Albrecht Dürer, Man of Sorrows by the Column, single-sheet engraving, 1509. Munich, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung

by Tiffany Torrence

Figure 1: Albrecht Dürer’s Ecce Homo in “Engraved Passion” series, 1507-1512

Figure 1: Albrecht Dürer’s Ecce Homo in “Engraved Passion” series, 1507-1512

Figure 2: Martin Schongauer’s Ecce Homo, 1480

Figure 2: Martin Schongauer’s Ecce Homo, 1480

Figure 3: Entourage of Master of Flemalle Man of Sorrows (c1430)

Figure 3: Entourage of Master of Flemalle Man of Sorrows (c1430)

Figure 4: Albrecht Dürer’s Man of Sorrows Seated (1515)

Figure 4: Albrecht Dürer’s Man of Sorrows Seated (1515)

Figure 5: Albrecht Dürer’s Man of Sorrows with Arms Outstretched (1500)

Figure 5: Albrecht Dürer’s Man of Sorrows with Arms Outstretched (1500)

This engraving by Albrecht Dürer displays devotional imagery associated with both the Man of Sorrows and Ecce Homo iconographies of Christ in late medieval and Renaissance art. Christ appears in the right foreground along with the symbols of the Passion, including the wounds, the crown of thorns, and the column and birch and rope scourges of the flagellation; these symbols, in addition to the figure’s pained, sorrowful expression and body language, are consistent with images of the Man of Sorrows type. However, the composition as a whole also exhibits characteristics associated with the Ecce Homo, a related but distinct devotional iconography. Typically, though not exclusively, Man of Sorrows images depict a bloody, agonized Christ from the waist up with the tools of flagellation and other symbols of the passion. Man of Sorrows figures may appear rising from a tomb, often supported by angels or other figures, or doubled over and sitting heavily on the open tomb or a rock. Rarely do images identified with the Man of Sorrows depict a full length figure that stands on his own without support, since the imagery is meant to emphasize Christ’s physical weakness and exhaustion from suffering.  Yet in Dürer’s composition we see a relatively serene, unbloodied Christ standing at full length on a raised platform, neither assisted nor surrounded by commiserating angels of saints.  Instead, a woman and man, ordinary devotees, positioned below him in the left middle ground gaze up reverently at him from a discrete distance. In the distant background above the heads of these figures, three crosses appear on the Calvary mount. While there are many variations on the Man of Sorrows iconography, this engraving seems to exhibit many iconographic elements associated instead with the Ecce Homo type. Ecce Homo, images usually position Christ’s full-length erect body in three quarter profile, as opposed to Man of Sorrows images, which emphasize half-length frontal views.  The Ecce Homo also typically elevates Christ above onlookers, placing him on a platform or stage that recalls Pilate’s act of displaying Christ to a large crowd. Man of Sorrows images, on the other hand, typically place the viewer and other figures depicted in the image more intimately in relation to Christ. In this image, Dürer, an enormously inventive and original artist, has strayed away from norms and created a hybrid didactic image intended as a personal devotional piece intended both to encourage the viewer’s empathy for the sufferings of the Man of Sorrows and to model the proper attitude of reverence for the implied by the command, Ecce Homo, to behold the man.[1]

As an artist, Albrecht Dürer was no stranger to the story of the Passion and is known for his innovative artistic and iconographic approaches. Dürer was an important painter, writer, and printmaker in the Northern Early Renaissance from 1471-1528.[2] He was famous for his engravings, and produced many different versions of the Passion of Christ series throughout his lifetime, in addition to many variations on the Man of Sorrows and Ecce Homo.[3] To fully appreciate Dürer’s merger of Ecce Homo and Man of Sorrows imagery in this engraving, it is necessary to consider the development of both types in other fifteenth century art and in Dürer’s own work. In Latin, Ecce Homo means “Behold the Man.” These are the words that Pontius Pilate spoke when he presented Christ to the Jews after the flagellation in John 19:5.[4] Many artists, including Dürer, represented this scene independently or in the Passion cycles. In Dürer’s Ecce Homo (Fig. 1), as part of the same series as our Man of Sorrows by the Column—the “Engraved Passion”— we see Christ is in a similar three-quarter profile elevated above the audience. In the background on the right appear the three crosses that will be used in the crucifixion. In another Ecce Homo from 1480 by Martin Schongauer—another innovative printmaker of the time— (Fig. 2), we see an elevated Christ in three quarter profile above an accusatory audience. These images, like Dürer’s Man of Sorrows by the Column, depict hunched, full-length figures in three-quarter profile elevated on a stepped platform above a group of onlookers.  However, it is clear from the wounds of Christ in the Man of Sorrows that this is the risen, crucified Chris.  Likewise, in the Man of Sorrows as opposed the Ecce Homo images, those who behold Christ are not critical of him. They are the ideal devotees showing their admiration and devotion to their savior in their rapt expressions and adoring poses.

