At the end of the sixteenth century, about fifty years after the death of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), there was an intense revival of interest in his work, which has been described as ‘The Dürer Renaissance’. A general increase in collecting activity appears to have triggered this development. The taste of princely collectors, above all Duke Maximilian of Bavaria (1573-1651) and Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) in Prague, but also of wealthy middle-class patrons, contributed decisively to the demand for Dürer’s works. Demand came to exceed supply and, as a result, a surprisingly large number of artists began copying and imitating the master. The best-known among these and the leading protagonist of this movement was Hans Hoffmann, who was born and trained in Dürer’s native Nuremberg, which still held many of his works. Hoffmann left Nuremberg in 1584 for Duke William V’s court in Munich, where he worked for a short period for Maximilian of Bavaria, before traveling to Prague, where he was appointed court painter to Rudolf II in 1585. Hoffmann worked directly after Dürer’s paintings and drawings, but also created his own unique compositions inspired by Dürer’s style and motifs, of which this Ecce Homo is an interesting example.
The Ecce Homo (‘Behold the Man’) was one of Hoffmann’s most successful designs. The head of Christ in this painting relates closely to a drawing that Hoffmann executed in black ink, heightened with white, on green prepared vellum (fig. 1; Private collection), which, while closely inspired by Dürer’s example, appears to have been the artist’s own invention. Hoffmann’s drawing served as a model for a group of works by the artist, or attributed to him, all of which show Christ crowned with thorns encircled by His persecutors (often portrayed with grotesque, caricatured physiognomies, as here). In addition to the present painting, the study was employed for an Ecce Homo in Aachen (Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum) and a painting formerly in the Thüre von Cedeström collection. Other works relating to this group, but not so closely following the drawing, include a Mocking of Christ in the National Gallery in Prague and an Ecce Homo Attributed to Hoffmann sold Sotheby’s, New York, 28 January 2016, lot 15 ($274,000). In the paintings, Christ is depicted draped in a loin cloth, whereas in the drawing he is shown in a robe, which may indicate that the drawing was originally designed for the depiction of a different moment in Christ’s Passion, most likely the moment of the Crowning with Thorns. The quality of these versions is inconsistent and the present work is certainly one of the more finely modeled and detailed of the group.
The subject represents the moment that Christ, beaten, mocked and crowned with thorns, was presented to the people by Pontius Pilate, Roman Prefect of Judea, probably identifiable here as the bearded figure wearing a turban to the right of Christ. Late medieval devotion had increasingly concentrated on Christ’s humanity, emphasizing His physical suffering during the Passion. These emotive ideas were soon reflected in visual representations of Christ, and images of the Man of Sorrows and Ecce Homo became increasingly popular, enabling as they did a stark meditation on Christ’s humiliations and pain. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, depictions of this scene had typically fallen into two distinct types: iconic representations of Christ alone, like Jan Mostaert’s Ecce Homo of circa 1510-15 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg), or as part of larger narrative scenes, like Quinten Massys’ painting now in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice. In Hoffmann’s painting, however, these elements are combined, focusing closely on the figure of Christ, removed from a narrative context, but still taunted by His persecutors. Hoffmann’s skill at rendering Christ’s flesh, the individual strands of His hair, His tears and the gnarled crown of thorns would have heightened the devotional impact of the work.
We are grateful to Dr. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann for endorsing the attribution following firsthand inspection of the work.