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.
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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 Baltimore, Maryland.
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