Drunken Germans and Other Absurdities

Part 12 in the Series:

The Bezalel Blueprint

By Don Enevoldsen

History doesn’t tell us what motivated Paolo Veronese. Perhaps he was a deeply spiritual man of courage and wit. Perhaps he was a political activist. Perhaps he was a religious agitator. Perhaps he just liked lots of color. It’s hard to say at a distance of 500 years.

Paolo_Veronese_007

Veronese was a Venetian painter in the sixteenth century, known especially for his large decorative paintings of biblical feasts in Venice and Verona. In 1573 he completed an 18 by 42 foot commission that quickly got him into serious trouble. Known today as “The Feast in the House of Levi,” the original title of the painting was “The Last Supper.” It covered the rear wall of the refectory of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Framed in a portico more representative of sixteenth century Venice than first century Jerusalem, Jesus sits at a table, engaged in animated conversation with one of his disciples. Next to him, Peter is absorbed in carving a piece of lamb while another disciple holds up a plate to receive whatever Peter offers. A third disciple picks his teeth with a fork.

The tone of this image contrasts sharply with the more famous Last Supper painting of Leonardo da Vinci. That painting focused completely on the gravity of that pivotal moment when Jesus announced one of the twelve would betray him. Veronese showed a very different atmosphere of people engrossed in the celebration of a banquet. To emphasize the feeling of a festive banquet, he included a host of characters around Jesus and the disciples that were certainly not at the original Last Supper.

Germans armed with halberds stand on the right side of the painting. On the left are patricians. A dog sits in front of the center table, looking back at a cat peeking out from under the tablecloth. The circus of partying figures scattered around the painting includes Simon the innkeeper, a carving squire, a servant with a bleeding nose, dwarves and a jester with a parrot on his shoulder.

The presence of all these discordant characters could represent several different things. Veronese might have intended to emphasize the joyous nature of what the Last Supper represented by showing a festive gathering of people celebrating. If that simple message were in his mind, then he might also have intended a slightly deeper implication that the redemption of Christ was all-inclusive, extending to misfits, outcasts and foreigners.

Those would be worthy—and very credible—elements of the message behind the painting. Veronese might have intended something a little more satirical, however. The context of his life was the aftermath of the Counter-Reformation, or the Catholic Revival. Earlier in the century, the corruption of the church had been challenged by reformers such as Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. Catholic leadership responded with a cleanup effort of their own, revitalizing and energizing Catholicism in the process. Art played a significant role in that effort. Church leadership approved and promoted art that encouraged serious meditation and contemplation of spiritual subjects, art of the da Vinci type.

Veronese, living in the relatively liberal religious atmosphere of Venice, might have intended a jab at what he considered closed-minded dogma. The variety of characters he chose to portray was ideally suited to rankle Catholic leaders. Germans were considered heretics after the days of Martin Luther. Dwarves were associated with heretical belief. A jester with a parrot in such a solemn religious setting as the Last Supper was perhaps a satirical slap at the seriousness of the Counter-Reformation. It is entirely possible that Veronese was being intentionally impertinent, either to express his dislike for Catholicism or in the hope that he could change the church for the good.

The church seemed to think Veronese was being intentionally derogatory. He was summoned to appear before the Inquisition to explain himself. Even though the sacred tribunal had less influence in Venice than in other parts of Italy, this still presented a dangerous moment for the artist. Understanding would be necessary to preserve both his reputation and his career. This danger is really the reason we don’t know what motivated Veronese to paint the Last Supper the way he did. The answers and explanations he gave might hint at his intentions, but they were given under considerable duress. (The following quotes are from an English translation of the inquiry by Charles Yriarte in Francis Marion Crawford’s Salve Venetia, accessible online as a Google Book)

When asked his occupation, Veronese answered, “I paint and make figures.” Such a simple answer gave no indication of his thinking behind the painting. In fact, he seemed to downplay the idea that he really had anything in mind. “We painters use the same license as poets and madmen,” he stated. He painted a picture of an artist who filled up a large space with figures that seemed to him to fit the idea of a banquet—soldiers 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 jester with the parrot was “an ornament.” When asked who he believed had been present at the Last Supper, Veronese answered, “I believe that there was only Christ and His Apostles; but when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention.” He asserted that the painting was “very large” and “can contain many figures.”

