(b. ca. 1450, 's-Hertogenbosch, d. 1516, 's-Hertogenbosch)
Tempera and oil on oak panel, 71 x 61 cm
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
Among the works generally ascribed to Bosch's first period of activity (c. 1470-85) may be included several small biblical scenes: the Epiphany (Adoration of the Magi) in Philadelphia, the Ecce Homo in Frankfurt (with a related version in Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) and an altar wing in Vienna, the Christ Carrying the Cross. Their early date is suggested by their relatively simple compositions and their adherence to traditional compositional types.
In the Ecce Homo, crowned with thorns and his flesh beaten raw by the scourge, Christ stands with Pilate and his companions before the angry mob. The dialogue between Pilate and the crowd is indicated by the Gothic inscriptions. From the mouth of Pilate issue the words Ecce Homo (Behold the Man). There is no need to decipher the inscription Crufige Eum (Crucify Him), the cry which rises from the people below; their animosity is unmistakably conveyed by their facial expressions and threatening gestures. The third inscription Salve nos Christe redemptor (Save us, Christ Redeemer) once emerged from two donors at lower left, but their figures have been painted over. The heathen character of the men surrounding Christ is suggested by their strange dress and headgear, including pseudo-oriental turbans. The scene's essential wickedness is further indicated by such traditional emblems of evil as the owl in the niche above Pilate and the giant toad sprawled on the back of a shield carried by one of the soldiers. In the background appears a city square, the Turkish crescent fluttering from one of its towers. The enemies of Christ have been identified with the power of Islam which in Bosch's day, and long afterwards, controlled the most holy places of Christendom. The buildings, however, are late Gothic; only the oddly bulging tower in the distance evokes a feeling of far-off places.
The Dutch character of this early work is unmistakable. The homely faces and animated gestures of Christ's tormentors recall Passion scenes in Dutch manuscripts of the second and third quarters of the fifteenth century, where we encounter similar physical types, slight in proportion, flatly modelled and often unsubstantial beneath their heavy robes.