It is one of the most famous depictions of the trial of Christ. And the detail of each character is impressive.
Pontius Pilate is there, brittle with stress and apprehension, his brow furrowed, his arms awkwardly crossed, sitting in judgement of Christ.
The chief priests and elders surround Pilate, badgering him for a verdict in their favor.
The baying crowd, held in check by a Roman centurion, lean around each other to catch a glimpse of the accused. One man throws his hands in the air and cries, “Crucify him!”
Christ himself, ghostly and otherworldly, stands still in the center of the picture, gazing at the Roman prefect as he vacillates before pronouncing his judgement.
Christ Before Pilate was painted by the Hungarian artist, Mihály Munkácsy in 1881 and was an immediate success. During its first showing in Paris it attracted thousands of people every day. Munkácsy then arranged for it to go on a four-year tour across the galleries of Europe. He was hailed as the new Michelangelo or Rembrandt. Those who viewed the enormous canvas, 20 feet long and 13 feet high, reported feeling immersed in its drama, surrounded by the fury and the tension of the scene it depicts.
But soon, viewers began to ask who was that young mother of Raphaelic beauty standing by the pillar and looking so intently at Christ. She’s the only woman in a room full of fanatical men.
But there wasn’t a woman present in the praetorium for the trial of Christ, was there?
In the middle of one of the most dramatic moments of the trial, when Pilate was offering Christ to the crowd while they screamed for him to release Barabbas, Matthew’s Gospel says this happened:
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Mt 27:19)
That’s all there is. One verse. Pilate’s wife wakes from a nightmare in which she has felt haunted by Christ, and terrified, sends a message to her husband. She fears for his life, it seems. Her message, that Christ is innocent, is the only word of truth spoken during the trial, aside from the words of Jesus himself.
In a sequence of events that includes the voices of King Herod, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the high priest, his father-in-law Annas, multiple chief priests and scribes, and the baying crowd, only one woman speaks. And her testimony is the only truthful word.
Has Mihály Munkácsy depicted Pilate’s wife in his mammoth canvas? It’s conceivable. By the 1880s, Pilate’s wife had been the subject of a series of legends and forgeries.
In various documents from the 3rd and 4th centuries onward, she is alternately named Procla, Procula, or Percula, or Claudia, and we are told that she and Pilate later converted to Christianity. The church father Origen, writing in his commentary on Matthew, says that God sent her the terrifying dream so that she would convert.
In the 1800s, shortly before this picture was painted, she had turned up in Anne Catherine Emmerich’s famous visions, and shortly after that, in an 1846 poem by Charlotte Bronte called Pilate’s Wife’s Dream.
Then in 1865, a sensation was caused when it was revealed that a letter, purportedly written by Pilate’s wife, had been discovered in, of all places, Slovenia. It’s not hard to imagine that in neighboring Hungary, Mihály Munkácsy heard the stories.
His depiction of Pilate’s wife (if indeed that’s who she is) is interesting. She is shown to be looking at Christ with compassion, almost belief. As the only female figure in the composition, and the only one expressing pity for Jesus, she acts as a foil to the other faces, intensifying by comparison their hatred and fury which envelopes her and Christ.
I think she is meant to be Pilate’s wife, but I also think Munkácsy is employing some symbolism here as well. I think he is using Pilate’s wife to depict of the spirit of the Christian faith. By symbolizing Christianity as a fragile young mother, who lovingly accepts Jesus, and perpetuates her faith through the medium of her child, Munkácsy is telling us that though Christ may die, his followers will carry his message to future generations.
In a room full of posturing, arrogant and self-interested men, only Christ and the woman rise above the fray. In the Gospels, she stands in a long parade of women, full of grace, truth and courage, some named, others nameless, who knew Christ’s full identity. While the church has struggled to acknowledge and truly hear the voices of the women in their midst, the female players in the Gospel story seem wiser than many of the men. In fact, as Marg Mowczko says, ”Not one woman says anything against Jesus in the Gospels, this includes Pilate’s wife.”
And these stories were written in the context of the highly patriarchal society of the early centuries of the Christian era. Remember, this was a time when Jewish men prayed this daily prayer of thanksgiving: “Praise be God that he has not created me a woman.”
Some Jewish writers of Jesus’ time, such as Philo, taught that women should never leave the home except to go to the synagogue. Indeed, while men were required to pray certain prayers daily, women were not. Neither were they allowed to study the Scriptures. Rabbi Eliezer, a first-century teacher, is noted for saying, “Rather should the word of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.”
But women studied at Jesus’ feet (Mary), traveled as part of his band of disciples (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna), publicly proclaimed him as king (the woman at the well, Martha) and were held up by him as models of faith (the woman who anointed him with oil, the bleeding woman).
A woman’s testimony was not regarded in a court of law at that time. Typically, Pilate dismisses his wife’s word to him. But it appears there nonetheless. How fitting that it should be a woman’s voice, and a pagan Roman one at that, that declares Jesus righteous amidst the din of false accusations and hatred.