Maurycy (Moshe David) Gottlieb (1856-1879) was born to an affluent Jewish family in Drohobycz, in Galicia, Poland, then under Austro-Hungarian rule. At age 13, he studied at the art school in Lemberg, and when he was 16, he enrolled at the Academy of Art in Vienna. In 1874 he was accepted at the Academy of Art in Cracow. Until his premature death at 23, he spent short periods in Cracow, Vienna, Munich and Rome.
The salient influence on Gottlieb's art was his teacher, Polish painter Jan Matejko (1838-1893), who lived in Kracow, a Polish nationalist stronghold at the time. A patriot steeped in the culture, language and literature of the country, Matejko chose historic events in Polish history as the subject matter of his paintings.
In his short life, Maurycy Gottlieb painted many paintings on a variety of subjects: genre - Jewish Wedding and Yom Kippur; literary motifs, - Shylock and Jessica (Shakespeare), Uriel da Costa and Yehudit (Karl Gutzkow), Faust (Goethe); illustrations for "Nathan the Wise" (Lessing), "Yankel and Zusha" (from Pan Tadeusz by A. Mickiewicz), and more; portraits – Kuranda, head of the Jewish community of Vienna and the artist's patron, Wahrmann, Laura, his beloved , a self-portrait, and portraits of his family, teacher, and friends. His portrait subjects recur repeatedly in his historical paintings and monumental works: Yom Kippur, Jesus Preaching, and Jesus before his Judges. In the latter and last in the collection, the figure standing to the right of and behind Jesus is Gottlieb himself. Caiaphas the High Priest is his teacher Matejko, and the woman in light dress seated in the gallery is Laura, the artist's lover.
Maurycy Gottlieb's talent and erudition earned him early recognition in the Polish society to which he sought so fervently to belong. Yet, he suffered the barbs of anti-Semitism.
In her comprehensive study "The Jewish Jesus," JJA, 1982, pp.96 – 98, Ziva Amishai-Maisels cites other historical and cultural events which influenced the artist's work: the modern interpretation that historians like Heinrich Graetz and Ernest Renan gave to the image of Jesus the Jew, and especially the work of Jewish sculptor Mark (Mordecai) Antokolsky, Ecce Homo (1873).
In the painting Jesus before his Judges, Gottlieb combines two scenes from different times: Jesus' appearance before the judges of the Sanhedrin, and before Pontius Pilate, depicting also the shocked indignation of the judges and the mocking Roman soldiers, who make him a crown of thorns. Jesus is shown as the historian Graetz perceives him: a devout Jew, dressed in tzitzit (ritual fringes), his head covered, and wearing a beard and earlocks (payot). His profile departs from the stereotyped aquiline Jewish nose. He stands proud and erect, in contrast to the Christian interpretation of Jesus as poor and humble. This painting is a stage in Gottlieb's quest for a national and religious identity: At 17, he painted a self-portrait in Polish national dress. Three years later, in 1876-1877, he depicted himself as Ahasver, the Wandering Jew.
His presence in Jesus before his Judges, painted in 1877, is that of a neutral bystander, placed behind the figure of Jesus. But by 1878, in Yom Kippur, Gottlieb had rediscovered his identity and placed himself amidst the congregation in the synagogue. At this time, he sought to initiate a dialogue with the Christian world - not as a part of it, as he had earlier tried to be, but as an emancipated Jew.