The Feast in the House of Levi by Mary Elizabeth Podles
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A THOUSAND WORDS
The Feast in the House of Levi
by Paolo Caliari (Veronese)
This 1573 painting is a whopper. For starts, it measures nearly fifty feet long by eighteen high. It is as if the curtain has gone up on a mighty operatic staging of the text from Luke 5:29, "And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them." Three huge arches like a Palladian theater frame the action, and what action it is. There are nearly fifty figures, among them turbaned Turks, African servants, a man with a nosebleed, well-heeled Venetians in colorful silks, German mercenaries, a little girl, a jester, a dwarf, a parrot, two dogs, and a cat.
What are we to make of all this? Most of the action takes place in the foreground, in front of the framing arches, up and down the two flanking staircases, and in the windows of the fantasy architecture behind the central space of the portico. Within the upper room, however, there is only the long table, Christ, his apostles, and a few servants. In the center, John turns to Christ, lips parted and hands upturned as if to ask him a question. Christ, tall and serious in the center of the arch, listens closely. Meanwhile, Judas, the uneasy figure in red, glances down toward the cat just emerging from under the table, while a servant at the right draws the attention of another apostle, perhaps Thomas, to the dog in the foreground.
Living Under an Assumed Name
Traditionally, the cat is a symbol of evil and the devil. The dog, on the other hand, symbolizes faith and fidelity. A much more likely interpretation of this central scene would be the moment at the Last Supper when John asks Jesus which of the twelve is his betrayer: Judas draws back and looks at the evil avatar of his misdeed, while Thomas realizes that his faith is about to be tested.
In fact, the original commission for the painting was for a Last Supper for the refectory of the Dominican Priory at Ss. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, to replace a Titian that had been destroyed by fire in 1571. The Last Supper was traditionally painted on refectory walls (think of Leonardo's in Milan) as an appropriate subject for meditation during meals. As the painting progressed, the prior seems to have grown uneasy with the riot of figures occupying all but the sacred central space, and he may have suggested to Veronese that he at least replace the dog with the figure of the Magdalene. Veronese gave him short shrift.
Everybody's a Critic
The prior was not alone. Veronese's musical comedy of supernumerary figures soon attracted the attention of the Inquisition, who called the painter before them to explain their lack of decorum. The transcript of the inquiry survives:
Question. Do you know the reasons why you have been called here?
Q. Can you imagine what those reasons may be?
A. I can well imagine.
Q. Say what you think about them.
A. I fancy that it concerns what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the prior of the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I did not know, but who informed me that he had been here, and that your Most Illustrious Lordships had ordered him to cause to be placed in the picture a Magdalen instead of the dog; and I answered him that very readily I would do all that was needful for my reputation and for the honor of the picture; but that I did not understand what this figure of the Magdalen could be doing here. . . .
He was sensibly circumspect. The inquiry continued:
Q. Who are the persons at the table of Our Lord?
A. The twelve apostles.
Q. What is Saint Peter doing, who is the first?
A. He is carving the lamb in order to pass it to the other part of the table.
Q. What is he doing who comes next?
A. He holds a plate to see what Saint Peter will give him.
Q. Tell us what the third is doing.
A. He is picking his teeth with a fork.
Traditionally, St. Peter is represented at the Last Supper with a knife, to foreshadow the impetuous damage he will do the High Priest's servant in Gethsemane. The fork seems to have passed muster, too. But not the extraneous figures:
Q. Does it seem suitable to you, in the Last Supper of our Lord, to represent buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs, and other such absurdities?
A. Certainly not.
Q. Then why have you done it?
A. I did it on the supposition that those people were outside the room in which the Supper was taking place.
The Germans, heretics all, were particularly troubling:
Q. What signify those armed men dressed in the fashion of Germany, with halberds in their hands?
Veronese asks if he might explain at length:
A. We painters use the same license a-- poets and madmen [or possibly "jesters"], and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants.
The painter has declared his independence. He is no longer a mere craftsman in service to a higher art. Ut pictura poesis: painting, like poetry, is a metaphorical language for expressing the inexpressible, and can shape the way we think. The Inquisitors thought so, too:
Q. Do you not know that in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense?
The importance of art as catechesis became a major theme of the Counter-Reformation fathers of the Council of Trent.
Veronese wisely does not offer any explanation of what he meant to teach. Were the monks to view the hurly-burly of worldly Venice as a betrayal of the contemplative life? Did he mean to suggest that Christ meant the Eucharistic banquet for all—Africans, Turks, the rich, even heretical Germans? Instead, he promises to make the necessary changes at his own expense. Not a single figure is removed or upgraded; he simply paints in the phrase, "This is the feast in the house of Levi." •
• David Rosand, Painting in Sixteenth-Century Venice: Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto (Cambridge, 2nd ed., 1997).
• For the irreverent, this incident was the basis for the Monty Python skit, "The Penultimate Supper," in which the pope criticizes Michelangelo for including 28 disciples, three Christs (one fat and two skinny), Jell-O, and a kangaroo. Michelangelo offers to paint out the kangaroo.
Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Naples, Florida.
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