Beauty is an act of resistance. Ruth Naomi Floyd

Mark Wallinger: Ecce Homo

ArtWay Visual Meditation July 1, 2018

Mark Wallinger: Ecce Homo

A Model for All Humanity

by Nigel Halliday

Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo has been shown in various contexts, but its origin was as a site-specific installation for the famous Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, the first in the series of works by different artists that has occupied that space. 

Invited to make the work in 1999 as a ‘Millennium project’, Wallinger originally understood that his work might occupy the plinth in perpetuity. Subsequently the plan emerged to exhibit a new work there every 18 months or so. But nothing, in my view, has subsequently matched up to the power of this work. How wonderful it would have been if Wallinger’s understanding had been correct.

Ecce Homo is a life-size figure of a man, cast in a sanded polyester resin, which has the whiteness of marble but is more resilient in the face of the British weather. Its whiteness sets it in contrast to the black bronze of the other sculptures in the square and suggests the innocence of the victim. His hands are bound behind his back. As such he can stand for all the suffering and mistreated of the world. But the crown, created in modern-day barbed wire rather than thorns, identifies him as Jesus, bound and flogged, now presented by Pilate to the crowds.    

When Trafalgar Square was first laid out in 1840s the plinths in three corners were quickly filled by sculptures of King George IV on horseback and two military commanders from Britain’s Indian Empire, General Charles Napier and Major-General Henry Havelock. The fourth plinth was intended for a figure of another king, William IV, but the money ran out and for 150 years the plinth stood empty, before the current policy of temporary installations was started.


When Rembrandt painted his Ecce Homo (1634, London: National Gallery) he invented a huge column with the bust of Caesar (at the right), casting Jesus and Caesar in similar poses, so one could draw the comparison between worldly power and glory – enshrined in stone but ultimately transient – and spiritual power and glory, enshrined in the flesh of the eternal God-man.

Wallinger does not have to invent the context: the other sculptures in the square create it for him. The bombastic depictions of military power and empire are rendered hollow by the quiet presence of the physically vulnerable but all-powerful God-man.

Wallinger describes himself as a former atheist, now an agnostic. To him the figure of Jesus expresses sympathy with those unjustly suffering. He said at the time of the original exhibition that he wanted to emphasize the humanity of Jesus, ‘a guy being handed over to a lynch mob. I wanted something that reflected back on issues to do with power.’ Jesus is presented as an oppressed individual, symbolic of the many millions who suffer at the hands of unjust and corrupt powers.

However, the Ecce Homo scene is just one episode in a full drama. Jesus does not stop at expressing sympathy for the poor and the oppressed: he comes to set them free through the path of weakness and self-sacrifice on the cross. Jesus is in the process of achieving the greatest victory in the history of the world, far greater than those that built Britain’s great but passing empire. This, not thrones or armies, is the true power at work in the world.

As we look at Ecce Homo we can also remember the wonderful irony of what Pilate says. ‘Ecce homo’ is the Latin translation of what Pilate says as he displays Jesus to the crowd: ‘Behold the man.’ These words invite the crowds to see how weak the tortured figure of Jesus is and to question why they are so vehemently opposed to him. But Pilate also unwittingly points to another truth: Jesus is ‘the man’, the true man, more wonderfully and perfectly human than any of us, the model for all humanity. And he is so in the midst of his weakness and suffering, not in spite of it.    

Just as Pilate presented Jesus to the crowds, so Wallinger presents him in Trafalgar Square, which is often the scene of chanting crowds and demonstrations. How wonderful it would have been to have permanently at the centre of the city this understated but vivid reminder of an alternative power, another way to win, through loving self-sacrifice for others.


Mark Wallinger: Ecce Homo, 1999, polyester resin, life-size.

Mark Wallinger (born 1959) is a British artist, best known for his sculpture for the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, Ecce Homo (1999) and State Britain (2007), a recreation at Tate Britain of Brian Haw's protest display outside parliament. He won the Turner Prize in 2007. He is a studio holder at The Bomb Factory Art Foundation in Archway, North London. (wikpedia, read more)

To read what Laurel Gasque wrote about Rocking Horse Boy by Elmgreen and Dragset that was on the same plinth for the London Olympics in 2012, click here.



