Ecce homo

Ecce homo

In Brief

In Lotus Eaters, a chapter in which Bloom yearns for palliatives to relieve his sexual anguish, he finds a lazily reclining Buddha more appealing than the Christian god of bloody tortures: "Not like Ecce Homo. Crown of thorns and cross." The story of Christ's thorns and cross, told in the biblical gospels, was represented in a trilogy of paintings by a late 19th century Hungarian artist, one of which, Ecce Homo, was displayed in Dublin and inspired Joyce to write an admiring essay. Several paragraphs later in Lotus Eaters, thoughts of Christ on the cross return when Bloom thinks of the Catholic acronyms "I.N.R.I." and "I.H.S."

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Matthew's gospel records that, after Pontius Pilate assented to the Jews' demand that Jesus be crucified, the Roman soldiers mocked and tormented the purported Messiah by putting a crown of thorns on him: "And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews. And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head" (Matthew 27:29). The sharp thorns pressed into Christ's scalp anticipate the nails driven into his hands and feet on Golgotha, and the two tortures have become iconographically combined in the common Christian image of a cross wreathed with a crown of thorns.

In John's gospel, the mock crowning occurs after Pilate examines Jesus but before he gives the crowd of angry Jews what they want. "Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that you may know that I find no fault in him. Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man! When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him" (19:4-6). "Behold the man" in the King James English corresponds to a Latin phrase in the Vulgate Bible, "Ecce homo."

Late in his prolific career Mihály Munkácsy, a Hungarian artist who died in 1900, painted a trilogy of immense canvases (each more than 20 feet, or 6 meters, long) titled Christ in Front of Pilate (1881), Golgotha (1884), and Ecce Homo (1896). The paintings quickly became famous and went on tour in Europe and America. In 1899 Ecce Homo was displayed at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Abbey Street Lower, where a 17-year-old Joyce was moved to write an essay about it.

Anticipating his lecture on "Drama and Life" in the following year, the young Joyce saw Munkácsy's painting as a powerful "drama," by which he meant a work in any artistic medium that conveys eternal human passions and aspirations. His analysis focused on the states of mind visible in the dozens of faces and postures represented in the painting, seeing it as "a frightfully real presentment of all the baser passions of humanity, in both sexes, in every gradation, raised and lashed into a demoniac carnival" (Critical Writings, 35). Even when painting Jesus and Mary, Joyce argued, Munkácsy eschewed traditional static depictions of holiness to give piercing renditions of ordinary, suffering humanity.

Ecce Homo includes some of the details mentioned in Matthew 27 and John 19, including the reed in Jesus' hands. Golgotha, like many other paintings of the Crucifixion, includes the letters INRI at the top of Jesus' cross. Bloom thinks of these as he looks at the priest putting away the communion cup after mass: "Letters on his back: I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in."

The acronym he is looking for is another traditional detail of Christ's passion, said to have been placed at the top of his cross by the Roman soldiers, which repeats the mockery of the crown: Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews). Bloom recaptures the spirit of mockery with a joking alternative that he has heard somewhere: Iron Nails Ran In. In Lestrygonians he is still thinking of how appallingly bloody Christian objects of devotion are, and the phrase recurs: "Our Saviour. Wake up in the dead of night and see him on the wall, hanging. Pepper’s ghost idea. Iron Nails Ran In."

But the letters on the priest's surplice are actually IHS. About these Bloom is wildly mistaken (and his teacher Molly also, it seems), but even Catholics are given different accounts of their meaning. In one version, they too refer to the cross: before the emperor Constantine went into battle behind an image of the cross, an angel told him that he would conquer In Hoc Signo (In This Sign). Another gloss of the letters is Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus, Savior of Mankind). But both ancient Latin phrases arose as false constructions of the Greek ΙΗΣ, a contracted form of IHΣΟΥΣ (Jesus). The Bloom family version lives on in Circe: "I have sinned, I have suff..."

JH 2019
Ecce Homo, 1896 oil on canvas painting by Mihály Munkácsy, held in the Déri Museum, Debrecen, Hungary. Source: Wikimedia Commons.