Pontius Pilate in Mirrors

The above picture doesn’t have any particular function besides working as an eye-catcher – although, technically speaking, it shows the main actors of this story. The ‘mirrors’ are also somehow present, even if only in form of reflections.

The picture below is how the events I will be talking in this posting are usually represented today:

This is, of course, not ‘real’ Pontius Pilate (or the ‘real’ Christ, for that matter). But they are not your typical Hollywood actors playing in yet another ‘historical’ movie either. Above is the scene from an enactments of the Passions, a fairly old form of performative art, and a very interesting one – in fact, I’ve even written about one case of such performances in this blog, the so called mystère (see Psychoanalytical Layers of Medieval Mirrors).

By now these performances can be seen as a part of edutainment. For contemporary public who does not necessarily very familiar with the Biblical stories, these enactments can be very informative. Of course, they informative in a numerous ways – they may or may no inform us better about the actual events that happened soon to be 2,000 years ago, but they definitely tell a lot about the societies and cultures where these enactments are staged.

This specific scene is a moment of the Beverley Passion, a city-scale enactment of the last days and hours of the Christ’s life that occur in the town of Beverly,  England.  I’d write a biannual enactment, but I think they now happen not so regularly. My guess that the main issue is budget (or lack of it); from what I see on their website and elsewhere, it should be a fairly expensive exercise. They try to be as historically accurate as possible, including, for example, in the representations of the clothes and other material artifacts of that age (I am still not pretty sure about the table, though.)

This scene this positing will be about is known under the name ‘Pilate washes his hands’. A more accurate name would be ‘Christ before Pilate’, of the Pilate’s Trial, or Pilate’s Court, if to follow the most official definition.

The scene is mentioned in all four main Christian gospels, but only one of them, of John, provides more or less detailed story (18:29-38):

Pilate then went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man?  They [the Jews] answered and said unto him, If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee.  Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death:  That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die.

Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, Art thou the King of the Jews?  Jesus answered him, Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?  Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.

Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.

This is a long quote, and it describes the essence of this event, but it also misses the details mentioned in other gospels. For examples, the fact that before Pilate made his judgement, he sent sent Jesus to the court to Herod Antipas (because it became known that Jesus was from Galilee, the area officially governed by Herod). Herod found nothing particularly wrong in the words – and actions – of Jesus, and sent him back to Pilate.

There are of course also dozens of other small but important details of this story. The article in wikipedia can be a way to start learning about this story, in case you know nothing about it, and it can also point to the myriads of different interpretations of its ‘true meaning’.

It’s perhaps worth to say explicitly that mirrors play no role in this story per se (to be more generic, mirrors are never mentioned in the whole Bible, neither in the Old testament nor in the later gospels).
I didn’t do any serious research into iconography of the scene of the Trial of Pilate, just took a few examples of its depiction from the most available sources. But even this superficial exploration brought some interesting insights.


For instance, here is a fragment of the leaf fragment from the so-called Rossano Codex, or Rossano Gospels, dated as early as the 6th century. The Code has been found in Italy in the 19th century, but it was likely made in Byzantium or in one of the monasteries on the territory of modern Greece (the text of the manuscript is in Greek).


We call this source ‘fresh’ only with a stretch, of course, but still; by the sixth century AD people could still have relatively accurate knowledge of how a Roman prefect’s praetorium may look like.  In the case of Pilate (and Jerusalem), it unlikely was a tent, as the name implies, but rather a special building. To my knowledge, the exact location of this building is unknown, despite Pilate is considered to be a real historical figure (see also the story about Pilate Stone).

Here is another ‘documental evidence’, a fresco found in Italy (in Ravenna), but also very ancient, dated around 520s.

In both cases Pilate is sitting on a sofa of a sort, surrounded by pillows.

Now I will move to 800 years further, at the very beginning of 14th century, and show two panels made by Duccio di Buoninsegna from Siena, better known simply as Duccio. Both of them are currently in the museum of the city’s cathedral (both a small tempera on wood panels). There are no mirrors on either of them, but they show an interesting evolution of the iconography of this scene.

The first show Christ in a white robe in front of Pilat – it was presented to him by Herod, mocking his ‘claims’ Jesus to be the King of the Jews (worth noting that Christ did not exactly mean it that way, but in this story has multiple issues with communication grounding in general).

The second panel illustrates the very moment when Pilate finally agrees to the execution of Jesus, in spite of his modest efforts to avoid it. One of the manifestations of these efforts is a flagellation of Christ ordered by Pilat. That would be a sufficient punishment for his ‘crimes’, or so thought Pilate was allegedly trying to somehow appease the crowd. It didn’t work, and finally Pilat agreed with the idea of capital punishment (though “washed his hands”, thus announcing ‘not my fault’).