While the Ecce Homo is based on an actual event that takes place in the Bible, the Man of Sorrows is medieval invention that served to arouse intense emotional responses in the viewer to image of Christ’s suffering. According to one legend, the iconography of the Man of Sorrows originated with a vision from St. Gregory the Great while performing the Eucharist.[5] The image served as a didactic and devotional tool to remind the viewer of the sufferings of Christ.[6] In part because the image itself is not dictated by the narrative of Scripture, Dürer and other artists were free to produce many variations on the type. A Man of Sorrows from 1430 by a follower of the Master of Flemalle (Fig. 3) represents a type common to fifteenth century art. The artist depicts a very bloody Christ wearing the crown of thorns and seated on an open tomb while flanked by weeping angels who gently touch his arms. He displays his crucifixion wounds by holding out his left hand and opening the wound on his side with his right hand.  Dürer displays a debt to this type in his Man of Sorrows Seated from 1515 (Fig. 4). Here he depicts a sorrowful Christ seated on the edge of a tomb with the tools of flagellation across his lap, the crown of thorns on his head, and the wounds from the crucifixion on His body. However, in his earlier Man of Sorrows with Arms Outstretched from 1500 (Fig. 5), Dürer depicts a full length Christ standing in a frontal pose next to vertical beam of the cross, displaying his wounds with various articles of the Passion scattered on the ground around him. A skull at the base of the cross refers to the Golgotha, “the place of the skull” and the location of the Crucifixion. These two subtly different images, both called Men of Sorrows, nevertheless have somewhat different meanings. The earlier image associates Christ with the place of his Crucifixion, his death, while the later image associated Christ with the place of his burial, the tomb, and hence his resurrection. In the image of the Man of Sorrows by the Column, there is a complete break in setting away from the sites associated with Christ’s Passion, death, burial, and resurrection.  Instead of the tomb or the mount, Dürer places Christ in an interior space on a raised platform that recalls the Ecce Homo iconography or, indeed, any stage of the Passion.

At the foot of the stage, the two worshipful devotees mirror the viewer outside the frame of the image. They instruct the viewer in the proper attitude of reverence and devotion to Christ.[7] The devotees in the image do not show mournful expressions, but instead direct awestruck, open mouthed, wide-eyed gazes towards the serene Christ. The viewer is perhaps meant to mimic the actions seen in the image. Perhaps, likewise, this image was meant to recall for the fifteenth century viewer not the narrative and setting of Christ’s Passion but the setting of the Passion plays whose performance was so important to medieval theatre and religious devotion.

Dürer was an innovator. He was not bound by tradition, and printmaking itself was not a tradition medieval artform. Print represented a new medium in fifteenth century art, with a broader and more popular audience than traditional forms of art. In part, Dürer’s innovations and variations on themes like the Man of Sorrows and Ecce Homo can be seen as a reflection of his desire to produce works that appealed to the masses in the novelty, their emotional intensity, and their reference to popular themes in contemporary culture.


[1] For more information on Ecce Homo and Man of Sorrows iconography, as well as other iconography related to the Passion, please see Haussherr, Reiner. “Passion Iconography in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance: A Study of the Transformation of Sacred Metaphor into descriptive Narrative.” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte 48, No. 2 (January 2, 1985): 265-270, Art Full Text (H. W. Wilson), ebscohost.

[2]  For more specific information about Dürer and his life, see Charles, Victoria, Dürer (New York, NY: Parkstone International, 2011).

[3] For more on the other Passion engravings, see Hass, A, “Two Devotional Manuals by Albrecht Dürer: The ‘Small Passion’ and the ‘Engraved Passion’: Iconography, Context, and Spirituality,” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte, Vol. 63, No. 2 (2000): 169-230.

[4] The Holy Bible, John 19:5

[5] To learn more about the Eucharist, St. Gregory’s vision, and the Man of Sorrows, see Miri Rubin’s Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[6] For more on how art was used to evoke a lasting, emotional response to the viewer, see Peter Parshall, “The Art of Memory and the Passion,” Art Bulletin 81 (3) 456-472. Parshall speaks to the idea that the more bloody and emotional the image, the more it sticks in the head of the viewer. He uses images of Man of Sorrows and the Passion to prove his points.

[7]Devotional images were popular in the Early Renaissance with the easily accessible, affordable prints of various religious scenes for people to hold, read, and look at while praying.  For more information on personal devotional images, see Wolff, Mary, “An Image of Compassion: Dieric Bouts’s ‘Sorrowing Madonna,’” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol 15, No. 2 (1989): 113-125.

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