Indiana painted the fresco Pilate Washing His Hands during the summer of 1953, which he spent studying at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. There Indiana enrolled in a fresco course offered by Henry Varnum Poor, and completed two frescos, both later destroyed by fire. Pilate Washing His Hands, a panel under a tier of windows, was the smaller of the two works, and depicted Pilate washing his hands of his responsibility in the death of Jesus.
Indiana noted this subject’s connection to the crucifixion in a 1965 interview with Arthur Carr. The crucifixion appears as a subject in his poem “Fractured Crucifix for the Gentle Unbeliever” (1954), which he wrote and illustrated during his year abroad at the University of Edinburgh, and in Stavrosis (Crucifixion), a nineteen-foot-long mural pieced together from forty-four sheets of paper. Indiana began the latter in 1958, the same year he took a part-time secretarial job with the Rev. James A. Pike, dean of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. During his year at Saint John the Divine Indiana proofed The History of the Cross, by Norman Laliberté and Rev. Dr. Edward N. West.