What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer
- Francis Bacon, circa 1597-1612
Jesting Pilate represents one of the most important examples of the significant role of the Catholic church and its scriptures in the oeuvre of Francis Newton Souza. Painted in 1956, this was a significant year for Souza as he met the wealthy American, Harold Kovner, who would become his first major patron allowing him over the next half decade to paint many of the most significant works of his career. Jesting Pilate was included in a series of works from the same year on Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. In fact, Souza inscribed the reverse of the painting ‘To go with Crowned Christ 1956’. Another major work on the subject from the same series, the double portrait Christ and Pilate, is included in the exhibition All Too Human, currently on view at Tate Britain, London.
Pontius Pilate was the fifth Prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, who served under the Roman Emperor Tiberius, and became notorious for the trial leading to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In this trial, Pilate attempts to acquit Christ from the fatal charges, proclaiming his innocence. Jesting Pilate refers to a specific passage in the Gospel of St John, commonly dubbed ‘jesting Pilate’ or ‘What is truth?’ In these verses, Pilate addresses Christ’s claim to be the witness of truth. “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 unto 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.” (King James Bible, St. John, 18:37-38)
This is a critical passage extolling the innocence of Christ in the eyes of Pilate. It has been widely quoted and become the subject of philosophical debate as to the true intention behind Pilate’s statement and whether it was said in sincerity or jest. The most famous of these was Francis Bacon, the 1st Viscount St. Alban, an English philosopher, parliamentarian and scientist in his writings ‘Of Truth’ which opens with his famous quote “WHAT is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” (F. Bacon ‘Of Truth’ , Essays, Civil and Moral, 1909-1914, Bartleby website, accessed July 2018) In this treatise, Bacon claims that humanity takes great pleasure in telling lies over the truth. Jesting Pilate thus becomes the personification of humanity’s fatal flaw.
Souza's Jesting Pilate is impressive in scale and a sense of gestalt. Discussing the painting in 1959 the critic Richard Bartholomew describes Souza’s “preoccupation with the monolithic. An impression of power, of mystery and of imaginative strength is built up by the use of titanic figures […] they impress because of their sheer mass.” (R. Bartholomew, ‘Trends in Modern Indian Art’, Design Magazine, February, 1959, unpaginated) Souza interestingly portrays Pilate somewhat critically as a monumental yet shadowy bust with a primitive flattened face and a snout-like nose. His glowing white pupil-less eyes imbue him with a sense of divine power. In many ways, Pilate is both sinner and saint embodying Souza’s enduring fascination with these two extremes of humanity.