Notice that in both panels the role of the throne is played by some sort of stairs, a a simple bench, not really fitting to the status of the Roman governor.


Two hundred years further one, and we see already a much more respectable throne, depicted by Tintoretto in his “Christ Before Pilate” scene (1567). Everything else is also much more decorative and pompous here, at the moment when Renaissance art starts moving to more burlesque Baroque. There are no traces of ‘real’ Jerusalem either, since his paintings of this time reflect the architectural and lifestyle realities of Venice (or may be Rome where he’d been few times) more than anything else.

Interestingly, but the throne of Pilate in scene looks very ‘mobile’ camp – if we look closer, we will see just a piece of fabric stretched between two pillars. Perhaps this was a way how Venetian (or broader, Italian) rulers arranged their thrones at that time.

In any case, I am mostly interested in a very particular place in all these settings – I outlined it in the picture below by a yellow square:

As far as I can see, there is nothing there.

But something as well could be there!

The reason of my interest to this specific place, and to this story in general was a triptych that I found in Lisbon, in the museum of ‘old art’ (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga).

It was described as the Triptych of the Calvary (Golgotha), made by anonymous Flemish (or German?) master around 1500th. Here’s is the general view of whole triptych (it’s fairly large):

The upper right panel of the triptych shows the very same scene I was writing earlier, ‘Pilate washes his hands:

Even not a particularly attentive reader of this blog can guess why I got interested in this panel:

I wrote about the ‘throne mirror”, in fact, already several times. The very first posting about such ‘mirror’ was in the story about St. Ursula (Speculum ursus pontufex), then the ‘mirrors’ were found on the throne of the King Solomon, and finally on the throne of St. Maria herself (Mirrors of the Virginal Thrones)

Of course, in all these cases we are not talking about mirrors in our sense of the word, but about ‘mirror-like’ artifacts, the exact meaning and purpose of which I’m still trying to understand (and the exact name (or names) I am still looking for). One of the most recent story about these non-mirrors is an overview of these objects in the scene of Annunciation (see 1001 virgins and their (alleged) mirrors) – and one of the most striking cases, of the Arnolfini Mirror, I maned to pack into a small self-published book – see Reflection of the Moment.

What I am trying to say is that I’ve numerous examples of the ‘throne mirrors’, but never before I’ve seen them on the throne of Pontius Pilate! By the way, it may seem to be (almost) self-evident, but perhaps it worth to say it as explicitly as I can: we are not talking, of course, about whether this ‘mirror’ was on the throne of actual Pilate mirror (it wasn’t ).

We are talking about the fact that these mirror-thingies might well be used on (some) of the thrones of (some) the rulers of Flanders or German lands in 14-16 centuries – and then and therefore get to the works of some artists of that time.

A closer look at this ‘mirror’ shows that it is very similar to many previous examples: it is round, its glass surface is likely convex, it is framed into a gold (or gold-gilt) frame, decorated with some curls around its perimeter, and it is hanging on the metal (gold?) chain. It is perhaps not so obvious how it is attached the throne’s cloth (called, the cloth of honour, or the cloth of state).

It’s not really clear what this mirror reflects. On the left side we see something resembling a window, with a central bar (although in the interior on the painting itself we don’t see any windows, instead we find an arch – though we do see a fairly normal window in the background on the right).

In this right of the reflection we see a kind of halo (?). Was it an attempt to portray the halo of Christ? That wound’t be very accurate optically, but it would go as a symbolism. I played with a few filters, but it didn’t clarify much:

The most interesting feature of this particular ‘mirror’ is that it is located in close proximity to Christ:

I found only one or two examples of such a proximity during many, many years of my studies. One is the ‘mirror’ in the scene of the Marriage in Cana, by Juan de Flandes (see Mirrus Christ!), and the second one that I could mention is the painting by Harmen van Steenwyck,  Jesus with Martha and Maria (the last work in the posting about Mirrors of the ‘Male Cluster’).


Basically, here I could end this posting. One more interesting context for my ‘mirror-thingies’.

But – as we know the appetite comes with eating! Of course, I immediately wanted to find many more of similar ‘mirrors’ in the scenes of Pilate and Christ. The bad news is I found none so far. The better one is I did find many interesting works and artists – and some, how should I say, ‘mirror traces’.

The first work is a panel by Albrecht Altdorfer. It was painted around 1520 and is a part of the so called Saint Florian Triptych (the name comes from the monastery of Saint Florian near Austrian town Linz):

We can find all major figures and attributes of the scene on this panel, though no ‘mirror’ on the throne. However, some reflective surfaces had been depicted nevertheless:

The helmets and some armor pieces of the soldiers reflect the surroundings, working like the metal ‘mirrors’. One helmet in particular (of the guard to the right of Christ) has a chance to reflect his face, optically speaking.