“Does it seem suitable to you, in the Last Supper of our Lord, to represent buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs, and other such absurdities?” the Inquisition asked. “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?”

Eventually, after some further ridicule from the Inquisitors, they asked if Veronese believed he had done well in his painting and if he intended to prove that it was a good and decent thing. Veronese gave what might be considered a wise answer.

“No, my most illustrious Sirs; I do not pretend to prove it, but I had not thought that I was doing wrong; I had never taken so many things into consideration.”

Ultimately, Veronese was dismissed with instructions to correct his painting within three months. Instead, he changed the name of the painting to “The Feast in the House of Levi.” Everyone seemed to be satisfied with the results. The Inquisition probably felt that they did not have enough power in Venice to force the issue and the change allowed them to give the impression that they had won the contest.

I include this short account to illustrate the form that understanding in an artist can take. I do not believe that Veronese simply wanted to fill empty space in a large painting. If that had been the case, he could have chosen very different characters to portray.

Neither does there seem to be any overt sympathy for the Reformation. While many of the ideals of Luther or Zwingli or Calvin may have resonated with Veronese, the truth is probably much less complicated. He is often quoted as answering the Inquisition tribunal, “Mine is no art of thought; my art is joyous and praises God in light and colour.” If this statement is anywhere near the truth, Veronese intended his art to be worshipful.

Whatever actually motivated Veronese, his painting shows the understanding of Bezalel in a couple of significant ways. He had the ability to create a work of art that got attention and made people think about their values. The Inquisitors were certainly thinking about it. The discussion that ensued—and continues to this day—has people considering such questions as the inclusiveness of grace, the exclusiveness of social and racial prejudice, and just how we should celebrate the life and redemption represented by the Last Supper. Perhaps none of that was in Veronese’s mind when he painted, but if not, then his art is all the more remarkable for its impact.

Secondly, Veronese had the understanding to insure that his work would not be circumvented or destroyed by those who opposed its central message. He understood the culture of his city, knowing just how much he could get away with. He understood the temperament of the Inquisitors and said enough to soften their questions without committing himself to anything. He understood his circumstances enough to strike just the right tone for his trial. His understanding gave him exactly the solution that would keep everyone happy without changing the art in the least.

Often understanding means nothing more than how to navigate the culture and the age in which the artist lives. Such navigation does not imply ineffectiveness. Neither does it necessarily mean compromise. Great artists work within their time and their world. They understand their audience, their critics, their community and their own worldview. There’s a lot more to good art than just being able to draw a picture or string a few words together.

Next, Part 13: What Do You Know?

Go to the beginning of the series, The Bezalel Blueprint:  Part 1, The Artist Bezalel

Do you have an additional thought on this subject? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

2 thoughts on “Drunken Germans and Other Absurdities

  1. This is good, Don! Wisdom… Now that I’m almost done with my book (well, my first book anyway) and will soon begin the fun process of submitting my work to others’ scrutiny (“others” in this case being those who have the power to publish – or not publish – my book), I’ve been preparing myself to see my precious words run through a blender. Is my book “perfect” as-is? Of course! But it won’t do much good – for me or anyone else – if it just sits on my computer, unread, for the rest of eternity. Agents, publishers, book sellers, etc., understand the culture better than I do… and whatever twisting and shaping and chopping up is necessary to get my book before an actual audience, I’m all for it! No, seriously… :)

    • That’s the spirit. I have to say that my best work as a writer has come when I’ve found people I could trust to critique (translate: tear to shreds) my material before I rewrite it and then submit it. It’s a painful and very productive process, but it does work. In terms of the book being perfect, I remind myself often of the words of Peter Jackson (director of “Lord of the Rings”): “You never actually finish a movie, you just run out of time.” The same is pretty much true for books. You can keep improving them for the rest of your life, but there comes a point where you have to just stop working on them and let them go. I’m really excited about your book, and anxious to read the finished product. The little bit you shared with me a while back was very interesting.

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