This poignant depiction of Christ crowned with thorns is one of the finest and earliest versions of what was certainly one of Dieric Bouts’ most successful compositions. Bouts’ moving, frontal depiction of the Savior is a spiritually provocative image that was intended for personal contemplation. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Netherlands experienced a rise in devotional piety associated with the mystical movement known as the Devotio Moderna. Accordingly, images of Christ such as this became increasingly popular, designed to create an intensely empathetic bond between the devout and the divine. Writing on Christ’s torment from the Crown of Thorns, the early-15th century theologian Thomas à Kemis instructs the reader to contemplate the 'most grievous suffering which, in the thorny coronation of Your sacred head, You endured for us…’ (see L. Campbell, National Gallery Catalogues. The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, London, 1998, p. 63).
Erwin Panofsky was the first to attribute the present composition to Dieric Bouts (E. Panofsky, 'Jean Hey’s “Ecce Homo": Speculations about its Author, its Donor, and its Iconography’, Musées Royaux des Beaux-arts Bulletin, Brussels, V, 1956, pp. 95-138). Over the course of their careers, Dieric and later his son, Albrecht, produced numerous versions, most of which originally would have been paired with a representation of the Mater dolorosa as in the best-known example in the National Gallery, London, which is generally dated to around 1457 and considered to be a refined workshop copy after a lost original by Dieric. To create his composition, Dieric drew upon the well-established imagery the Vera Icon or Holy Face, often small-scale depictions of Christ - head and shoulders - staring out with unflinching directness at the viewer, often against a dark background embellished with gilt foliate designs. Bouts combined this devotional iconography with a type commonly found in representations of Christ as Man of Sorrows, in which he appears with his hands crossed in prayer and with a tearful, tormented expression.
Valentine Henderiks, Peter van den Brink and Till-Holger Borchert, all of whom have seen the painting firsthand, consider this to be one of the finest surviving versions from Dieric Bouts’ workshop. They note that the distinctive, sfumato-like treatment of the present work is most comparable to the two finest surviving examples of this composition, namely those in the National Gallery, London (fig. 1) and in a private collection, Luxembourg. Moreover, the high-quality of its execution, combined with its early dendrochronological dating - Peter Klein examined the Baltic oak panel in 2012, and based on dendrochronological evidence, established a plausible creation date for the painting from 1470 upward - suggest that it was created during Dieric’s lifetime, likely under his supervision (private communication).
Henderiks draws attention, in particular, to the treatment of the flesh tones, which are rendered with thin layers of translucent glazes according to Bouts’ practice, allowing the white preparation ground to shine through. Details such as the sensitive treatment of highlights on the crown of thorns and Christ’s irises, enhanced with two touches of lead white, leap out against his reddened eyes. The painting’s elegant underdrawing, visible in places where the paint surface is particularly thin, was executed in a liquid medium and defines the figure’s contours according the Bouts’s workshop practice, and it is likely that the artist used a pounced preparatory drawing to assist with blocking in the face.