Albrecht Dürer was the greatest and most innovative printmaker of the Renaissance. A native of Nuremberg, Germany, he had established an international reputation by the beginning of the sixteenth century with the publication of the woodcut series, the Apocalypse. In Dürer’s hands the woodcut came to rival the technique of engraving in its subtle modeling and intricate detail, and he was able to achieve an even greater refinement in his engravings.
Pilate Washing his Hands is one of the fourteen prints of the Engraved Passion series. Unlike Dürer’s two woodcut versions of the Passion, these engravings were not accompanied by devotional text. This, together with the complex detail of the prints, suggests that the series was intended for art collectors interested in aesthetic contemplation as much as in religious meaning. One’s attention is first drawn to the central figure of the servant in his outlandish costume. Over time, however, the more important elements of the narrative reveal themselves: Pilate washing his hands on the left, and Christ being led away to be crucified on the right. Finally, at the upper right, one discovers the three crosses of Golgotha rise in the distance. It was this narrative sophistication combined with his skillful manipulation of light and shadow that made Dürer’s engravings highly desirable to connoisseurs and widely copied by his contemporaries.