Christ Crowned with Thorns by Antonello da Messina
Interpretation of Renaissance Portrait of Jesus

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Christ Crowned with Thorns
(Ecce Homo)
By Antonello da Messina.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Christ Crowned with Thorns (1470)


Interpretation of other Renaissance Paintings


Name: "Christ Crowned with Thorns" (Ecce Homo)
Date: 1470
Artist: Antonello da Messina (Antonello di Giovanni d'Antonio) (1430-79)
Medium: Panel painting executed in oil and tempera
Genre: Portrait Art
Movement: Early Renaissance painting
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of paintings by
Early Renaissance painters
like Antonello da Messina,
see our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Christ Crowned with Thorns by Antonello da Messina

The Sicilian painter Antonello di Giovanni d'Antonio, better known as Antonello da Messina, was one of the most innovative Old Masters active in southern Italy, during the era of Early Renaissance art (1400-90). In particular he was a pioneer of oil painting, a technique he absorbed as an apprentice under Niccolo Colantonio (c.1420-60/70). Colantonio himself was the finest indigenous artist of the Italian Renaissance in Naples, and an expert in the use of oils. He was also a devotee of Flemish painting and other schools of the Netherlandish Renaissance, and his busy workshop would almost certainly have introduced Antonello to the works of major Flemish painters, including Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) and Roger Van der Weyden (1400-64), along with those by important French Provencal masters, such as Enguerrand Quarton (1410-66). It is also possible that Messina may have met Van Eyck's successor Petrus Christus (1410-1475) in Milan in 1456. As exemplified by this sublime piece of Christian art, his early training enabled Antonello to combine a Netherlandish mastery of minute detail and unadorned reality, with the obsessions of Italian Renaissance art, namely sculptural modelling and the use of architectural picture space, as well as the humanist view that man is the measure of all things.

As the title makes clear, the painting depicts Christ as he appeared with the Crown of Thorns (Matthew 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2;) either just prior to, or at the moment when Pilate shows him to the people with the words "Ecce Homo" ("Behold the Man!") (John 19:5). The theme of "Christ Crowned with Thorns" also sometimes refers to "a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." (Isaiah 53:3)

In fact, between 1470 and 1475, Antonello produced four different versions of this Biblical theme, as well as an earlier version from the 1460s. The first is known as Christ Crowned with Thorns (1470, Metropolitan Museum, NYC). The second, is Ecce Homo (1472, Picture Gallery of Collegio Alberoni, Piacenza). The third is, Ecce Homo (1474, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The fourth is Ecce Homo (1475, National Gallery of the Palazzo Spinola, Genoa). The first - the subject of this article - is treated entirely differently from the other three, all of which are mere variations of the same design. The 1460s picture is one of a small, double-sided panel painting, now in a private collection. The reverse side contains a Netherlandish-style composition of St. Jerome in the Desert.

Antonello's Christ Crowned with Thorns (1470) is one of the most penetrating and evocative portrait paintings of Jesus known to art, more powerful even than the pain-racked Christ of the Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1515, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar) by Matthias Grunewald (c.1475-1528). In the picture, Jesus is given a typically rustic peasant face with a broad nose, and looks helplessly at the viewer, his mouth half-open in shock and anguish. His eyes seem to express a deeply-felt sorrow for what is to happen, and for the pain caused and endured by humanity. Some art critics regard this particular portrait as the quintessential humanist work of the Italian Renaissance, in which man-is-God-is-man.



Antonello never surpassed the power of this painting, although he produced several other wonderful Renaissance portraits, including Portrait of a Man (1475, National Gallery, London) and Condottiero (1475, Louvre, Paris).

NOTE: For another exceptional 'humanist' portrait of the Italian Renaissance, see: Old Man with a Young Boy (1490) by Domenico Ghirlandaio.

Antonello's only documented stay on the Italian mainland occurred in 1475-6 when he visited Venice where he had discussions with Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), the most influential figure of the Renaissance in Venice, often called the father of Venetian Painting (from 1450). After this he returned to Sicily, where he remained for the remainder of his comparatively short life.

Interpretation of other Renaissance Paintings

For an interpretation of other paintings of the Early Renaissance in Italy, see the following articles:

Battle of San Romano (1438-55) NG, London; Uffizi Florence; Louvre Paris.
By Paolo Uccello.

Annunciation (c.1450) Fresco, San Marco Museum, Florence.
By Fra Angelico.

Flagellation of Christ (1450-60) Tempera, Galleria Nazionale, Urbino.
By Piero della Francesca.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1470-80) Tempera, Pinacoteca Brera.
By Andrea Mantegna.


• For the analysis of other Renaissance portraits, see: Homepage.

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