“Beholding the Man”: Viewing (or is it Marking?) John’s Trial Scene alongside Kitsch Art

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One of the grand scenes of the Passion narratives can be found in John’s Gospel where Pilate, presenting Jesus to the people, proclaims “Behold the man”: “Ecce Homo.” But what exactly does Pilate mean when he asks the reader to “Behold”? This paper takes as its point of departure a roughly drawn picture of Jesus in the “Ecce Homo” tradition and explores the relationship of this picture to its referent in John’s Gospel, via its capacity as kitsch devotional art. Contemporary scholarship on kitsch focuses on what kitsch does, or how it functions, rather than assessing what it is. From this perspective, when “beholding” is understood not for what it reveals but for what it does, John’s scene takes on a very different significance. It becomes a scene that breaks down traditional divisions between big and small stories, subject and object as well as text and context. A kitsch perspective opens up possibilities for locating John’s narrative in unexpected places and experiences. Rather than being a two-dimensional departure from the grandeur of John’s trial scene, kitsch “art” actually provides a lens through which the themes and dynamics of the narrative can be re-viewed with an expansiveness somewhat lacking from more traditional commentary.


One of the grand scenes of the Passion narratives can be found in John’s Gospel where Pilate, presenting Jesus to the people, proclaims “Behold the man”: “Ecce Homo.” But what exactly does Pilate mean when he asks the reader to “Behold”? This paper takes as its point of departure a roughly drawn picture of Jesus in the “Ecce Homo” tradition and explores the relationship of this picture to its referent in John’s Gospel, via its capacity as kitsch devotional art. Contemporary scholarship on kitsch focuses on what kitsch does, or how it functions, rather than assessing what it is. From this perspective, when “beholding” is understood not for what it reveals but for what it does, John’s scene takes on a very different significance. It becomes a scene that breaks down traditional divisions between big and small stories, subject and object as well as text and context. A kitsch perspective opens up possibilities for locating John’s narrative in unexpected places and experiences. Rather than being a two-dimensional departure from the grandeur of John’s trial scene, kitsch “art” actually provides a lens through which the themes and dynamics of the narrative can be re-viewed with an expansiveness somewhat lacking from more traditional commentary.

A number of years ago, I received, as an unexpected inheritance, a devotional picture of Jesus (see Appendix). The picture in question was owned by a distant relative of mine, and the original story I heard was that he acquired it when he was a young man on the streets of Amsterdam during the early months of World War II. The picture is a charcoal portrait of Jesus, a loose copy of one of Baroque artist Guido Reni’s (1572–1642) numerous versions, sketched on a roughly cut piece of paper. A favorite subject, Reni painted a series of devotional portraits depicting Jesus with a crown of thorns in the tradition of the “Ecce Homo.” This tradition finds its source and inspiration at the dramatic highpoint of the trial scene in John’s Gospel at 19:5. In John’s story, Pilate presents Jesus, scourged and mocked, to a hostile crowd proclaiming, most famously in the King James translation, “Behold the Man!”

It is a simple enough instruction, but what exactly are we to understand in John 19:5 when we are commanded by Pilate to “Behold”? John’s trial scene is a short but highly complex sequence that raises a number of significant interpretative issues for scholars. Typically the vision of Jesus as the “Ecce Homo” in 19:5 is not considered a contentious subject for scholars. And yet, even this apparently unhindered vision of Jesus is not as straightforward as it seems. Given the way he is treated, scourged, abused, mocked and beaten, Jesus should almost certainly be stooped and defeated under the crushing pain of such torturous conditions. With a typical ironic turn, however, the Johannine Gospel text indicates quite clearly that, contrary to expectations, Jesus remains in supreme control of these proceedings. Indeed, commentators practically cheer the extent to which Jesus effectively turns the interrogation back onto Pilate and, despite his scourging, walks out, unassisted, to face the crowd. So, given the apparent disparity between the harsh reality of Jesus’ treatment and his obvious command of the situation, it is not entirely clear what vision of “the man” we are confronted with outside the Praetorium.

This conundrum is what makes artistic renderings like the one passed down to me so intriguing. As a source of artistic inspiration, John’s trial scene as a whole, with 19:5 as its focus, is a difficult scene to represent. While there is no shortage of artistic examples that attempt to squeeze in as much detail as possible, there are just as many that take a close-up perspective, drawing the viewer into the intricacies of a singular moment or emotion. But large scale or small scale, the challenge remains of how adequately to represent the scene in a way that figures both its insides and its outsides, its conflicting allegiances and ubiquitous ironies.

Admittedly, the picture I own is far from the most inspired, effective, or even artful version the “Ecce Homo” tradition. Indeed, as one art historian offered, my picture has more in common with a “Velvet Elvis” than a Baroque master. While this comment may have been intended as a dismissal, it has served to introduce a provocative perspective into my investigations. I am intrigued by the possibilities of a kitsch designation, not only for my picture but also for John’s trial scene. This question is particularly pertinent when one considers the extent to which the “Ecce Homo” scene at John 19:5 has been such an important and generative site of inspiration for representing Jesus in the history of art and devotion. Furthermore, given the divisions and binaries introduced by the term “kitsch,” how might the complexities of this term, I wonder, mirror the ways critics grapple with the complexities of John’s trial scene?

