Quod Est Veritas?

By: alexanderlewin

Mar 27 2016

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Category: art, Art History, Literature, New Testament

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Perhaps the most famous of the nineteenth-century pictures [of Christ and Pilate] appeared in 1890 in Russia, where Tolstoy was its champion.  He first saw it in the form of a sketch which Nikolay Gay senior brought to his country estate at Yasnaya Polyana in January that year.  The weather was bitter, and Tolstoy was sleeping badly; he was distressed by the unfavourable reviews of The Kreutzer Sonata.  Each morning he trudged down through the snow to the school his daughter Masha had founded in a gardener’s cottage on the estate, in order to chop logs and light the stove.  He then drank coffee, wrote and revised his comedy The Fruits of Enlightenment, and went sledging with the children on old benches.  Into this white implacable landscape, marked with the straggling skeletons of orchards and birch trees, Gay carried his sketch of Jesus and Pilate in a briefcase.  ‘Very good,’ Tolstoy noted in his diary, and returned to his struggles with the stove.
In spring the finished picture arrived. The leaves were bright green on the birch trees, and at the base of the gleaming white trunks the earth lay in ruts and pools where the carriages had passed. Overhead, the sky was the washed blue of an eggshell; beyond, the wind sighed in the forest trees. Seated in his carriage, with his painting wrapped up on the seat beside him, Gay bumped down the muddy drive towards Tolstoy’s house. The great writer had written to him, telling him that he longed to know how the picture had been received. Although he had not seen it in a finished state, he could not stop thinking about it.
In fact, the painting had caused a scandal. It had been hung at the Wanderers’ Exhibition in St Petersburg that year, but had occasioned such an uproar that it was taken down on the tsar’s orders
and banned from further showings in Russia. It was subversive because it showed Jesus, unkempt and fiery, flattening himself against the wall like a rat about to spring; and because it showed Pilate as a sleek, contemptible, impervious figure, every tsar facing every rebel who had only his beliefs to sustain him.
The picture was called ‘What is Truth?’ It represented the moment when Pilate , invited to consider ‘a kingdom not of this world’, had flung out his infamous retort. It was, wrote Tolstoy, ‘the most simple motif: Christ and his teaching in conflict with the teaching of the world.’ It was a theme that had obsessed Tolstoy ever since, in 1881, he had written to the new tsar Alexander III expressing the hope that ‘out of Christian love and forgiveness’ he would pardon the young revolutionaries who had murdered his father. Alexander had found it too hard. Now, in Gay’s painting, Tolstoy saw another ruler who could not understand that love and truth might be applied to government. Passive resistance baffled Pilate; brute force was all he recognised. ‘With a laugh and a contemptuous gesture, he throws the words carelessly at him…and, evidently considering his remark decisive, goes out to the crowd…’
Tolstoy then turned to the governor’s body language: the plump back and the gesturing arm that took up most of the foreground of the painting. He saw there, alongside ‘all the dignity of that Roman figure’, ‘a slavish anxiety about himself: the mean trepidation of a petty soul’. For all the toga and the height and the majesty, Pilate was the little man and Jesus the man who towered; Jesus was the brave one, while Pilate was afraid.
This delighted Tolstoy. He embraced Gay, kissed him effusively, and decided then and there to become a champion of the painting, which he believed all the cultured classes of the western powers should see. Eventually he persuaded P.M. Tretyakov, a famous collector, to buy the picture for his gallery in Moscow and, since it could no longer be publicly exhibited in Russia, to send it on tour to Europe and America. Tolstoy wrote to George Kennan, an American journalist who worked in Siberia for Western Union, to explain the picture’s vital importance:

Pilate is a Roman governor, similar to our Siberian governors of whom you know; he lives only for the interests of his mother-country and, of course, reacts with contempt and a certain disgust to those disturbances – religious disturbances to boot – among the coarse, superstitious people he governs.
At this point a conversation occurs in which the good-natured governor has to lower himself en bon prince to the barbarous interests of his subjects and, as is natural to important people, he has formed an idea of what he is going to to ask and he himself speaks first, without any interest in the answers; with a smile of condescension, I imagine, he keeps saying: ‘So you are a king?’

This was not just ancient Jerusalem for Tolstoy; it was clearly also the anteroom of a palace in his Russia, where peasants in tunics and grandmothers in scarves, anxious perhaps about eviction or the price of bread, waited on hard benches. Or it was a room where a heavily-medalled army commander and his casually smoking sidekicks dealt with a conscientious objector, one who objected perhaps to firing on demonstrators.

Jesus is exhausted and one look at this well-groomed, self-satisfied figure, dulled by his luxurious life, is sufficient to understand the gulf which divides them, and how impossible or enormously difficult it is for Pilate to understand his teaching.  But Jesus remembers that even Pilate is a man and a brother, a lost one, but still a brother, and that he doesn’t have the right not to reveal to him the truth which he reveals to people, and he begins to speak.  But Pilate stops him at the word truth.  What can a ragged beggar, a mere youth, tell him, the friend and companion of Roman poets and philosophers – about truth?

One look at these marble floors, these ceiling panels, the tailcoats of the flunkeys who open the doors, will convince these people that the problems which eat up their days are not worth pursuing; just as a little staged contempt, with the well-polished riding boots kicked up on the desk and a laughing flick of the newspaper, will show the political dissenters what their arguments are worth.

He’s not interested in listening to all the rubbish which this little Jew might tell him, and it is even rather disagreeable that this vagrant can imagine that he can instruct a Roman dignitary; so he stops him immediately, and points out to him that people more intelligent, more learned, more refined than himself and his Jews have thought about the word and have decided long ago that it’s impossible to know what truth is, and that truth is an empty word. Having said ‘What is truth?’ and turned on his heel, the good-natured and self-satisfied governor leaves the room. And Jesus feels sorry for the man and is terrified because of the gulf of lies which separates him and people like him from the truth…

The picture was not a success in Germany or in America. Tolstoy blamed the failure on lack of proper advertising, but there was a culture-gap at work too. Pilate, Tolstoy told Kennan, ‘is what a governor should be now in…Massachusetts.’ But he was wrong. Nowhere in America, outside the deep South where a rebellious black might have faced a white governor, was there the same yawning gulf between rulers and ruled as persisted in Russia; and perhaps nowhere else in the industrialised world was government so easily reinforced by violence. Tolstoy felt he knew many Pilates; the character was still as fresh and menacing as Gay had painted him. But to the bourgeoisie of Philadelphia, where Gay’s painting was shown, he was inert and historical.
Gay went on refining his thoughts about the passion, and about Pilate, for years. He began to think that power might be better depicted without a human body at all; a figure in a toga was almost too cultured, too leisurely, as Tolstoy had said. In 1893 he produced a painting called ‘Golgotha’, in which the governor, pronouncing sentence, is reduced to a scrawny pointing hand that comes in from the left of the frame. The hand and the arm, though naked, represent pure power and brute force. Before it, Jesus shrivels up, and the two thieves shrink back in despair. Yet the oppression is almost disembodied.

Nikolai Ge_Golgotha

Sixty years earlier, Turner had had the same idea.
In ‘Pilate Washing his Hands‘, painted in 1830, the governor has disappeared completely and only power is left: the square back of the golden chair, an explosion of light like ectoplasm, and the desperately pleading faces of the crowd. There is no more banter, no more condescension. Instead there is something elemental, like a storm or like the sea, which not only does not listen but, caught up in its own noise, is incapable of doing so.


Ann Wroe, from Pilate,
The Biography of an Invented Man
Random House 1999



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