Last Updated on May 27, 2024

The Museo Nacional del Prado presents “The lost Caravaggio,” a masterpiece Ecce Homo by the Italian painter. Thanks to the generosity of its new owner, Ecce Homo by Caravaggio will be on display at the Museo Nacional del Prado, in a special one-piece exhibition, in room 8 A from 28 May until 13 October 2024.        

Painted by the great Italian artist around 1605-09 and believed to have once been part of the private collection of Phillip IV of Spain, the painting is one of around only 60 known works by Caravaggio in existence, and thus one of the most valuable old master artworks in the world. This painting enriches the permanent collection of the Museo Nacional del Prado, which holds one of the few works by the master in a Spanish collection, David and Goliath, a painting that has recovered its colours and original contrasts after its restoration. 

Since the Prado Museum alerted Spain’s Ministry of Culture of the relevance of the painting when it reemerged at Ansorena auction house in April 2021 attributed to a pupil of José de Ribera, the work has been under the custodianship of the art gallery Colnaghi, in collaboration with Filippo Benappi (Benappi Fine Art) and Andrea Lullo (Lullo Pampoulides).

Ecce Homo Restoration

The painting was restored by specialist Andrea Cipriani and his team under the supervision of experts from the Comunidad de Madrid regional government. The results of this intricate process are featured in a comprehensive publication alongside texts by expert specialists including Keith Christiansen, Gianni Papi, Giuseppe Porzio and Maria Cristina Terzaghi, to be released to coincide with the unveiling.

Since its reappearance at auction three years ago, Ecce Homo has represented one of the greatest discoveries in the history of art, inspiring an unprecedented speed of consensus around its authentication. Following an in-depth diagnostic investigation by Claudio Falcucci – a nuclear engineer specialising in applying scientific techniques to the study and conservation of cultural heritage – restoration has been carried out in an informed and rigorous manner, allowing each decision to be based on an exhaustive assessment of the work’s constituent materials, their specific alteration processes, and the painting’s conservation history, reaffirming this initial attribution to the Italian master.

The unveiling of the Ecce Homo and the announcement of this loan – an act of generosity by its new owner – is accompanied by a collaborative publication bringing together leading experts in the field with seminal essays by Christiansen, Papi, Porzio and Terzaghi, bearing testament to the work’s monumental importance. Titled “Caravaggio: The Ecce Homo Unveiled,” it offers an essential starting point for the understanding of this new addition to Caravaggio’s oeuvre.

Specialist interpretation of the painting carried out by Maria Cristina Terzaghi (full professor in History of Modern Art at University Roma Tre and member of the scientific committee of Museo di Capodimonte in Naples), Gianni Papi (art historian and author), Giuseppe Porzio (art history professor at the University of Naples L’Orientale and member of the scientific committees of Pio Monte della Misericordia and Royal Palace in Naples) and Keith Christiansen (curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art) is included in the publication, each moving along different trajectories. Specifically: the circumstances of its discovery, the provenance, the stylistic, technical and iconographic aspects of the work, its critical fortune and the legacy left by the master in Naples. Four of the most authoritative experts on Caravaggio and Baroque painting, they all share the same passionate certainty: that Ecce Homo is a masterpiece by the Italian artist.

About Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo Painting

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi, 1571-1610)
Ecce Homo
Oil on canvas, 1606-1609
Private collection

In the final days before Christ’s death by crucifixion, known as the Passion, he was arrested and tormented by Roman soldiers. After the flagellation, Jesus was brought before the Roman governor in Judea, Pontius Pilate. According to the Gospel of Saint John (19:2-5), Christ was presented to the crowd wearing a crown of thorns, a reed sceptre and purple robe. Arranged and dressed by his tormentors, each item symbolically mocks Christ’s claim to be King of the Jews. With the words “Behold the man!” (“Ecce homo”), Pilate announced the pitiful sight, showing Christ’s suffering.

The figure closest to the viewer, leaning emphatically over the balcony parapet, is Pilate. Engaging both the implied crowd and the viewer directly, Pilate is racked with indecision. Finding no evidence for the charge against him, the Roman governor hands Jesus’s fate to the crowd and he is condemned to die by shouts of “Crucify him!”.

Brightly illuminated with the dramatic chiaroscuro typical of Caravaggio’s style, Christ occupies the centre of the composition. Vivid spots of blood echo the rich crimson of the robe mockingly draped across his shoulders by the soldier, contrasting his pale flesh. Sorrowful and resigned, Christ is caught in the middle of this tightly arranged group, positioned diagonally across the picture plane by the artist, with Christ’s reed sceptre drawing the viewer’s eye in the same direction. The final figure looms behind Christ with an open mouth, perhaps shouting to the crowd, heightening the sense of drama and indecision.

Sharp points of white paint in his eyes convey turbulent emotions, but it’s unclear whether he is moved by hatred, panic or pity. The three characters each recall models used by Caravaggio in earlier paintings, their dramatic gestures characteristic of the artist’s preferred method for communicating narrative.

About the Artist

Caravaggio had to flee Rome, where he had gained fame as a painter, after fatally wounding a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni in 1606 during a dispute. To avoid the death penalty associated with the crime, the painter departed the city in May 1606, heading to Naples.

Following a series of successful commissions, the artist travelled to Malta in 1607 and became a knight of the Order of Saint John. After little more than a year in Malta, Caravaggio departed suddenly, perhaps following the discovery of his criminal background. He then went to Sicily, and back to Naples, hoping to receive news on a possible pardon.

The Ecce Homo was painted during those troubled years and reflects the tension of a fugitive working desperately, pleading to be allowed back home to Rome. It demonstrates how his later work had developed into a quicker and more concise style compared to previous years, but never lacking precision in the details.

Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo is strongly connected to the history of Spanish collecting. Although it is not known for whom and when it was painted, it appears for the first time with a fair degree of certainty in 1631, amongst the assets of Juan de Lezcano, a secretary to the Spanish viceroy in Naples. Successively, and with absolute certainty, in 1657 it belonged to the Count of Castrillo, viceroy of Naples from 1653 to 1659.

Sent to Madrid, the painting went to Philip IV and in 1666 it was at the Real Alcázar. It stayed in the Royal Collection, and was at the Casa de Campo in 1789. Later on, it belonged to Manuel Godoy, prime minister of Charles IV, and it passed to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in the early nineteenth century, with part of Godoy’s paintings collection.

In 1823, this institution exchanged it for a work by Alonso Cano with the politician Evaristo Pérez de Castro, from whose successors it has been acquired by the current owner.

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