This paper, then, is an experimental reading of John’s scene in 19:5 from the perspective of my picture as kitsch. What happens if we take this picture of Jesus, embrace its designation as kitsch art and explore its status as “bad art” as a strategy for re-reading the “masterwork” of John’s trial? In what follows, 
I compare my picture’s kitschy rendering of this moment with John’s artful prose and consider the extent to which scholarship on kitsch might actually afford an alternative viewing of just what is (or what is not) being revealed in John 19:5. I begin by unpacking the kitsch designation, discussing its traditional relationship to the “masterpiece” and its capacity to destabilize and disorient conventional art classification structures. I then turn to John’s trial scene with a particular focus on the word “behold.” I investigate the use of this word to refer beyond the act of gazing as such while discussing the capacity of text and image similarly to exceed their traditional parameters (via the work of David Clines and Martin O’Kane). It seems that the act of gazing does not fully capture what Pilate is gesturing towards when he commands us to “behold the man.” Moreover, given the prolific and varied artistic tradition on this scene, neither does the biblical page signal the limits of this scene’s textual life and potentiality. Indeed, what we see in this moment is a remarkable degree of revelation, occurring simultaneously with obscuration. To this end, the work of Stephen Moore provides a strong example of how image and text function beyond the biblical page to impact scholarship in unexpected ways and how “beholding Jesus” in John’s scene becomes a site of ambiguity as much as a clear narrative vision. Jacques Derrida’s dialogue on the structures and experiences of veiling and unveiling (Cixous and Derrida 2001: 17–92) explores the elusive contours and shifting borderlines of the textual and readerly subject and offers a meditation on the phenomenon of the veil itself. Finally, I return to the impact of kitsch art on John’s Gospel, finding in this scene a site that affects the reader by drawing him or her into an intertextual site of ambiguity and ambivalence, a narrative location to which we are directed to look, to “behold,” and, at the same time, to interact with a scene that constantly gestures beyond itself, resisting its reduction to a static display of God’s ironic glory.

Kitsch: An Unstable Designation

Kitsch remains a difficult word to translate, since its origins and passage into English usage are not altogether clear. Etymologically, it may stem from German references to garbage collected from the street (Kitschen), or else the act of making something cheap (verkitschen). There are also possible French, English, and Russian linguistic trails of meaning that lead one even further back than the German: as an inversion of the French chic, a mispronunciation of the English “sketch,” or else the Russian keetcheetsya, meaning to be haughty or puffed up (McDannell 1995: 164–65). It is thought to have entered the German language in the mid-nineteenth century and at that time was used to refer to “cheap artistic stuff” – the inexpensive reproductions sold by Munich art dealers to tourists as souvenirs (Calinescu 1987: 234). By the early to mid-twentieth century, kitsch refers to the objects but also to the way of life ushered in through mass production and urbanization as consequences of the industrial revolution. Scholarship on kitsch thus recognizes both aesthetic and political implications (Kjellman-Chapin 2010: 29–32).

These aesthetic and political implications, and the connections between them, come through in the writing of Clement Greenberg, whose groundbreaking article, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” was published at around the same time that my picture of Jesus was likely created: the early years of WWII. In his article, Greenberg offers an aesthetic appraisal of kitsch, disparaging it as the corrupted copy of authentic culture that provides “vicarious experience and faked sensations” (Greenberg 1939: 40). For Greenberg, kitsch does not offer anything of artistic value in itself but essentially “loots” and “waters down” 
the art produced by such masters as Picasso, Braque, Miro and Kandinsky ­(Greenberg 1939: 41). Moreover, while art makes demands on the viewer, is morally uplifting and consciousness-raising, kitsch provokes immediate emotions that, while vividly recognizable, are essentially without a higher purpose (Greenberg 1939: 44). Aesthetically, traditional views of kitsch see it in opposition to what is considered “great art.” Kitsch is “bad art” and fails conventional aesthetic standards. While it is still considered “art,” it is mass produced, inferior in quality and skill, and “it lacks creativity and style, imagination, and ­nuance” (McDannell 1995: 166).

While “bad art” can be easily dismissed, kitsch has a more active and insidious role to play as “anti-art” (McDannell 1995: 165). More strongly put, its capacity to undermine “great art” is described as almost vampire-like, sucking the life-blood from art and culture and playing the role of an “anti-system of art” (McDannell 1995: 166). If art is associated with “the True, the Good and the Beautiful,” kitsch is more than just a poorly rendered visual expression. By undermining the principles of art, it constitutes an attack on the uplifting, civilizing role art plays within culture. It is a conspiracy, then, to undermine all that is precious. It is more than simply the “art of the people” or an inferior copy of real art. Kitsch is “the element of evil in the value system of art” (­McDannell 1995: 166, quoting Harmann Broch).

For Greenberg there is a further political or ideological component whereby kitsch, as a hollow replacement for more authentic “folk culture” traditions, is consumed by peasants who have settled in cities as “proletariat and petty bourgeois” (Greenberg 1939: 39). Via Marxist critique, Greenberg argues that kitsch essentially wipes out genuine folk traditions and, as mass culture, is associated with the producers who seek to control, placate, and manipulate the masses to their own material ends. The sinister extreme would be the use of kitsch’s wide appeal as a means to exert this control: “The encouragement of kitsch is merely another of the inexpensive ways in which totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects” (Greenberg 1939: 47). One could of course point to Hitler’s Germany and Stalinist Russia, but also to 1950s Hollywood 
(cf. Adorno and Horkheimer 2002 for their well-known discussion of the “Culture Industry”).

