The Feast in the House of Levi (1573)
by Paolo Veronese
The Feast in the House of Levi (1573)
Name: The Feast in the House of Levi (1573)
Paolo Veronese was one of the three greatest Mannerist artists active in Venice: the others being Jacopo Bassano (1515-1592) and Tintoretto (1518-94). The late Renaissance style of Mannerism gave him full rein to show off his exceptional handling of colour, although he was never a partisan supporter of Venetian colorito in its battle with Florentine disegno. Indeed his preference was to steer a middle course between line and colour. Against a background of Protestant/Catholic turmoil across Europe, Veronese sought artistic sanctuary in a range of large-scale decorative pictures of Venetian society, with religious themes. A sort of history painting in a contemporary Venetian context.
The Feast in the House of Levi was the last in a series of monumental banquet-paintings by Veronese, that included The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563, Louvre, Paris) and Supper in the House of Gregory the Great (1572, Monte Berico, Vicenza). Painted for the dining hall of the Dominican monastery of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, it measures roughly 18 X 42 feet, it is one of the largest religious paintings of the cinquecento.
Originally, the subject of the painting was the "Last Supper of Jesus Christ with His disciples in the house of Simon", illustrating the Biblical story in Luke 7:36-50. The Last Supper was a well-worn theme in Christian art, especially during the Italian Renaissance when it was popularized by pictures such as: "The Last Supper" (1447, Sant'Apollonia, Florence) by Andrea del Castagno; "The Last Supper" (1480, Chiesa di Ognissanti) by Domenico Ghirlandaio; and "The Last Supper" (1495-8, Santa Maria delle Grazie) by Leonardo da Vinci.
Unfortunately, Veronese's interpretation of this Biblical event was - like his version of the Wedding Feast at Cana - highly controversial, as it contained a noticeable amount of secular and profane imagery, which was deemed inappropriate to the subject. In response to Luther's Protestant Revolt, Rome had already issued new guidelines for Catholic Counter-Reformation art, but Veronese's case was much more serious. Shortly after the picture was completed, he was summoned to appear before a tribunal of the Roman Catholic Inquisition to defend himself against charges of heresy. The crux of the problem involved three issues: the inclusion in the painting of a group of hated German soldiers; the inclusion of various impious buffoons and dwarfs, but no Virgin Mary; and the lack of clarity about which of the three "Last Suppers" was depicted. (Note: Following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples share a meal towards the end of the week, after which he is betrayed and crucified. There are three differing versions of this so-called "Last Supper" - in Mark 14:22-24; Matthew 26:26-28; and Luke 22:19-20.)
Veronese mounted a rather feeble defence, citing the nude forms in the Last Judgment fresco by Michelangelo as a precedent for his own more contentious religious art, but the Inquisition contented itself with issuing threats and merely ordered him to make a number of changes to the painting at his own expense. Veronese did nothing to comply, but he was smart enough to change the title to a less doctrinal Gospel story - Christ in the House of Levi. Based on Luke 5:27-32 it concerns the banquet given for Jesus by the tax-collector Levi. When the Pharisees asked Jesus "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" he replied "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance".
The painting shows the typical Veronese banquet: colourful, hedonistic and crowded with guests. The venue appears to be a classical style portico framed by the balustrade of a double staircase and three large overhead arches - more akin to Renaissance architecture than Roman architecture. These architectural features, as well as the patterned tiled floor lead the eye to the central figure of Jesus sitting under the middle arch. The haloed Christ, dressed in a shimmering Biblical robe, is flanked by Saint Peter (symbolically carving the lamb) and Saint John, while Judas (opposite and left) is portrayed by the uneasy figure in red. All around, a multitude of animated figures dressed in contemporary Venetian costumes are moving, talking, or debating with one another, as if it were an important social event in 16th century Venice.
Indeed, as the Inquisition concluded, were it not for Christ's halo, it could be an entirely pagan affair. Veronese's figure painting incorporates the usual noblemen, servants and onlookers, as well as a typical assortment of drunkards, jesters, dwarfs, picturesque orientals, black-skinned servants and animals, but also includes several men dressed as Protestant German soldiers, armed with halberds.
Like Veronese's other banquet-paintings, The Feast in the House of Levi is a carefully composed mise en scene, which sets a serious religious event in a modern context. Although the work was retitled, its new identity - a supper at which Christ sits down with sinners - fits perfectly with the decadence and sumptuous materialism on display. And it gives Veronese maximum scope to show off his luminous Renaissance colour palette, so as to breathe life into the monumental forms of the High Renaissance. Although the composition is studded with symbolism, one can't help feeling that its real point was to showcase the pomp and grandeur of the Venetian Republic. Interestingly, the only lasting effect of the Inquisition's criticism was to create a huge demand for Veronese's work.
Zaccaria Altarpiece (1505) by Giovanni Bellini.
Triptych (1516) by Hieronymus Bosch.
of the Virgin (Parma Cathedral) (1526-30) by Correggio.
of Babel (1563) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio) (1577) by El Greco.
Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88) by El Greco.
For more religious pictures by Venetian painters like Veronese, see: Homepage.
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