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Friday, July 22, 2011


I'm not sure where the term "artistic license" came from, or how to get one, or if I already have one, how to get it renewed, but it has come to stand for the freedom artist feel to create just about anything and call it art. We take it for granted and even go so far as to complain when it seems those among us go so far as to abuse it. During the late 1500s, one such artist seemed to do just that and got pulled over for it by no less authority than the Inquisition. His offense, it would seem, was painting what appeared to be a last supper set amidst such grandiose splendor as to offend the tastes of nearly everyone who beheld it. (Leonardo da Vinci he was not.)

Feast in the House of Levi, 1573, Paolo Veronese (Caliari)
The artist was Paolo Caliari. He was born in 1528 in Verona, Italy, from whence came his name, Veronese. Living and working during the Mannerist Era, his name has come to symbolize the splendorous pomp and wealth of his adopted city, Venice. The controversial effort that got him in trouble would, at first glance, appear to be designed to do just that. This was no modest little easel painting. It was 42 feet long and some 18 feet tall painted in oil on stretched canvas. (I didn't know they stretched'em that big.) There seems to be a rather boisterous dinner party going on. The painting is a fool-the-eye tour-de-force featuring three gigantic arches framing a hazy city in the background. Seated under the center of the center arch is undeniably a portrait of Jesus. But among his dinner companions is a man picking his teeth, foreign soldiers, merchants, tax collectors, mongrel dogs, a parrot, and quite a number of equally unsavory characters. The inquisition apparently felt Jesus should not be depicted among such riffraff.

In their grilling of Veronese, the Inquisition's questions centered upon whether it was, in fact, a last supper.  Veronese insisted it wasn't.  Perhaps it had started out that way, but at some point he'd had the good sense to change the title to: Feast in the House of Simon, which was a small dinner just before Jesus entered Jerusalem. Veronese defended his work, "We painters take the same license poets and jesters take...I paint pictures as I see fit and as well as my talent permits." Though not quite heresy perhaps, the statement was nonetheless quite shocking at the time and definitely offended those who took issue with his work. They demanded he change it. In the end, Veronese chose instead to merely change the title to Feast in the House of Levi. In a sense, the artist had a modest degree of revenge in that the Bible notes that Jesus himself was criticized for hobnobbing with such characters. His defense was more direct, "I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners."  (Luke 5:32)

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