“Behold the man!” Pontius Pilate presents Jesus to the raging crowd. Blood streams down his scourged body and drips on the ground. Can this sufferer be the son of God? Why does God not rescue his son? For the people this is proof of his blasphemy and they demand his punishment by death.
Hieronymus Bosch was not the first artist to paint this scene, which is recounted in the Gospel of St John. Yet he has enhanced the traditional way of depicting it with unmistakable elements of his own: the depravity of the people demanding Jesus’s death is conveyed in their grotesque faces. The artist has also distributed symbols of malevolence; perfidy and squalor among the figures – the toad on the sign, the peculiar filter helmet, the arrow piercing the boot, etc.
Man’s sinfulness and, in the same breath, his need for salvation, were the Dutch master’s chief subjects. The figures of the patrons, for their part – just barely discernible at the lower edge – are depicted as followers of Jesus. This is seen in the words that have literally been put in their mouths: “Save us, Christ Redeemer!” Having been overpainted, the couple were hidden from view for nearly four hundred years and only re-exposed in 1983.