Similar to Greenberg’s work, other early work on kitsch, both aesthetic and political assessments, held a widespread presumption that kitsch is devalued, if not completely worthless, compared with “great art.” Further qualities of kitsch deemed undesirable include its tendency to be conservative and conventional rather than progressive and creative, sentimental rather than authentic, immediate rather than reflective, sensual rather than spiritual, effeminate rather than masculine, easy rather than challenging, sedate rather than energizing, familiar rather than unsettling, readily accessible rather than intellectually elusive, and so on. All these qualities serve to maintain kitsch within a set of binaries that pit it against the opposing values of those “great” and hence legitimized forms of artistic expression.

In practice, however, kitsch exceeds these restrictive classifications into which it seems to be pinned. One might ask, for example, to what extent my picture of Jesus is “kitsch.” Well, possibly its purported proximity to a “Velvet Elvis” might provide us with a clue. My picture is a copy of Guido Reni’s much-reproduced original (now part of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen collection in Dresden). It is also clearly marked by a mixture of artistic styles and conventions, which I will discuss below. Its affective capacity is another familiar trait, and the more sentimental the better. I should add, however, that my picture is not only kitsch, since it also exceeds this designation in a number of important ways. Its apparent uniqueness, for one thing, is a feature distinguishing it from the dizzying variety of mass-produced versions of the Reni original. Its historicity and distance from our contemporary cultural context might be another way it resists the kitsch label. Also, with his harsh, angular, and dark qualities, this Jesus is not quite as “gentle” or “sweet” as he consistently appears in other kitsch of this kind (Solomon 1991: 1–2).

Not only can kitsch exceed its place within specific cultural frames of reference, but also it can be seen to challenge the values typically attributed to it. For example, contrary to Greenberg’s assessment, the cultural and political effect of kitsch is not necessarily a negative one. In other words, kitsch is not automatically a bad thing even if it is understood to be in opposition with “great art” and, as such, with the highest cultural values and ideals. Rather, kitsch can be used by aspirational groups to distinguish or position themselves socially and, in doing so, reveal and resist hegemonic structures of oppression. Examples of this would include individual artists like Mariko Mori and Jeffrey Vallance, or groups like the French libertarian Marxist group: the Situationists (Kjellman-Chapin 2010: 38), to which I will return below.

Kitsch’s abilities both to exceed its own definition and to subvert cultural mores are two challenges to traditional understandings of kitsch that emerged in the 1960s and beyond. These understandings and others have called into question scholarship on kitsch from the first part of the twentieth century that roundly dismissed it as worthless and depraved. For example, Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking essay “Notes on Camp,” which, like Greenberg’s essay, was also published in the Partisan Review, allowed for a perspective on kitsch that appreciated its power, its ideological sophistication, and its cultural relevance (Sontag 1964). Surrealism, camp, pop art, hyper-realism, and kitsch art, not to mention feminist criticism and post-structuralism, have all been championed for their ability to participate in and comment upon contemporary cultural discourses. Sontag’s work on camp also reveals the fluidity of the kitsch designation. Through these critical lenses, the boundary between kitsch and art becomes blurred, and indeed, the binaries that divide these terms prove to be illusory.

It is difficult, therefore, to maintain the dichotomies between kitsch and “great art” as they were originally formulated. That is not to say that the boundaries between “great art” and kitsch have dissolved altogether. In practice, the vestiges of these structures and the values that are contained within them remain. Indeed, scholars have noted that these traditional divisions remain particularly evident within the realm of Christian art. McDannell observes: “Religious art, even more than secular art, has to be aesthetically pure and theologically proper” (1995: 167). At the same time, however, recognizing the extent to which the kitsch designation collapses when pushed also undermines the designation of “great art” and proves it to be more fluid and equivocal than traditionally thought.

Given this quality of instability that work on kitsch brings to light, not only for those objects typically subsumed under this label but also for the category of “great art,” the question is how this might apply to representations of Jesus. Certainly the representations of Jesus from John’s trial scene have been remarkably consistent over time. That said, to what extent do the intricacies and instabilities of the kitsch designation also serve to destabilize the purity of what is seen within John’s narrative?

“Beholding” as Much More than “Seeing”

The devotional tradition has taken up the figure of Jesus from this scene and submitted him in all his misery and humiliation to the sympathetic gaze of the faithful. Pilate’s directive in John 19:5 is to “Behold the man,” which is the King James’ translation of the Vulgate’s “Ecce Homo.” Central to both of these terms, the Middle English “behold” and the Latin “ecce,” is the act of looking. Etymologically, “behold” also has the sense of possessing or preserving. And “ecce,” as with “behold,” has a similar function as an imperative to “see” or to “look” at that which is being pointed out. Typically, however, the interest in the commentaries is not with any of these manifestations of Pilate’s instruction but in the object of the look, the “man.” The interest there is specifically for possible connections to the “Son of Man” tradition; to other references in the Hebrew Bible, notably the Isaiah’s “suffering servant”; to ritual and to the narrative irony of the immediate context in John (e.g., Brown 1970: 876; Keener 2003: 2.1123; Lincoln 2005: 465). Indeed, the only scholarly interest in the term “behold” is to point out that, given the Greek ἰδού, a better translation may in fact be “Here is the Man” or “This is the Man” (Wallace 1996: 221). While the Greek ἰδού does have the sense of looking, translations that suggest an alternative sense helpfully serve to bring out the function of the word more clearly. Ἰδοὺ, like “behold” and “ecce,” emphasizes some idea or detail, or requires that one mark a change of scene.

