Feast in the House of Levi

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Paolo Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi, 1573
By BLAIR HUXMAN    

To the modern viewer, Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi shows another artist's contemporary rendition of the last supper. However, the controversy surrounding the work is not obvious. Considered blasphemous in it's time, Feast in the House of Levi was created during the height of the Inquisition and nearly costed Veronese his career and his life.

Veronese created the work in 1573 to replace a work by Titian lost in a fire for the Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. Shortly after its creation, the Roman Catholic Inquisition launched an investigation into the subjects of the work. The church attempted to charge Veronese with the serious charge of hearsay and summoned him for an interrogation. Complaints about the unconventional work were numerous. Jesus Christ, in the center, is hardly the subject of the painting. Instead, the viewer is drawn to the colorful characters that join Christ at the feast. The church disliked the dwarfs, gluttons, parrots, drunks, German mercenaries, jesters, and even the dog in the foreground. Mary Magdalene is no where to be found and strange men in turbans peak from around the column. The church was upset by the lack of religious images and the secular themes. In comparison to Da Vinci's The Last Supper, which set the standard for how suppers should be depicted, the image seemed unholy and blasphemous. 

In Da Vinci's work, Christ and his disciples are shown clearly and unadorned. It is a realistic rendition of the event while Veronese places the supper in 16th century Venice. Because Venice was a crossroads of trade and globalization at this time, the lively figures in the work come from all over the globe. For these reasons, Veronese's rendition quickly stirred up controversy and brought him in front of the Catholic court.

In the transcript of Veronese's interrogation, we see his sass and bitterness that he has towards church. Veronese is questioned thoroughly about his intentions until he stops the questioning and states that "It is necessary here that I should say a score of words." After receiving permission to talk he continues, "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." The interrogation continues, 

Q. And who are really the persons whom you admit to have been present at this Supper?

A. 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.

Q. Did some person order you to paint Germans, buffoons, and other similar figures in this picture?

A. No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures.

Veronese argues that as an artist he is entitled to creative justice and can adorn his paintings as he wishes. Commissioned simply to paint a supper, he believes he has the right to depict it as he pleases. He fills the large space with characters of his imagination to provide an unconventional rendition of a celebrated event. He argues that he wasn't told how to adorn it, so he did it as he pleased. After the trial, Veronese was ordered to replace the dog with Mary Magdalene within three months. Instead, he changed the title from The Last Supper to Feast in the House of Levi to keep his artistic integrity intact and spite the church. The issue, technically unresolved, was not brought up again.

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