The evolution of ‘Ecce Homo’


'Ecce Homo' by Titian and 'Ecce Homo' by Cecilia Giménez


Several years ago I came across the infamous ‘Ecce Homo’ from the church in a formerly obscure Spanish village while looking for the real image of ‘Ecce Homo’,  material which I needed for my own art work. The Spanish ‘Esse Homo’ was mutilated as a result of the attempt, by a local elderly woman, to restore it.[1] Now it is endless reproductions of her “work” and not the ‘Ecce Homo’ by Titian, El Greco and countless others that pop up in the Google Images search first when one types the words, ‘Ecce Homo’, (behold the Man). Instead of the suffering face of Christ (bruises, blood, pain, humiliation, and yet the nobility of the Son of Man despite all that) now one is compelled to see the round-monkey-like-face with the indescribable expression of – what? – Self-importance? – Solemn idiocy? However it may be described, it is a very successful work of comic art, something as catching as it is stupid. Perhaps that solemn idiotism (something reminiscent of Mr Bean with his ‘Whistler’s Mother’ adventure) is precisely why the mutilated ‘Ecce Homo’ has become viral, swapped with the faces in almost any well-known work like ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo or ‘Disrobement of Christ’ by El Greco. What is interesting about this story is that the “restored” ‘Ecce Homo’ seems to be a very effective tool for devaluing the originals, many of which are very good works, which depict Christ.


The whole story is bizarre. Very well, someone spoiled the decent fresco and now there is an idiotic face, so what? Even if that face is funny why to bother to travel afar to see it if one can easily see its numerous photos in the Internet? – It is not a Vermeer masterpiece (for example) which is preferable to see face to face. Why put this image onto mugs, t-shirts etc? Why produce a wine named ‘Ecce Homo’, with the obvious upsetting associations? Why write the farcical opera based on that story and play it, three years after the event? Finally, why not simply reconstruct the original face?


Actually, those questions are the answers. All this is taking place because it is the new “icon”, new “pilgrimage”, new “relics”, new “sacred wine”, new “passion play”, new cult of the parody of Christ. It is all that and yet nothing because the majority would deny that they mock Christ (many may even go to the Church, some to the church where the fresco is) because “it is no longer Christ there in the Sanc­tu­ary of Mercy Church but a monkey” (still referred to as ‘Ecce Homo’ though); because the wine ‘Ecce Homo’ is just a tourist item, nothing to do with Christ on the balcony wearing the crown of thorns, thoroughly lashed and about to be crucified; because “it is a modern miracle of how God brought revival to the declining village”; because…


Enough. I could ask the most important question, why the local church left the mockery of Christ to remain in the church, but I know the answers already. It is all about segregating the phenomena from their names, times from places, meanings from words: the Mass is segregated from “the monkey face” on the church wall – it is still called ‘Ecce Homo’ but it is a different ‘Ecce Homo’, not Our Lord but the monkey… and we speak about another Ecce Homo during the Eucharist, and it is God’s miracle anyway – not the Mass that is God’s miracle but the image of that, not our ‘Ecce Homo’, the monkey.” And so on. I am sick of the postmodernism which keeps popping up every time I write about Putin, Bowie, Patriarch Kirill, Russian politics, modern art, borderline personality disorder and so on. It is becoming progressively more and more difficult to analyse anything without having to deal with it. So many times I have written about the collage of meanings, each of them has no meaning or ever-changing meaning, meaningful only in a relation to a particular neighbouring meaning or obliterated by it etc. It is boring and tiring to write about nothing, emptiness, an empty bubble. In this particular case, an empty bubble that is alive only because it parasitises the real ‘Ecce Homo’. Remove the story behind the mutilation and the real, noble and suffering Face of the Ecce Homo as what the “self-important solemn and stupid face of the monkey” mocks, and the whole thing will immediately wilt and die. No one would wish to see the mockery without the reference to the prototype; the grander is the subject and grosser the mutilation the more the interest. So the Christ of postmodernists is just a reference, a bleak hyperlink, white font on the yellow background.