It appears, however, that spending some time on exactly what Pilate is asking is extremely useful, because the act of looking is vitally central to the scene. In short, to pay attention to the function of the look is to consider and investigate the importance of the gaze. A similar point has been made by David Clines, in his influential I, He, We & They (1976), with respect to an important intertext for John’s scene, the so-called “Fourth Servant Song” from Isa. 52:13–53:12. In this seminal study of Isaiah’s text, Clines concentrates on the function of the opening word הִנֵּה, usually translated as “see” or “behold.” For Clines, this word encompasses a range of modes of “looking” (Clines 1976: 41). Acknowledging these modes assists the reader in appreciating the poetic character of this text – in particular the capacity of the text to “do” rather than simply “tell” (Clines 1976: 53–56).

The benefit of Clines’s perspective is its assistance in dealing with textual elements that have otherwise been viewed as “problems” for traditional historical-critical readings. Clines uses this word, הִנֵּה, to open up the possibility of “seeing” the text differently and thus considering different levels of meaning and experience that emerge when the text is appreciated precisely for its literary opacity (i.e., it is not clear what it means). For Clines, the text calls the reader to engage with a figure that remains always inaccessible. Readers are then caught up with the figure of the servant precisely by virtue of this figure’s perplexing obscurity. Moreover, this is a text that “acts” on the reader, and as such Isaiah’s literary servant challenges and potentially changes the reader:

I am arguing that the poem’s lack of specificity about the servant’s identity enables a relationship between the servant and the reader that is deeper than empathy to come into being. It is not simply that the reader may, by exercise of a vivid imagination, put himself (sic) in the servant’s shoes, and empathetically share the servant’s experience. It is rather that the figure of the servant presented by the poem has the potency to reach out from the confines of a historical past and from the poem itself and to “seize” the reader and bend him (sic) to a new understanding of himself (sic) and of the direction of his (sic) life. (Clines 1976: 63)

Clines’s point is developed further by Martin O’Kane in his article “Isaiah 53: Picturing the ‘Man of Sorrows’” (2005). Here O’Kane presents a richly detailed treatment of artistic renderings of Christ as the “Man of Sorrows,” a devotional tradition that plots the movement from the reticence and emotional chastity of a poetic text (Isaiah 53) to the affective intensity of its artistic afterlives (O’Kane 2005: 66). For O’Kane, the benefit of this move from text to image is that the image can hold within it a condensed form of meaning that allows for a more acute and decidedly affective engagement with the subject matter, in this case, an experience of Jesus as Isaiah’s elusive servant (O’Kane 2005: 92–93). The detachment of the image from the narrative is key to the power of the image to “transfix the viewer with a spectacular surplus of blood, wounds and pain as objects for contemplative immersion, unbearable to behold, yet salvific” (O’Kane 2005: 75). Moreover, the poetic image has the capacity to disclose “‘antithetical theological concepts’ to the viewer especially concerning death and life … . The physical definition of his body, its sensuousness, assures the viewer that this is a living and desirable body and not a body of wounds, suffering and decay” (O’Kane 2005: 77). In other words, the image has the potential both to mesmerize and to communicate with the viewer. According to O’Kane, the emotional power of the image and its capacity to hold together complex theological principles reveal that the image functions as an “expanded text” and is a form of “visualized reading” (O’Kane 2005: 94). Consequently, rather than overlooking or dismissing the image as simple illustration and hence not a legitimate part of the reading process, O’Kane “challenges the professional biblical commentator to ‘read’ the Bible through its visual expressions” and on even footing with the traditional text (O’Kane 2005: 94).

In the readings of Clines and O’Kane, then, poetic text and image mark an experience that takes one beyond the typical readerly task of following words to their referent meanings (i.e., a “correspondence theory” of language). The “viewer” of the text is asked instead to welcome a different quality of experience, one that “sees” ambiguity and responds without resolving this challenge. The consequence for both Clines and O’Kane is the capacity of the text, visual or written, to challenge, take hold of, and change the reader who, as a feeling body, does not remain remote and immune to the implications of the processes of reading and interpretation. One might see parallels here with the capacity of kitsch to challenge traditional divisions in the classification of art (e.g., “good” versus “bad” art). In this case, however, the distinction between reader and text is the dichotomy that is being challenged, along with the notion of textuality being limited to the biblical page. In other words, contrary to convention, the reader is seen as a type of text and the text is in some ways acting on the reader. Such insights can be applied directly to John’s text, so that when Pilate gestures towards Jesus as he stands before the crowd and directs the crowd to “Behold,” the reader is being drawn into a similar challenge. This is a challenge that exceeds the limits of the visual field and invites the “viewer” to “see” further possibilities.

