be even greater than he states-the iconography of Pilate doesn't so much borrow from anti-Jewish iconography, as help establish it.

Pontius Pilate, Anti-Semitism, and the Passion in Medieval Art is likely to stimulate discussion on this and many other subjects for some time to come, so broad is its reach and bounteous its sources. It is a significant accomplishment to begin to bring order to this enormous mass of material; that Hourihane has also produced such a wide-ranging and beautifully illustrated volume is cause for considerable gratitude.



1. elements/texts/cjrelations/resources/reviews/Passion_adhoc_report_2May .pdf (accessed 2/27/2010).

2. I should note here a potentially confusing typographical error: the Vindicta Salvatoris is not a "medieval Jewish creation" but a "medieval anti-Jewish creation" (according to J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford, 1993], p. 213). A few other errata: the transcription on page 208 should read "Pilatus qui hic selle curuli inpictus precepit custodiam de christo nec moeret in tarro." The Fourth Lateran Council decreed distinguishing clothing for Muslims and Jews in canon 68, not 78; nor did all 70 canons affect the Jews (290). Bernward of Hildesheim was not archbishop of Mainz in 1011, but bishop of Hildesheim (146).