In fact we see something similar on the painting from Lisbon, too. We can also see some reflections in the soldiers’ helmets, though not very sharp:

We can also find similar ‘mirrors’ on another panel, of Christ carrying his cross:


The most famous ‘mirror armor’ that can potentially reflect Christ is painted by Hieronymus Bosch, in his Christ Carrying the Cross (I only show a detail of this panel here):

The most recent data suggest that the panel was made not by Bosch himself, but by one of this followers, later in 16th century. Oh, well, at least he was not the only one: the scene was depicted very frequently, and of included similar ‘armoured mirrors’.

The painting below was once also attributed to Bosch:

It may seem that Christ blow some sort of soap balloons, but a more careful look reveal that these patches of light are created by the pads of some sort on the chest of a soldier.


Another painting with this scene is made by German master Hans Multscher. He was better known as a sculptor, and this panel (1437) is a rare exception, one of the very few of his 2D works:

Another interesting version is also mirror-less, but we can as well assume that this ‘mirror’ could be found if we would see the throne cloth in full (of we would have a chance to see this cloth more clearly, it is very dark now).


The fact that many copies I have are very dark is a sad reality. Partly it’s due to the low quality of the images I find in the internet, but it also reflect (sic!) the fact these these are very old works, often severely damaged by time. Here is one example of such a painting with the scene of the Pilat’s trial where we can hardly see anything:

This work was luck since at some point it was restored – you compare the versions before (above) and after (below):

In the latter one we can see many more details (though unfortunately we still can’t see a ‘mirror’). The work is attributed to the Unknown Nordic Master (c.1560) and it is currently in the Vatican collection (here is small piece about its restoration – The Restoration of ‘Jesus in Front of Pontius Pilate’) .

Another similar panel, this time by the Unknown Master from Cologne, of the beginning of the 16 century – and again a similar lack of mirror (and a similar hope that it could be there, provided we see more of this throne):

The scene with Jesus and Pilate was portrayed very frequently, including by the most eminent masters. Here, for example, is the panel attributed to the Master of Cappenberg (some researchers believe that it was, in fact, Jan Baegert, son of Derek Baegert.

Derek Bagert also made a panel with this scene, around 1500, with a rather prominent throne:

The next work is, perhaps, the most beautiful example of these ‘Pilat Trials’ I found so far:

The panel is created by Hans Holbein the Elder (the father of much better known Hans Holbein the Younger) and belongs to the series of so-called Grey Passion (c. 1498-1500). The majority of the works are almost monochromatic, made with the use of the grisaille technique and indeed ash-grey. A few, like this one, have a warmer, “bone” hue. The panels are currently in the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart (and are one of the main objectives of our long-due voyage to this German city).

Almost all works that I’ve shown so far were paintings. This wasn’t, of course, the only art format to depict this scene (I guess, this wasn’t even the main one – I bet various drawings and etchings about this event were produced in much larger quantities.)

One of the most famous examples is the engraving by Albrecht Dürer, so famous that it was even used for a postal stamp, issued in 1971 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of this German art genius (by Monaco, not Germany).

The etching itself was created around 1505.

But Dürer had another, less known version of this scene. In fact, few years later, in 1509, he created a whole series of small, around 9 х 15 cm etchings that illustrated various moments of the Pilat Trial.

This one is likely the very first one in the series, showing the moment when Christ was taken to Pilat first time.

The second one, if to follow the chronological order, shows the moment when Christ was brought to Herod. (Sometimes, mistakenly, this etching is also described as Christ before Pilate.) Herod is also sitting on a throne:

…that unfortunately doesn’t have any mirrors.

Yet it could have them!

In fact, few postings earlier I have already shown a couple of Herod’s mirrors.  The first mirror I found in Dordmund, on one of the panel of the famous Wunderalta (On the grand-grandmother’s mirrors) where he order the so called Massacre of the Innocents:

[NB: I first wrote this text, and then was corrected by one of my readers: this was, in fact, another Herod, so called Herod the Great. It was his sun, Herod Antipas, who was involved in the events that led to the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.]

But then again: in reality I am less interested in the ‘actual’ events of the very beginning of the first millenium CE in Jerusalem, and much more eager to understand the context of the beginning of 16th century in Flanders.  The altar is made around 1521, and had to refer to certain practices (and designs) of this time in Europe:

I have another work with the Herod’s mirror. This time it depicts the ‘right’ Herod, and in fact also presents a trial – though a very different one.

