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22.04.21 Hetzel, Témoignage et prophétie

22.04.21 Hetzel, Témoignage et prophétie

The wife of Pontius Pilate is mentioned in one single instance in the New Testament: Matthew 27:19. “While he was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.’” [1] She is unnamed and, as the gospel describes, unheeded. Despite his wife’s entreaty, Pilate immediately surrenders Jesus to be crucified. Despite the brevity and the fruitlessness of her pleas, the anonymous figure of the “Wife of Pilate” has grown into a complex symbol, as Aurélia Hetzel’s Témoignage et prophétie: Le rêve de la femme de Pilate demonstrates. Far more than a history of this single enigmatic reference, Hetzel’s text is a sweeping assessment of its reception: how figures from patristic writers to Romantic poets and contemporary artists have projected meaning onto the anonymous “Wife of Pilate.” An impressive work of synthetic scholarship in its own right, Témoignage et prophétie is also an elegant model, in the tradition of Daniel Arasse, for how scholars can grapple with the history, evolutions, and larger implications of the seemingly minor. [2]

In the first section, “La femme de Pilate dans la ‘Communauté Narrative,’” Hetzel reflects on the place and role of the small description of Pilate’s wife. Hetzel reads Pilate’s wife as a model witness, one who both receives, through her dream, a sign of Christ’s suffering, and who suffers herself as though in sympathy. As a dreamer, she follows in the footsteps of fellow biblical visionaries to whom revelation is accorded by the divine: Jacob, Joseph, the Magi. Although the dream itself is never described, Hetzel argues, its effect (the dreamer’s suffering) represents both a foreshadowing and an amplification of Christ’s role of suffering on behalf of humanity. This combination of her personal suffering with her receipt of a visionary dream makes Pilate’s wife the ideal witness and herself a kind of mirror of Christ: suffering on behalf of another. Her anonymity stands in for the massiveness of humanity on whose behalf Christ suffers.

The second section, “La femme de l’irresponsable,” traces the history of interest in Pilate and his wife after the condemnation of Christ, when the prefect was recalled to Rome and either died by suicide or, as others hold, was exiled to the provinces, possibly to Gaul. In accounts of Christ’s death in the Apocrypha we first see the development of a more fleshed-out character of Pilate’s wife. In early forms of the fourth-century text known as the Acts of Pilate, for example, she is given a name--Procula, Procla, and occasionally Claudia Procla--and described as a pious Jew. Her role also becomes more complex. Those who wished to punish Christ, the text claimed, saw her dream as proof of his sorcery and yet more justification for his death. Another apocryphal text, the Paradosis Pilati (in which Procla is first given a name), describes her as a saint whose advice was unheeded. In the text, which includes an account of Pilate’s pleas for forgiveness to Christ as he is about to be executed by Romans himself, Pilate begs on his own behalf and for “your servant Procla...whom you charged with prophesying that you would be nailed to the cross.” Her role was only further complicated in the Middle Ages. Texts from Anglo-Saxon epics to fifteenth-century passion plays recast her suffering as the work of the devil. Procla becomes, as Hetzel narrates, a vehicle for the popular traditions of every era. Hetzel elegantly reads an image of this diabolic retelling found in a fourteenth-century psalter in the British Library (MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 249r). The scene, which, frustratingly, is not illustrated in Hetzel’s text, shows both Procla asleep in her bed and approached by the devil, and Procla sending a message to her husband, who, even as he receives the message, washes his hands. In the miniature both Procla and her husband undergo a shift. Receiving the message, Pilate wears a pale robe, but as he washes his hands he is clad in the formal robes of his office. Beside him, Procla delivering the message is mortal, but as her husband fails to heed her warning, she stands behind him wearing a halo.

In the third section, “La femme fidèle,” Hetzel moves beyond primarily textual sources to render Procla’s influence. Hetzel’s sources are vast and diverse, from a fourteenth-century Italian manuscript to Bach’s Passion, to scenes cut from the final version of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo Matteo. As she builds more context around the character of Procla, however, her analysis of the source material is quick and often lacks the trenchant close reading of the scriptural and apocryphal literature discussed in the previous section.

The fourth and final section, “Une figure de l’intimité,” expands on primarily visual representations of Procla as a figure of interiority and quiet pain. Hetzel draws on an image by Gustave Doré, a photograph by Joel-Peter Witkin. Here, Hetzel returns to form and her analysis of these images paints Procla as a thoroughly modern woman: pained, alone, distrusted. Literary sources echo this melancholy, particularly Charlotte Brontë’s Pilate’s Wife’s Dream, a poem in which Procla herself finally speaks. Ultimately Procla becomes a figure of such stunning modernity that it feels odd that Hetzel’s text addresses little to no contemporary scholarship from Feminist or Gender Studies.

Témoignage et prophétie traces the history of a woman upon whom the mores, fears, and faith of nearly two millennia of readers are projected. Yet while Hetzel’s book details ways that this character has been read and given form over time, she rarely steps back to analyze the cultural forces that shape these evolving readings of this once-anonymous character. Hetzel’s work masterfully weaves together the complex history of an almost fleeting moment in Matthew’s gospel. But while her text clearly and neatly articulates how history has shaped and molded this character, where Hetzel’s book stumbles is in asking why.



1. Sedente autem illo pro tribunali, misit ad eum uxor ejus, dicens: Nihil tibi, et justo illi: multa enim passa sum hodie per visum propter eum.

2. Daniel Arasse, Le détail: pour une histoire rapprochée de la peinture (Paris: Flammarion, 2008).