Clines’s and O’Kane’s work also prepares the way for another important matter: sometimes texts and/or images can be perceived to work outside the reader’s intentions, and sometimes they do so to undermine the structure of their own arguments. This is something that Stephen D. Moore discusses in his treatment of Jesus in God’s Beauty Parlor (2001: 90–130). There, he introduces John’s version of Jesus, known for its sublime beauty in life and in death, a beauty that reflects the theological eloquence of John’s lofty prose. He contrasts this with the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus where Jesus is taken from his idealized, always “already risen” place in John’s Gospel to become the “worm ridden corpse” of the Questers who, as historians first, undertake their task of “unending exhumation” (Moore 2001: 95). Moore goes on to describe how having rejected the idealized beauty of John’s Jesus, the Questers construct for themselves their own versions. One example of this is the way their vision of Jesus is revealed through the cover art choices for publications in this area. The type of Jesus they choose ends up revealing the kind of Jesus they are (unintentionally) looking for in their research. Having identified a hyper-masculine Jesus within the various choices made by the scholars, Moore wonders:

Is masculine self-projection, then, intrinsic to the quest for the historical Jesus as it is commonly practiced? Is Jesus scholarship essentially a man-to-man affair, the scholar’s Jesus being a man’s man, and the scholar himself systematically mistaking his own reflection in his shaving mirror for the face of the man from Galilee? And is this at least part of the reason why so few women, even today, are actively engaged in the Jesus quest? (Moore 2001: 107)

While Moore’s concerns here are primarily gender-critical, through his identification of an alternative discourse, he allows the image of Jesus to be used as a kind of lens. The image of Jesus as a lens makes it is possible to see that the “small stories” of scholars’ experience, their bias, and their context (i.e., gender identification and Jesus’ masculinity) enter into their otherwise impartial and detached, historically-minded scholarship. A cover picture for a book that may have been regarded as incidental is revealed through Moore’s analysis to be more like O’Kane’s “expanded text.” The main difference here is that rather than providing an alternative textual vehicle that more effectively encapsulates complex and paradoxical “truths” consistent with the traditional biblical account (e.g., Isaiah 53 or John’s trial scene), the image instead contributes to the Questers’ arguments and drives their inquiry in unintended and unex­pected ways. In other words, Moore’s reading demonstrates how images can reveal the hidden arguments and personal investments of the critic. At the same time, however, he shows that images can also obscure critical motivations and demonstrate the text’s capacity to mark an ambiguous place of engagement.

Moore’s insights, together with the complications of kitsch, then, reveal a challenge to the conventions and limitations within scholarly approaches and the ways texts go beyond traditional boundaries. Clines and O’Kane affirm the poetic dimension of literature and the capacity of the image to contribute to the readerly process. But at the same time one must recognize that these features of text and image are not intrinsic. Moore demonstrates that text is at times as affective and arresting as image and, furthermore, that image functions at times as poetic text in many tangible ways. Moving forward from here, what is at stake for me is not so much acknowledging the textual and intertextual movements of the biblical text or its capacity to slip out of traditional expectations and implicate the reader, but more where the process of following texts across their perceived “outer limits” takes us. When we use my picture of Jesus as a location for reading John, where do we end up?

Perhaps, then, a better understanding of Pilate’s directive to “behold” might be to substitute it with the mandate “Mark!” since “marking” adds a further dimension to studying, or indeed wrestling, with the results. Understanding “behold” in terms of its function – as “marking” as distinct from “looking” – has the advantage of potentially incorporating the viewer in the text. Whereas the structures of “looking” have the tendency to set the viewer apart from the image/text, “marking,” by contrast, collapses the subject/object division that accompanies looking and being looked at. This allows the ambiguity of the text (which includes the reader) to function more freely. The insights of Clines, O’Kane, and Moore prompt us to ask, “How might complicating the act of ‘beholding’ at John 19:5 serve both to clarify and to further obscure the vision of Jesus in the midst of John’s trial scene? By way of a response to this question, “marking” may help recast some problems that emerge from the narrative context of which this scene is a part.

The narrative of John’s trial scene is highly structured. The action oscillates between the inside of the Praetorium and the outer colonnade where the crowd is gathered. Traditionally, scholars have divided the scene into seven sections where the scourging of Jesus at the hands of the soldiers forms the central scene (19:1–3 is the only scene in the trial that contains no dialogue and no verbs of movement; see Maloney 1998: 493). The other scenes lead toward (John 18:28–32, 33–38a, 38b–40) and away (John 19:4–8, 9–11, 12–16a) from this apex and correspond to each other in turn (cf. Brown 1970: 857–59). Scholars generally regard the “Ecce Homo” scene as the dramatic highpoint of the narrative, and yet, according to this schematic, it is decidedly off kilter, since it is the fifth scene of seven and the first to lead away from the central scourging.

This is also a narrative section that is marked by many layers of deep irony that divide and disrupt the gaze. Most obviously, Jesus wears a crown of thorns and purple robes that mock his kingship. It is apparent to the reader, however, that the soldiers who offer their mock obeisance unknowingly do so before the “King of Kings.” Another example would be the way Pilate proceeds to interrogate Jesus, while at the same time finding himself struggling to answer Jesus’ questions. Already mentioned is the way Jesus appears in supreme control of the proceedings, despite being arrested, beaten and mocked. Commentators also note the way the “Jews” stay in the courtyard in order to remain ritually pure for the Passover feast – this is despite calling for the slaughter of the “new lamb.” In yet another example, Pilate asks about “truth” when the “truth” that is Jesus stands before him. A final example, but by no means the last, has Jesus’ kingship declared repeatedly throughout the proceedings, ending with Pilate having a sign to this effect put up on the cross despite the crowd’s objections.

Even ἰδού ὁ ἄνθρωπος is seen by some commentators as an unwitting and ironic proclamation of Jesus as revealing God’s glory in his mortality (Keener 2003: 2.1123). Is it understandable, then, that the reader might extend this pervasive irony to include specifically the issue of “beholding”? Understood in these ironic terms, Pilate’s command in John 19:5 challenges the reader to look when looking is not possible. He gestures towards something we do not have the capacity to see fully. The reader is aware of the grand “truth” of Jesus’ divine kingship and thus recognizes the ironies as they occur in the text. And yet, 
this privileged position relative to the narrative doesn’t assure clarity of vision. The vision of Jesus in 19:5 is both there and not there – present to the gaze 
and absent in the sense that the vision exceeds the reader’s field of view. The reader knows the “truth” is being set before them, but what this “truth” looks like and how it functions are not completely clear. In effect, the grand theme of irony present throughout the trial scene is the perfect way of figuring the capacity of “beholding” to move beyond the limits of the gaze so as to “mark” a change.

