Mihály Munkácsy undoubtedly reached the pinnacle of his career with The Christ Trilogy, even though the three paintings were only exhibited for the first time together almost 100 years after his death. When Munkácsy started to paint Christ before Pilate (Krisztus Pilátus előtt), in the summer of 1880, he was already working with one of the most successful art-dealers in Paris, Charles Sedelmeyer.
Sedelmeyer’s ambition to make Munkácsy known worldwide proved to be successful. It was he who regularly organised international exhibitions for Munkácsy’s newest works, and negotiated the sale of both commercial and reproductive rights of the paintings. Therefore the big Christ painting became the centre of the international attention even before its completion. After showing in Paris, England and Vienna, it was exhibited in Budapest at the beginning of 1882 when over 80 thousand people went to see it.
Munkácsy had already made drafts for a new Christ painting in 1881. The interesting thing about Golgotha was that it was finished by 1884, and the artist modelled the crucified Saviour after himself. We know this from contemporary photos, where the Marquis de Susa took a snap shot of the ‘crucified’ Munkácsy. The exhibition of Golgotha in Paris, Budapest and England attracted hundreds of thousands of people, just like the exhibition of the first Christ painting. The third picture of the trilogy was expected by most people to be a Resurrection scene, however Munkácsy was too busy with new orders throughout the 1880s. In 1895 he painted the altarpiece of the Andrássy Mausoleum in Tőketerebes (in current day Slovakia), on the basis of the central motif of Golgotha, but by this time his creative power had become very weak. Fighting illness, the artist completed the third part of the trilogy, Ecce Homo.
Despite the religious nature of Munkácsy’s Christ paintings, it would be difficult to imagine them as altarpieces, and instead they should be considered as socio-cultural genre compositions. The public was mesmerized by the enormous size, the hype surrounding their exhibition and the nature of the biblical events depicted. The secret to the works’ religious radiance is that Munkácsy brought the Saviour within touching distance, and drew the public into Christ’s story of suffering. He created a modern picture of Christ, that was tailored to the demands of the modern man searching for new forms of stimulation. Munkácsy provided both religious experience and mental pleasure. Even today, when competing with all sorts of multimedia, the paintings still have a strong effect on the onlooker.
The first two parts of the trilogy were bought by John Wanamaker during Munkácsy’s 1886-87 trip to the United States, and the paintings were almost permanently exhibited in his department store in Philadelphia. The works left the Wanamaker family’s ownership in 1988 and are now owned by a Canadian and an American-Hungarian. Ecce Homo was bought by Frigyes Déri in 1914, who then donated it to the Déri Museum of Debrecen in 1930, which he founded himself. The three paintings were exhibited together for the first time in 1995 when the first two parts of the trilogy came to the museum on loan. While the Déri Museum is being renovated, the National Gallery is giving a home to the trilogy where for the first time the main compositions are accompanied by drafts, studies and smaller sized versions.