Pilate Washing His Hands – Rembrandt


“The Pilate of the Altman Collection sets forth the tragedy of old age no longer willing or able to cope with forces stronger than itself. Outside the place where Pilate sits is the clamoring populace, watching him, clashing its weapons, determined not to be balked of its prey. And Pilate yields but washes his hands as a symbol of innocence, a sign that he does not give his assent. Thus Rembrandt’s version of the scene as far as I know, the only one that he attempted differs materially from the traditional version in which Christ is always present. Rembrandt did not want two principal figures in his drama and, characteristically, left out the Christ to make of the aged Pilate the tragic hero. The action is entirely between Pilate and the populace and, moreover, is but incidentally indicated. As we often find in the work of an artist’s late years of a Shakespeare or a Goethe in literature, of a Beethoven in music the focus of the action is an accessory, an almost trivial, incident. The washing of the hands is ceremoniously depicted. The most prominent figure is a splendidly dressed boy who, with a richly embroidered napkin thrown over his shoulder, is pouring water from a golden ewer upon Pilate’s hands. He has nothing whatever to do with the emotional content of the drama. In the figure of Pilate himself the brocaded mantle is almost more noticeable than the head. Nor is the significance made clear of the old man behind him who, with his white beard and his headband, reminds us of Rembrandt’s Homeric figures. He seems to be one of those dumb spectators that were introduced into some of the other pictures of Rembrandt’s old age, like the Prodigal Son at St. Peters-burg, merely to supply a contrast to that chief personage whose soul is torn by conflicting emotions. In the figure of Pilate, however, this conflict is scarcely more than suggested. In fact, there is nothing left of the dramatic passion of Rembrandt’s youth. All animated expression of emotion is foregone. Pilate, seeming but half conscious of the voices of those who are nearest him, his exhausted will-power swayed by indefinite suggestions, bends his head in dumb and tired surrender. What the picture expresses is the twilight mood of one who has already almost passed out of life, a last upflaring of dulled but predominantly tragic emotions, a speechless brooding in which the confused clangor of arms seems to sound from a far distance.”

This is Dr. Valentiner’s interpretation of the picture and all that it is necessary to add is its history so far as it is known. It comes from the collection of Lord Palmerston, in Broadlands, where it was in 1794. It later belonged to Lord Mount-Temple in the same place, and was bought by Mr. Sedelmeyer, the Paris dealer, in the late years of the last century, and sold to Rodolphe Kann, from whose collection Mr. Altman purchased it with eight other paintings in 1907.