Structurally, moreover, as a narrative signal, ἰδού situates “the man” in a very specific narrative context. It is a context that exhibits those subversive qualities associated with kitsch art in a number of ways. As a “master text,” John’s narrative here is of course lauded for its sophistication, its clarity, and its mastery of the form. At the same time, however, it throws off those hallmarks of the “masterpiece” by decentering the eye and fragmenting the vision. At the very least, we find that a vision we expect to be clear, has us seeing double. Take, for example, the structural center of this pericope, the fourth scene of seven where Jesus is scourged (19:1–3). We find here a scene where Pilate has Jesus flogged and Jesus is subsequently humiliated and beaten by the soldiers. This central scene occurs indoors (and under the heavy blanket of irony), hidden from the gaze of the crowd. Throughout the trial, the drama oscillates between inside and outside, but here it also moves between concept (mind) and sensation (body). While the significance of this scene is not available to the crowd, the all-knowing reader has access to the ironic testimony it offers about Jesus’s suffering kingship. At the same time, however, the violence of this scene (the lacerating and flogging of Jesus’ face and body, the mocking and humiliation) plays out the themes of oscillation and division in a literal, visceral way. Thus, the clarity of the central scene of the trial is blurred by the interplay between inside/outside, narrative/reader, concept/sensation and literal/figural elements. These qualities of incoherence and fragmentation are signaled in 19:5 by a decidedly off-center ἰδού, which in turn reveals their presence in the trial’s structural heart. In other words, the dramatic center of this scene (19:4–6) is structurally off-center, while the structural center (19:1–3) confronts the reader with their own divisions and vulnerabilities and undermines the unity of both sight and insight.

Convention has taught readers not to “see” the more base, disruptive elements that seem so far from what we expect from an erudite masterpiece, and yet this is precisely the way kitsch functions in relation to high art. What, as readers, we are asked to note well is that within this complex, fractured, intertextual space, somewhere between inside and outside, insight and opacity and amidst redoubling ironies, the figure of Jesus is revealed and made known. And yet, as neither this nor that, it is a revelation that is difficult to render with much clarity and immediacy. Moreover, it is a vision that calls the very solidity and stability of the reader into question. In all its irony, the narrative literally and viscerally fragments the body at the same time as it uses this passage to construct a vision of sublime “truth.” The “vision” of Jesus is destabilized by this irony, and at the same time so is the relationship between reader and text. It is no wonder, then, that artists have such difficulty, and yet relentlessly attempt to capture, the essence of the scene.

Veiling – Revealing – Re-Veiling

If we cannot be sure of the fullness of the revelation, how, then, can we be sure of the accuracy of our depictions? In his examination of the “Man of Sorrows,” O’Kane asserts that art allows us more scope to gather up the paradoxes and complexities we read in the text. But what if this visual gathering inevitably obscures or leaves something behind? The challenges that revelation confronts us with through John’s trial scene bring to mind Derrida’s reflections on veiling in “A Silkworm of One’s Own” (Cixous and Derrida 2001: 17–92). Here, Derrida talks about the notion of veiling as providing a structure for the Western understanding of “truth.” “Truth” is something revealed or made apparent, and thus is at other times hidden and obscured. Derrida takes this further, explaining that the veil that must be parted in order to see “truth” always reveals while simultaneously concealing. Revelation always involves a falling back, a “re-veiling” that prevents immanence by continually obscuring “truth.” For example, one may desire to sweep aside the veil of language in order to access the thing named or referred to. But despite the anticipation and promise of seeing the thing itself, the thing revealed in turn covers over something more ideal, a fullness that lies yet further out of sight and remains still to come.

For Derrida, the pursuit of “truth” never really leaves the surface of the veil. So, he attempts to get beyond the circularity of “truth” and veiling (endlessly revealing and re-veiling) by focusing on the contours of the veil itself – its intricate weave and delicate folds. He sets about “embroidering” on the surface of the veil a number of eclectic elements, including the “event” of Helene Cixous’s laser eye surgery, the artifact of his talith, and a memory from childhood about cultivating silkworms. His embroidered account of “truth” is underpinned by a sense of how these various events, objects, and influences affected and changed his own personal insights and self-understandings. For example, Cixous’s surgery seems more important for how it influences Derrida’s regard for Cixous and their ongoing relationship than for the physical change it has made to her eyes. Moreover, despite its densely woven symbolism, his talith is most significant as an object to be felt and touched, a second woven skin, much like a silkworm’s cocoon, which is never completely distinct from its body.

