Nikolai Ge’s 1890 painting “What is truth? Christ and Pilate” was banned from Russian exhibition in its time for blasphemy. The painting features a glowing Pilate, standing in the light, and across from him in the dark stands Jesus—dirty, unkempt, and covered in shadow.
The name for the painting comes from John’s account. Pilate questioned Jesus on whether or not He was a king, and Jesus replied that His kingdom was not of this world.
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.
In my mind, Nikolai Ge’s painting does what a lot of other paintings portraying this moment don’t do—it gives us a glimpse into the humiliation of Christ’s arrest. Here stands the fullness of God in human form, taking on the likeness of a slave, humbling Himself. Think for a moment on two words that I’ve just mentioned: humility and humiliation. One has honorable connotations, the other has shameful ones. We don’t typically think of Christ’s death as something shameful. The high priests’ actions were shameful. Judas’ actions were shameful. Pilate’s actions were shameful. But Jesus? His death was honorable, to the fullest degree.
And yet, think about it for a moment. The word humility is defined as being in a state of “taking a low view of one’s own importance.” Certainly, that describes Jesus’ actions. But what does humiliation mean? Its meaning is similar—it refers to making a fool of yourself or having someone else make a fool of you. This definition doesn’t seem far off from what took place during Christ’s trial. But we don’t typically think of Christ as making a fool out of himself. That seems close to blasphemy.
And yet, that’s exactly how Nikolai Ge’s painting seems to portray Jesus. If you didn’t know that it was Jesus standing there in front of Pilate, you’d probably say that he looked foolish. Just by looking at him, you might even be led to assume that he is deserving of whatever is about to come to him. But, since we know that the man standing there in the shadows is actually Jesus, we instead feel sorry for Him.
Nikolai Ge’s painting is important because it gets at something that we don’t typically like to think about. We want to think of Jesus’ death as noble, and honorable, and glorious—and indeed it was all of those things. But it was also humiliating. It was shameful. It was repulsive. To many who watched it—and to many still today—it was foolish. The Maker of all things took on mortal flesh and allowed himself to be humiliated to the point of death. If you think that sounds like blasphemy, you’re right—and yet, that’s exactly what happened.