04 April 2014

Art for Lent (31): ‘Ecce Homo’
by Patrick Pye

‘Ecce Homo’ by Patrick Pye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I got to know my friend and neighbour the artist Patrick Pye many years ago, while he was working from the Graphic Studio in Temple Bar and I was working in The Irish Times and we met regularly on the journey home on the late night 49 bus from the city centre.

I have chosen one of his works, his limited-edition etching ‘Ecce Homo’ as my choice this morning [4 April 2014] This etching, which was an ordination present from the artist, is inscribed ‘Ecce Homo’ in the bottom left corner, signed ‘P Pye’ in the lower right corner, and measures 26 cm x 21.5 cm (10.25 by 21.5 in).

The two words Ecce homo (“behold the man”) are the Latin words used by Pontius Pilate in the Vulgate translation of John 19: 5, when he presents a scourged Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd shortly before the Crucifixion.

The original Greek is Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος (Idou ho anthrōpos). The King James Version translates the phrase as “Behold the man!” The NRSV is less dramatic with: “Here is the man!”

The scene is widely depicted in Christian art, with well-known images including those by Hieronymus Bosch (1480s), Andrea Mantegna (1500), Correggio (16th century), Tintoretto (1546 and 1566/1567), Titian (1547) and Caravaggio (ca 1605/1606) and a sculpture attributed to El Greco in the Cathedral in Toledo. I also familiar with an anonymous ‘Ecce Homo’ that is the altarpiece in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

The artist Patrick Pye was born in Winchester in 1929, and was raised in Dublin. He started painting in 1943 under the sculptor Oisín Kelly, and later studied at the National College of Art in Dublin.

In 1957, he received a scholarship to attend the Jan Van Eyck Academy in the Netherlands, where he began working with stained glass under Albert Troost.

In 1973, he began etching at the Graphic Studio in Dublin, and he has had many solo exhibitions in Dublin. He has completed many major commissions on religious themes, including Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick; the Church of the Resurrection, Belfast; the Convent of Mercy, Cookstown, Co Tyrone (1965); Fossa Chapel, Killarney (1977); a triptych illustrating the expulsion from the Garden of Eden at Bank of Ireland headquarters (1981); and Stations of the Cross for Ballycasheen Church in Killarney, Co Kerry (1993).

His recent commissions include an altarpiece, stained glass windows and roundels for a church at Claddaghmore, Co Armagh (1997-98); a crucifix for Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Drogheda (1999); ‘The Life of Our Lady,’ a six-panel painting on copper for the North Cathedral, Cork (1999); ‘The Transfiguration,’ a 10-ft wall-hanging for Saint Mary’s Oratory, NUI Maynooth (2000); and ‘The Baptism of Christ,’ an oil painting for a church in at Drumbo, Belfast.

The Royal Hibernian Academy exhibited ‘Triptychs and Icons,’ a retrospective of his work, in 1997.

Since the millennium, a large painting, ‘Theologian in his Garden,’ has been acquired by Saint Thomas’s University, St Paul, Minnesota, for its Centre of Catholic Studies. In 2005, Patrick Pye received a DPhil from Maynooth University. He is a founding member of Aosdána.

In Patrick Pye: Life and Work, Brian McAvera argues that Pye, “far from being on the periphery, is central to the Irish tradition and that he, along with a number of other English-born artists long resident in Ireland such as Camille Souter, reinvigorated the Irish tradition.”

Patrick Pye is a also a man of deep personal faith, a devout Roman Catholic who wants to reinvigorate contemporary religious painting. His influences include John Piper, who designed the East Window in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, ‘Christ in Majesty’ (1984), Graham Sutherland (including his tapestry in Coventry Cathedral), Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Paul Gauguin and El Greco.

In his childhood, Patrick Pye was influenced by Graham Sutherland’s decision to become a Roman Catholic, while Stanley Spencer’s visionary quality of bringing the Bible into the present provides a parallel to Patrick Pye’s work.

He is also one of the great living experts on El Greco. He has particularly admired El Greco work for many years, and has been deeply influenced by him.

The 400th Centenary of the death of El Greco is being marked this year with a series of major exhibitions in Toledo and Madrid, ‘The Greek of Toledo.’ This presents Crete’s greatest artist as a leading figure in the history of European art. El Greco’s work influenced modern painters including Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Picasso and the early Cubists, as well as 20th century Expressionist movements in Europe and America.

Patrick Pye’s book, The Time Gatherer, is an extended meditation on the work of El Greco: In this book, he explores the way El Greco’s faith and theological vision become real in the context of his painting. He explains how an artist resolves the fundamental issue of religious painting: How do I represent a reality, a mystery that ultimately transcends all representation? How do I point to, evoke that reality effectively in paint? How have others so resolved it and how can I?

Patrick Pye faces the same questions that El Greco faced. And he writes of El Greco’s influence on modern art: “The rediscovery of El Greco did not come from Christians, but from the Romantics, the last people who tried to hold sense and sensibility together. Then he was discovered by the Post-impressionists, who were trying to create a new visual language.

“They saw in him the Old Master who had the greatest sensitivity to real problems of formal language as the artist understands them. It remains for our generation to place him squarely in the tradition of European Christian art.”

Tomorrow:The Death of Socrates’ (1787), by Jacques-Louis David.

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