Indeed, as a way of reinforcing these insights, the original English publication of Cixous and Derrida’s correspondence, Veils (2001), is punctuated by a series of loose sketches by French artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest. These pictures may at first seem incidental, but they actually signal the participation of a third member in the dialogue. Pignon-Ernest is known for his street art where his life-scale figures are pasted on walls or building façades to create the illusion of form and space and gradually merge with their urban locations as they weather and decay. In such a way, Pignon-Ernest’s work demonstrates how street art fuses context with form, often with powerful effects. In Veils, his drawings seem to work in a similar way, challenging the reader to consider the interplay between cloth, skin, and paper, not to mention text and idea. The drawings themselves often blur the boundary between the gathering and draping of cloth on the one hand and the folds and contours of skin and body on the other. One example is a pencil sketch, an unfinished study of a figure wearing a veil that includes draping fabric juxtaposed with the intricate folds of an ear. What is striking is the way the folds of the veil match the delicate folds of skin and cartilage. Except for what lies under the veil, the rest of the head, including the face, is missing. The artist’s subject remains incomplete and yet the blending of veil and skin is effectively rendered (Cixous and Derrida 2001: 80–81).

Pignon-Ernest’s work runs parallel to Cixous and Derrida’s, with the result that Veils is a sustained reflection on the Western structures of “truth” that spends a lot of time sketching, both literally and metaphorically, the “small stories” and seemingly “minor connections” that tell the “truth” of the veil rather than the “truth” that is veiled. The territory charted is not typical of more conventional philosophical conversations on “truth” and knowledge (e.g., what is typically associated with the style of analytic philosophy), and yet Derrida’s navigation of the veil and veiling offers a powerful commentary on the metaphorical apparatus that grounds and conditions the “big story” of philosophical tradition.

The “truth of the veil” (as distinct from the “truth that is veiled”) is apparent in John’s trial scene when, with “the way, the truth and the life” standing before him, Pilate asks, “What is truth?” (cf. John 14:6). More than simply dramatic irony, Pilate is correct not to see the “truth” revealed here; the “truth” remains veiled despite Jesus’ revelatory presence. In terms of the broader narrative structure, Pilate’s later proclamation of Jesus as “the man” affirms this by unwittingly (maybe) positioning Jesus within the same economy of the veil (i.e., the endless un-veiling and re-veiling of “truth”). In this scene, he locates Jesus within the ambiguity and structural fragmentation of the unfolding story in a moment which, narratively speaking, is lopsided compared to a story structure that appears otherwise to be very finely balanced (in the seven sections of the trial scene, Pilate questions Jesus about “truth” in 18:38a and presents Jesus as “the Man” in 19:5 – i.e., in sections 2 and 5 respectively). In these terms, if Jesus is the “truth,” it is not so much a moment where the veil is parted so that this “truth” is revealed as a moment when the veil is acknowledged in its opacity, without being swept aside.

Marking What It “Does” Rather than What It “Is”

How could a picture very much located in the “small stories” of popular piety have something to say about the “big stories” as told in John’s Gospel? My picture is a rough copy of a Reni original, and many steps removed from it in terms of time, place, and artistic skill. Closing this distance has meant challenging the dichotomies of big and small, high and low, and this has in turn allowed us to connect “beholding” with “marking” rather than to associate it solely with “looking.” Put another way, “marking” involves function rather than insight and fits with our initial discussion where kitsch is understood less in terms of its status as art and more for its function as art (Morgan 1998: 205). In other words, we look to what kitsch does rather than on what it is (Morgan 1998: 24–25; Kjellman-Chapin 2010: 39). What my picture is might be characterized by elusiveness, ambiguity, and instability. It may appear off-center and resist attempts at classification. What this same picture does, however, might demonstrate the capacity for John’s text to continue to unfurl in unanticipated directions and locations, to operate on levels other than those traditionally identified.

My picture both fits and resists a kitsch designation. Because of its cultural relativity and its readiness to take on the specifics of context, the designation of art as kitsch is typically inconsistent, if not seemingly arbitrary. Often the style of this kind of art is piecemeal; it is an assemblage of techniques and traditions that allow it to “work” within a given context and according to specific issues but that also render it ambiguous. Indeed, in the case of the Amsterdam Jesus, we find an odd assortment of artistic styles and conventions, from realism and super-realism to impressionism and even surrealism. Images of Jesus of this kind more typically portray him in a more effeminate style with softened features, flushed cheeks, silky hair, and rosebud lips. In this example, the soft curls have been retained yet now stand in stark contrast to the angular, exaggerated features of a Jesus whose proportions are much less pleasing. Moreover, the finely wrought details of the glossy curls that cascade to his shoulders are in contrast with the crude and impressionistic thorns that compose his crown.

The inability to classify this picture neatly within established frames of reference may well serve to highlight its instability and singularity instead. In this picture are the other strands of local narratives, gathered within an indistinct location, one that provides an unorthodox forum for John’s narrative to continue. The fact that this picture doesn’t neatly fit into any prescribed classification system or explanatory schema may prompt the reader to consider what function it has instead. The significance of this shift in perspective is the potential to flip the expected hermeneutic line of inquiry. In other words, instead of regarding this picture as ancillary to John’s Gospel, an additional piece of insightful commentary layered over John’s sublime discourse, we might consider how John’s text continues to take shape and play out from within this seemingly distant location.