The glass rondel shows the scene when Herod Antipas meets John the Baptist (the meeting didn’t ended well for the latter, as we know). Worth noticing, however, that Herod did have anything specifically agains John the Baptist . It was his new wife Herodias who first insisted that John was arrested and taken to jail, for his speeches allegedly reproving this marriage (Herod Antipas divorced his first wife and then married the wife of his brother, Herod Philip).

The following episode of this drama became epically famous. According to the sources, during the birthday celebration his step-daughter, known as Salome, danced before the king and his guests. Apparently the dance was so good (or, as other sources say, she dropped so much clothes during it) that the king promised to fulfil anyhting that she would wish.

She wished the head of poor John.

The above scene likely portrays the moment of making this promise. Other paintings often present multiple moments of this story all at once, when we see the capturing of St. John, the dance, and the execution on the very same work. (I wrote about the story, although already long time ago, when talking about one of the works by Juan de Flandes – see The Grandma’s Mirrors. Or not?

Again, and as before, I am interested in this epic drama only collaterally, to the extent that it helps in finding more mirror-like artifacts made in 14-15th centuries. Such as the one depicted on this panel:

But back to Durer. The next etching of this series again depicts a ruler on a throne:

This time we see another important figure in this story, so called Joseph Caiaphas, or simply Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest. It was in fact him who insisted on the execution of Jesus, according to all the New Testament. So actually this etching should start the series.

Caiaphas is sitting on a throne – but without any mirrors on it. I warned you that we will experience a mirror deficit of some sort in this posting.

Nevertheless, when researching various materials for this posting, I suddenly found a very interesting painting by Rembrandt (I didn’t know about this work before):

The painting depicts a very different moment of this story. It is the After moment, so to speak, when Judas Iscariot returns the thirty silver coins he received for his betrayal.

Above Caiaphas we see a giant metal (golden?) disk resembling a convex mirror by its shape. It couldn’t be a real mirror, at least not a glass mirror, but it’s definitely a very remarkable artifact.

I have no ideas where Rembrandt took this idea for inspiration. Was something similar used by Jewish communities in the Netherlands in his time?

We also see a somewhat similar object on another panting by Rembrandt, depicting the episod known as Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery. Apparently, we the same, or similar throne of the high priest on a background.

The trial of Caiaphas is made in1629, while the Adultery is a much later work, made about 1644. Interestingly, but Rembrandt also has a paiting about Jesus and Pilate – though I can’t find any ‘mirror’ on it:

There is also an etching made after this work (or perhaps made before this paiting, as a study, I don’t know exactly).  As far as I can see, there is not traces of ‘mirror’ on it, too:

Again back to Durer. He also has a separate etching specifically about the ‘washing the hands’ episode:

Now, if we understand the concept of ‘throne’ very strictly, as something that is behind one’s back, then there is no ‘mirrors’ there. However, on the background of this pictures (or to the left side of Pilate) we can see a very strange round object.

You can recognize it already on the image above, and I also made a more solarised version, to hopefully display it better:

This doesn’t look like a mirror, more like a coat of arms or perhaps a shield of some sort. But then again, it also looks like the sun, with multiple beams – which could later became a convex mirror, with the ‘petals’ or rondels similar to the ones we find on the Arnolfini portrait.

This is (almost) the end. Below are just a few random works related to this that I found.

This is Christ before Pilate (1596) by Hendrik Goltzius:

This is the leaf from the Book of Hours of around 1460s, with the illustratins attributed to Willem Vrelant:

And this is even earlier illustration, made around 1420s by anonymous (German?) master:

The scene of also depicted in 3D, in various reliefs and sculptural altarpieces, such as this Oxburgh Retable:

The altarpiece is now in Norfolk, England, but it was made around 1520-30-s in Antwerpen. I have only a very poor quality copy of the panel with this scene, where we can see the throne, but can’t say with certainty if there is also a mirror there.

Few days ago we went to one of the local churches (the Augustijnenkerk, to be precise), and I of course found a relief there with this very scene:

The same personages (and the same throne – again, without any mirrors). The place where I would seek a mirror is occupied by the plaque with the inscription Habetis Legem, or Obey the Law:

Perhaps worth noticing, that all these mirrors/”mirrors” I was talking about appear only on the works of the “Northern” (Flemish or German) masters, and during a relatively short period (from 1430s till 1550s). We don’t see any signs of ‘mirrors’ in the similar works of the Italian master of the same time, for example.

Below is the work by some Ludovico Mazzolino (around 1510)

and the next one is by Domenico Falcini, made a century later:

Now is the final end – or may be just a pause, before I will find more Pilate Mirrors.


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