By some strange association I recalled the story about “God’s miracle”, the mutilated ‘Ecce Homo’ when I watched the meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Havana airport and later read their “joint declaration”. There is something comical in the italic text I think, and this touch of parody sets the general mood. There was the regular Patriarch Kirill i.e. looking like a member of the politburo or some similar organization dressed as presbyter, openly happy about himself. There were two rows of high-standing representatives of two Churches, noticeably more relaxed and animated Catholics on the left and very soldier-like and uniform Orthodox on the right; the former looked somewhat excited, facing the Orthodox while the latter was not interested in the former whatsoever. And there was Pope Francis – and there was no Pope Francis. The whole scene was unnatural and absurd like a bad dream – perhaps the Pope had no choice but to attempt not to be present? Later, after a period of time, the shell of an individual appeared and then the individual himself seemed to return at last. There is a saying in Russian, “walking through the water” meaning that it is a very heavy walk, spiritually, and there is also a saying “lead waters”, that  is even heavier and this is how the sitting-at-the-table Pope appeared to be: sitting motionlessly and yet walking through the lead waters. Many waters.  Later I heard his words about his sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit during the private meeting, a statement which one can interpret in quite different ways. If it is interpreted as “the Holy Spirit” arranged this meeting it appears to be at odds with what the Pope conveyed by his body language.


So what was all that about? The signed-by-the-two declaration appears to be unremarkable and yet remarkable in a peculiar way, just as the body language of the participants on the video. Both have the similarity of mismatched parts, the sense of something being cut out and placed in the wrong position and time. Let us consider the declaration as a symphony or a fugue with various tunes repeating and converging. Below is the declaration distilled to its naked set of major themes; the numbers here do not match those of the original.


1.       Customary thanks to God and to Cuba for the meeting.  A spiritual potential of the “New World” (Cuba and similar countries opposing the “Old World”, Europe) is highlighted.


2.       The discourse about the separation of two Churches, Catholic and Orthodox; a desire for unity.


3.       The Middle East, especially Syria: the need to protect Christians and the places of the birth of our faith is stated; new martyrs are acknowledged.


4.      A call to people of different faiths “to live in peace and harmony”. “Attempts to justify criminal acts with religious slogans are altogether unacceptable. No crime may be committed in God’s name, “since God is not the God of disorder but of peace”.


5.       Thanks to God for “the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia” as well as in the Eastern Europe.


6.       The contrast: a concern about “secularized” countries where God is not respected andChristians “are increasingly confronted by restrictions to religious freedom the right to witness to one’s convictions and to live in conformity with them”, presumably Europe because next Europe is called to be faithful to its Christian roots.


7.       Timeless universal themes: anti-consumerism, family values, respect for human life (“no” to abortions and euthanasia), ethical side of biomedical reproduction, the vocations of young Christians.


8.       “Orthodox and Catholics are brothers”.


9.       “Uniatism” is bad, the Orthodox and Greek Catholics must reconcile. The general judgement of the “hostility” in Ukraine; Christians should not to participate in it and “work towards harmony”. Proselitism of any kind is not acceptable.


10.   Finally, customary “we are together”; “may our bold witness to God’s truth and the Good News of salvation be sustained by the Man-God Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, who strengthens us with the unfailing promise: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32)!


The declaration speaks of just about everything, but this everything is something that does not call for the urgent meeting which has already been hailed by the mass-media as “historical”. There is nothing exceptional about any of the paragraphs but one; there is some general truth in all of them but one and I believe that paragraph was “the thing” for the sake of which the meeting was organized. It is nicely sandwiched in the middle and nicely worded so one can always resort to the renunciation of the meaning desirable, to Patriarch Kirill: “In affirming the foremost value of religious freedom, we give thanks to God for the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia, as well as in many other countries of Eastern Europe, formerly dominated for decades by atheist regimes.” This is effectively the “certificate of being the true Christian Church” which the Pope has just issued to Patriarch Kirill, and for this purpose all the rest has been written. If one removes it from the text the declaration becomes a set of disjoint themes any of which and in any combination could be used anywhere, at any time and by any of two. But here it “holds together” other themes, animating them and giving them the meaning and even hints at some action. This “declaration” can be used, by the ROC MP, as the following: we are the true Christian Church [meaning the true Christian country], even more, we have an “unprecedented renaissance of faith” recognized by our age-long rival and even enemy (now suddenly a brother), we are true disciples of Christ therefore the state government of our country is truly a “power from God”, we [meaning Russia] are in fact the defenders of Christianity from those who were obliquely mentioned as “secularists” and “consumerists” and “Old World”. It means that from now any actions of the Russian state government are implicitly deemed as good and highly moral providing that the ROC MP gives its implicit approval. And when did the ROC MP ever fail to do so?