1. SYMPOSIUM - 5 September – 8 September, Durham, NC, USA: A Symposium on the Future of Theology and the Arts, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts. Theology and the arts is one of the fastest growing fields of research and innovation for the church worldwide. Next year, DITA will mark a decade of pioneering scholarship in theology and the arts with a symposium that builds on that work and launches a fresh conversation. Join us as we celebrate ten years, reflect on today, and look toward tomorrow with a three-day symposium on theology and the arts. The Church, the Academy, and You.

2. CALL FOR PAPERS – Future for Religious Heritage (FRH) is delighted to announce its sixth biennial international conference from 11th to 13th of October 2018 in Paris, France. The conference will provide a forum for both policy debate and exchange of knowledge amongst professionals in the field of heritage and culture. The event will provide participants with the unique opportunity to discuss pre-eminent questions, in line with the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 themes. FRH calls for abstracts of best practice examples in one or more of the following topics: Public engagement; Uses of places of worship (extended/new/mixed/increased uses); Maintenance. Submit a written abstract of no more than 400 words in English or French, along with your title, name, role, institutional affiliation of the author(s) and contact information. Abstracts should be submitted as a Word or PDF document by the 31st of August 2018 via: Please check the FRH conference website page for more information and the latest updates.

3. INFINITE GRACE: AN ARTIST’S WORKSHOP & RETREAT WITH MAKOTO FUJIMURA – Makoto Fujimura and Fujimura Fellows will lead an art intensive, two-day workshop surrounding the use of Japanese Gofun (pulverized oyster shell) Nihonga technique. The workshop will include studio mentoring and collaborative discussion exploring ideas surrounding the Theology of Making and Culture Care issues connected with the process of art making. Public artist's talks & lectures on Friday and Saturday (Aug. 24 & 25) will give an opportunity for a larger audience to share in this discussion and exploration. An exhibition of Makoto Fujimura’s works will be open from early August 2018- end of September 2018 at the Community of Jesus, Orleans, MA. To contact us, please email or call 508-240-7090.

4. FRANCE - LA NUIT DES EGLISES – À partir du 30 juin et jusqu'au 7 juillet 2018 aura lieu pour la 8ème édition de La Nuit des églises, un évènement proposé par l’Église catholique en France qui d’année en année prend sa place dans le calendrier des activités annuelles.

5. NEW GERMAN BOOK – Johann Anselm Steiger, Bibelauslegung durch Bilder. Zur sakralen Intermedialität im 16. bis 18. Jahrhundert. Das Buch erscheint in der Reihe “Kunst und Konfession in der Frühen Neuzeit“. Wenige Bücher bieten so interessanten und erstaunlichen Stoff wie der Band von Johann Anselm Steiger Bibelauslegung durch Bilder. Zur sakralen Intermedialität im 16. bis 18. Jahrhundert. Er enthält Aufsätze zu ausgewählten Kunstwerken reformatorischer Zeit. Dadurch entsteht eine Sammlung historischer Fallstudien, die jeweils anhand eines konkreten Kunstwerks zeigen, wie Bibel, Bild und Kontext zusammenwirken. So wird Neues und Innovatives zutage gefördert: Dass auf einem Lübecker Gemälde der Reformationszeit beim Jüngsten Gericht der Ablasshandel kritisiert und der Papst in den Abgrund gestürzt wird, gehört zur papst(kirchen)kritischen Bildmotivik. Der Papst ist nicht der einzige Gegner: Auch ein Mann mit Turban, bei dem es sich um den Sultan des Osmanischen Reiches, Süleyman I. handeln kann, stürzt in den Abgrund. Er zeigt die von den Zeitgenossen empfundene Bedrohung durch das Osmanische Reich und die Türkenkriege. Ein dritter Gegner ist Kaiser Karl V., dessen auf Rekatholisierung zielende Religionspolitik kritisch ins Bild gebracht wird. Die erste erhaltene lutherische Kanzel mit Inschriften und Bildprogramm stammt bereits aus dem Jahr 1533/34, ist also noch zu Lebzeiten Luthers entstanden – das zeigt ein anderer Beitrag. Eines der schönsten und anrührendsten Grabdenkmäler ist das für die im Kindbett verstorbene Maria Magdalene Langhans aus der Kirche von Hindelbank bei Bern: Der Aufsatz zu diesem Monument enthält eine lesenswerte Interpretation von Bild und Text. Ein wichtiges Buch für alle, die sich für frühneuzeitliche Kunst und das bisher wenig erforschte Miteinander und Ineinandergreifen von Bild und Text in dieser spannenden Zeit interessieren. Mehr

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