Moreover, like all good kitsch, the picture is piecemeal stylistically in order to generate cheap emotion. In other words, kitsch is garishly sentimental. In De Profundis, Oscar Wilde describes a sentimentalist as “one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it” (Wilde 1998: 143). Here we have the luxury of much theatrical eye rolling, the solitary tear making its contrived way down Jesus’ agonized cheek and the exaggerated straining of the head as it turns to one side. And yet, scholars looking at the way kitsch functions in practice (notably, Morgan’s work on Warner Salmann’s “Head of Christ”) see this overt sentimentalizing not as a barrier to authentic engagement but as a method of acknowledging the impossibilities of penetrating the impossible “reality” that the picture stands in for. Sentimentality distances the viewer from the particular and from the authentic through its contrivance, its exaggeration, and its over-the-top theatricality. Kitsch, therefore, does not seek to capture, in and of itself, something of the reality that it represents: that is, “the True, the Good and the Beautiful” (cf. Plato’s highest properties of being). In its “deficiency” and avoidance, kitsch functions less as a sabotaging demon and more as a “place holder.” This contrasts with the “masterpiece” which is thought to provide an instance of revelation through its uniqueness, its dazzling skill and technical virtuosity, sophisticated and balanced theological imagery, its creativity and innovation. But above all, the traditional “masterpiece” is known for its carefully measured, good taste.

Scholarship on kitsch recognizes, however, that good taste is provisional and ultimately doesn’t overcome the oscillating structure identified via Derrida’s veil. In this way, the Jesus picture doesn’t represent the entire scene and is self-consciously operating in this way. It provides a just a small keyhole through which one sees (the “truth”?), but does not see entirely. It functions more effectively as a location, a provisional marker that secures a place for what the text is so adamantly not providing in a clear and coherent way. So, rather than determine the authenticity or deficiency of a sensation, the question may be one that acknowledges that this location functions affectively. It is no coincidence that my picture has a central place in a longstanding tradition of popular piety and personal devotion where the believer is encouraged to engage on a more visceral level with the sufferings of Christ. In this, we find an indeterminate location generated by this image, one that works against the clarity of (academic) insight and yet opens towards John’s text being mediated and extended on a more affective level of experience.

The keyhole opened by this picture casts a view on the context within which the picture itself arose; the glimpse is incomplete and provides only mere tracings, however – stitches on a veil. One of the insights associated with the reevaluation of kitsch in the 1960s was its capacity to participate in discourses of resistance and subversion that were culturally relevant to the ideological struggles of that period. In the case of the Amsterdam Jesus, it was the context of Europe in World War II, of wartime trauma and intrigues, of chronic illness, and of the devotion and piety of what now seems like a previous age. Rather than stand for all time and reveal some eternal “truth,” it could be that the significance of this picture lies in its specific allegiances, its devotees and the limited context of their piety: the reportedly Jewish artist; the possible journey of the picture from Eastern Europe to Amsterdam; the private relationship between the picture and its primary owner from the 1940s to the 1980s; and its subsequent meandering journey into the twenty-first century. These stories remain fractured and incomplete. Of course, more needs to be said of these stories/histories, but not here (Wilson, forthcoming). For now it is enough that they provide another example of how a sense of the “kitsch” can be melded with the Johannine narrative – a narrative that is extended and embellished on a roughly cut piece of paper, sketched by the hand of an unknown artist. Its journey through the turbulent years of World War II and beyond constitutes a further unveiling and continuation of this text’s effects. This is a story that is not the story of John 19:5, but strangely it is. With Pilate’s command to “behold,” the kitsch vision that emerges from John 19:5 gestures towards the open-ended quality of this story. From here, the continuation of John’s narrative finds a significant location in the ordinariness and lackluster contribution of one picture among many.

The Amsterdam Jesus provides an important example of the capacity of John’s story to continue to be composed, articulated, and experienced. As the story continues to unfurl, the veils continue to be stripped away, revealing a narrative that takes surprising twists and turns but always hides from view the figure of Jesus who stands amidst shifting contexts and experiences. Indeed, it is precisely this quality of impenetrability that allows the narrative to move so freely across the surfaces of understanding and identity. By exploring the visual image, the very thing we as readers are asked to “behold,” we discover that this vision stands amidst a complex notion of textuality. Where does John’s text begin and where does it end? Is it limited to the scriptural passage? Or can we follow it through its depiction and development in art? What of the interaction of this text in the lives and experiences of its readers, as, for example, within the hidden histories that plot its cultural reception? The journey of this picture is interwoven with the story of my family. Understanding it in terms of kitsch, in turn, raises intriguing questions about the engagement of John’s narrative with the genealogical plot of my family’s history. “Beholding” in John’s text is not a simple act of looking. It marks an exceedingly complex site of engagement, a place where many paths of meaning and sensation intersect and reveal while simultaneously hiding their fullness from view. The irony (yet another layer) is that this complexity is most vividly realized not in the works of the great Masters, but in an overly sentimental, inferior, throwaway, kitsch copy.

All along, it is John’s text that is being read here, but it is a reading that takes this text beyond its traditional boundaries and limits so as to find it retold in other locations of human experience (e.g., art, culture, human story and identity, broadly conceived). The qualities of kitsch as developed here serve to break down the distinction between human experience and the ongoing narrative of John’s story. It becomes difficult, therefore, to make the distinction, to draw a sharp boundary between John’s text and human subjectivity. Kitsch becomes the lens through which this is demonstrated most effectively.

The picture of Jesus, as kitsch, as sacred “Velvet Elvis,” and as sentimental tourist art, brings the complexities of John’s story to the fore, and it moves the emphasis off the gaze and its desire to hold and preserve. It provides alternative locations for these moments of impossibility to play themselves out in all their undrawn potentiality. The picture engages with the more opaque structures of “truth” associated with the narrative location of John 19:5. There, a ­resistance to fullness, an openness to difference, and a capacity to exceed traditional textual boundaries point to a distinct “kitschiness” within the “Ecce Homo” as he is drawn by John.

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