However, apart from its applied meaning and handy usage, the unfortunate paragraph has another dimension, more to do with eternal categories than with temporary ones like “uniatism”, “proselitism”, even “hostility”. It is about preservation of the absolute categories of the Christian faith and the absolute truth as such.


It is hard to believe that the Pope does not know what the ROC MP now is. If he does it means that he effectively called the decline of Christianity, and not just decline but its transformation into an aggressive state cult which “attempts to justify criminal acts with religious slogans”, effectively the parody of Christianity, “the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia”. To anyone who takes their Christianity seriously and cares about Russia and its people, what has been happening in the ROC MP over the last fifteen-twenty years is nothing but a disaster, the loss of all hopes and the reason for shame. And, if one wishes to be completely unbiased, one may address the statistics which show the real situation with the Christian faith in Russia, i.e. almost zero knowledge about the very basics of its own proudly reported Orthodoxy.


Just as with the mutilated ‘Ecce Homo’, many good reasons for the “white lie” can be given here, the most important among them is probably the lives of the Christians in the Middle East: to admit that there is a revival of Christian faith in exchange for the safety of the Christians in Syria may look like a good deal. There are numerous reasons why I think it is not as good as it may appear (one of them is that the recent years demonstrated that even when one makes an agreement with the evil and saves lives in one place (typically by the price of a lie), the situation soon reproduces itself in other surroundings and new lives are demanded again, and again) but I feel that it is more profitable to move to the area of the absolute categories, precisely because the circumstances may vary endlessly but not the essence.


I feel somehow that the Pope swallowed the bait neatly placed between many non-concrete lines peppered with the absolute values and thus “unquestionably good” – and this very action somehow compromised the absolute values. It appears that it was necessary, for some reason, for the ROC MP and those behind it that the Catholic Church should partake of the lie and thus lend her voice to the fake, the evil – by first condemning the crime with the aid of the Gospels and then hailing the criminal as the bearer of the Gospel’s truth. From the evil’s point of view it must be hilarious.


While appearing to be insignificant in the realm of the temporal, the implicit lie of the Pope symbolically opened the door to the evil because by agreeing to accommodate it he actually began the process of betraying the essence of his own vocation, “to tend My sheep” – noteworthy, these words were said by Our Lord to apostle Peter after thrice “Do you love Me more than them?” First “do you love Me more than them” and only then “tend my sheep”, only loving the Lord more than others do and more than anything else can ensure that the sheep would be tended as the Lord wishes, i.e. being fed by the Truth that is Christ. This is why, from the first centuries of Christianity, the essential thing about being the Pope was that he has been an independent and final judge in matters of faith, and this is the role he failed to fulfil during “the historical meeting”. Whatever may come of it, I fear that this lie, this symbolic “crack” in the metaphysical role of the Pope may mark the beginning of the weakening of the Catholic Church, under the slogan of the restoration of the union of two Churches and other “good things”. And, if before I was very much hoping for such a union now I fear it.


I do not know how to convey the rest otherwise than by returning to ‘Ecce Homo’. It is all about having good intentions and good reasons, making “a very small compromise” because of them and then watching how those good intentions and good reasons turn into their opposite, a parody, and how one feels now that he is tied up, unable to stop what is happening. It is a parody of ‘Ecce Homo’ and this is why – apparently – it cannot be stopped. The “restored” image is now “glued” to its church and produced the souvenirs, vine, the money, and so on. The church now needs the notion of “God’s miracle of the unsuccessful restoration” to explain its willingness to put up with the very offence of God. And Google keeps producing and reproducing the images of ‘Ecce Homo’ whose faces express idiotic solemnity, and Ecce Homo, the Christ, is turning into a reference for that mockery, so as His Church. That Church which failed to say “no” and to destroy the lie, the prospect of having the tunic stitched (Catholic-Orthodox unity) but without Christ .  There is still time.

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