Paintings were an excellent way of brightening up the eating halls or refectories of monasteries. During the sixteenth century, religious orders commissioned many large works depicting feasts or ‘suppers’ from the New Testament. For some artists like Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) these must have brought significant income as well as establishing his reputation for these huge canvases. One in particular, though, almost proved his undoing when it led to him being brought before the Inquisition.
At first sight, their narrative may seem simple, consisting of the gospel account of that particular event. Closer examination of their content shows that each contains cues to many other narratives, often unrelated to the central story.
One of the first of these, The Supper at Emmaus, possibly dating from as early as 1555, seems to have been an experiment which succeeded.
At its heart is the gospel narrative: after his crucifixion and resurrection, Christ appeared several times to his disciples. In this episode, two disciples had travelled on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus as pilgrims, and recognised Christ as he “sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave it to them.”
The painting contains separate passages to cue this narrative: on the far left is an asynchronous ‘flashback’ referring to the journey to Emmaus. Christ is in the centre of the painting, identified by his halo, and in the midst of breaking bread. With him at the table are the two bearded figures of the disciples, dressed as pilgrims and bearing staves. On Christ’s right is a servant, acting as waiter to the group.
This leaves us to account for the other onlookers: three men, a woman, five boys, four girls, and a baby, together with assorted pet animals. The adults and children are dressed in contemporary costume, rather than the robes of the early first century, and it’s that which makes it clear this is also a family portrait, part of the narrative of the life of an aristocratic Italian family of the day.
A few years later, Veronese was commissioned to paint his much larger Marriage Feast at Cana (1562-3) for the refectory of the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.
Its central narrative is another episode of the ministry of Christ as recorded in the gospels. Here, Christ and his disciples were invited to a wedding feast in Cana, Galilee. Towards its end, the wine started to run out, and he was asked what they should do. He directed servants to fill jugs with water, which he then miraculously turned into wine.
The huge canvas shows Christ, distinguished by his halo, at the centre of his disciples, with the Virgin Mary (also with halo) at his right, and sundry disciples arrayed along that side of the tables. The wedding group is at the far left of the party.
At the far right of the canvas, wine is shown being poured from a large container, a clear cue to the gospel narrative.
There is also a great deal of other activity, in every part of the painting. On the balcony behind Christ there are scenes of the butchery of meat, generally claimed to be lamb and symbolic of Christ’s future death as a sacrifice for mankind, as the ‘Lamb of God’, although there are no visual cues to support that interpretation.
In the musicians below, and other guests, it’s claimed that there are portraits of artists, including Veronese himself, and Titian. Other important figures who are supposed to be shown include Eleanor of Austria, Francis I of France, Mary I of England, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Emperor Charles V.
A few suppers and sundry masterworks later, Veronese painted his spectacular Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee in 1570.
Its gospel narrative is another feast, here in the house of Simon, a Pharisee. According to the gospel of Luke, chapter 7, during this Christ’s feet were anointed by a ‘sinful woman’, and he told the parable of the two debtors.
Slightly to the right of centre, Veronese shows Christ, this time without a halo. A woman is indeed anointing his right foot, the empty jar of precious ointment discarded in front of her. Sat opposite Christ, and apparently in discussion with him, is the pharisee of the title.
Beyond that central group, there are many other events in progress. At the left of the painting is a group in active discussion, of whom several wear anachronistic or inappropriate dress, suggesting that they’re from a different time and place. There are similar disparities at the right of the painting too, where the figure at the centre looks to be of contemporary Italian origin.
Then in 1573 came his most ambitious yet, now known as The Feast in the House of Levi, only that wasn’t its original title at all.
Veronese painted this thirteen metre-long (forty-two feet) scene for the refectory of the Dominican Friary of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, but it was intended to show the Last Supper, Christ’s last meal with his disciples before he was betrayed and crucified, at which he laid out the sacrament of Communion, a key part of Christian life ever since.
However, he over-reached himself, and the painting was deemed so offensive that he was brought before the Inquisition accused of blasphemy. Thankfully the Inquisition didn’t impose any penalty on Veronese himself, but required that he ‘correct’ the painting within a period of three months. This he did by changing its title, not its content, to The Feast in the House of Levi.
The new central narrative then became that of a feast hosted by Levi, a tax collector, for other tax collectors and their like. Christ’s attendance was criticised by the scribes and pharisees, leading to his answer “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Christ is shown in the centre of the painting, further emphasised by his halo. In addition to the standard row of disciples, Veronese adds a rich collection of other figures, described by the Inquisition as “buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities”, more in the manner of a Venetian feast.
Although Veronese was inevitably being very cautious in his answers to the Inquisition, and the written record may not be an accurate account, it’s interesting to see his own reported explanation for these additional figures and events (from the English translation by Charles Yriarte):
“We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, 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.” … “when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention.” … “I did it on the supposition that those people were outside the room in which the Supper was taking place.
Over a decade later, Veronese painted what must have been his last Last Supper, in about 1585.
This is a small fraction of the size of his troublesome Feast in the House of Levi from 1573. It’s still very unconventional, in placing Christ (with the halo) at its far left, and putting the disciples in a disorganised huddle to the right of him. There are also plenty of additions: at the far right, in the distant gloom, a couple are seen in discussion, one wearing a turban. Nearer the viewer is a (female) child, a dog, and another figure apparently squatting on the floor.
Three years later, Veronese himself ate his last supper, before he died in Venice on 19 April 1588, the day after Easter Sunday.