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Munkácsy's Studies for the Trilogy

For more than one and a half decades Munkácsy's three monumental Christ paintings have been exhibited together in Debrecen (Hungary), something that not even the painter himself ever saw, but most probably imagined several times. But it is the very first time that the series has come together in Budapest, even though it didn't begin its life as a trilogy. The events depicted in the paintings are not in chronological order as the last painted, Ecce Homo is the second in the series, and Golgotha comes after this. Originally Munkácsy wanted to paint only one New Testament scene, and after long period of consideration he decided on the moment of Christ before Pilate. The success of this made him to decide to paint the most tragic scene of the story of suffering: the Crucifixion. In a painter's mind one painting is often derived from another, and so it was that ten years after he finished Golgotha he was working on the painting Strike (Sztrájk) when he recognised what challenges were still in front of him in terms of portraying the human soul: the brutal, screaming crowd, which is much more than refusing to work, instead it is denial of faith, of humanity, of the best of a man. The mass psychosis, the crowd's behaviour, its controllability and uncontrollability, mass manipulation - as the basic formula of modern civilization - became a bigger and bigger theme in his compositions. This makes the Munkácsy trilogy modern, and as such it is equally important today as it was when first painted in the 19th century. Crowds went on pilgrimage to see the Christ paintings, were shocked to see their own brutal caricature and recognised their defencelessness as the mob. They found themselves leaving the exhibition as purified individuals just like the Christ figure.

This is the first time that we can see what profound and long hours were put into the works, how much artistic preparation and thoughts preceded the creation of the final paintings. The starting point was Rembrandt, whose copper engravings Munkácsy was leafed through in the evenings. The construction of the scenes, the proportion, the focal points, the deeply empathic approach that are characteristic of the studies exhibited, shows how close Munkácsy got to Rembrandt's world. One can find drawings in Munkácsy's sketchbooks that show inspiration from these engravings, particularly images of people mocking Jesus and of Jesus as a healer. But when he discovered the scene of Christ before Pilate, that showed the Son of God drawing strength from his faith when in the hands of the Sanhedrin, the Roman governor and the brutal crowd, yet still untouchable by them, Munkácsy turned all his attention to make the scene as elaborate as possible. The pictures are as monumental as Tintoretto's frescos in the Scuola di San Rocco, and as expressive as Daumier's brutally realistic work. All this is shown simultaneously and together for the first time on two big cartoon drawings, the Christ before Pilate and Golgotha. The 4 x 7 metre drawings display an extreme ability of concentration, solid form perception and outstanding drawing skills. Every single stroke is Munkácsy's work, as no apprentices, assistants or colleagues collaborated. Munkácsy faced the enormous sheet of paper alone so he could only rely on his own strength of mind, imagination, artistic knowledge and faith. He is justified by the results.