'Feast in the House of Levi,' by Paolo Veronese, 1573. ullstein bild via Getty Images

Censoring the Most Famous Passover Seder of All: The Last Supper

During the Renaissance, a young Italian painter got in trouble with the grand inquisitor of Venice after taking artistic liberties with the image of Jesus' Last Supper. He came up with a creative solution

Odd as this may sound to the Jewish ear, without a doubt the most famous Passover seder meal in history was the Last Supper, as described in the Synoptic Gospels (that is, taking a similar view), the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Alongside the abundance of books and articles about this event, there are also innumerable works of art devoted to it, as well as a huge body of research about these works. A few years ago, for example, a study based on 52 of the most famous paintings of the Last Supper across a span of 1,000 years, showed that the portions of food shown increased over time. It is perhaps worth noting that the prevalence of bread and of pork in many of these works does not contribute to the seder atmosphere.

One particular work that tried to document that fateful seder night will be our focus, precisely because it lost its place in the canonical repertoire of Last Suppers. The story of “The Feast in the House of Levi,” painted in oil on canvas by Paolo Veronese in 1573, affords a fascinating and stunning lesson about both history and art.

In 1571, a fire in the refectory of the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, the city’s main Dominican church, destroyed Titian’s painting of the Last Supper. The monks asked Titian to reconstruct his work but the artist kept putting off the commission because he was so busy. After two years, the Dominicans took the hint and turned to Paolo Veronese, then an ambitious young painter, who eagerly agreed to paint his own version. The result was a large, amazingly colorful painting filled with figures and details that transformed the austere and somber Last Supper into an abundant, cheerful banquet, of the kind that was customary at the time among the wealthy businessmen of Venice. It is told that the unveiling of the gigantic canvas kindled the enthusiasm of the city’s residents, who came to the church in large numbers.

A certain personage, however, was less enthusiastic. The Chief Inquisitor of Venice, Felice Peretti di Montalto, who happened to be a member of the Franciscan order (which often had tense relations with the Dominican competition), did not look kindly on the plethora of figures and the party atmosphere in Veronese’s depiction and embarked on an official investigation of the matter. Fortunately for historians, the transcript of the artist’s interrogation by the Inquisition has been preserved in full:

José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

“This day, July eighteenth, 1573. Called to the Holy Office before the sacred tribunal, Paolo Galliari Veronese residing in the parish of Saint Samuel, and being asked as to his name and surname replied as above.

Being asked as to his profession:

“I paint and make figures.”

Do you know the reasons why you have been called here?

“No.”

Can you imagine what those reasons may be?

“I can well imagine.”

Say what you think about them.

“I fancy that it concerns what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the prior of the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I did not know, but who informed me that he had been here, and that your Most Illustrious Lordships had ordered him to cause to be placed in the picture a Magdalen instead of the dog; and I answered him that very readily I would do all that was needful for my reputation and for the honor of the picture; but that I did not understand what this figure of the Magdalen could be doing here; and this for many reasons, which I will tell, when occasion is granted me to speak.”

What is the picture to which you have been referring?

“It is the picture which represents the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with His disciples in the house of Simon.”

Where is this picture?

“In the refectory of the monks of San Giovanni e Paolo.”

Is it painted in fresco or on wood or on canvas?

“It is on canvas.”

How many feet does it measure in height?

“It may measure seventeen feet.”

And in breadth?

“About thirty-nine.”

How many have you represented? And what is each one doing?

“First there is the innkeeper, Simon; then, under him, a carving squire whom I supposed to have come there for his pleasure, to see how the service of the table is managed. There are many other figures which I cannot remember, however, as it is a long time since I painted that picture.”

Have you painted other Last Suppers besides that one?

“Yes.”

How many have you painted? Where are they?

“I painted one at Verona for the reverend monks of San Lazzaro; it is in their refectory. Another is in the refectory of the reverend brothers of San Giorgio here in Venice.”

Galerie dell'Accademia, Venice, Electa/leemage

But that one is not a Last Supper, and is not even called the Supper of Our Lord.

“I painted another in the refectory of San Sebastiano in Venice, another at Padua for the Fathers of the Maddalena. I do not remember to have made any others.”

In this Supper which you painted for San Giovanni e Paolo, what signifies the figure of him whose nose is bleeding?

“He is a servant who has a nose-bleed from some accident.”

What signify those armed men dressed in the fashion of Germany, with halberds in their hands?

“It is necessary here that I should say a score of words.”

Say them.

“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.”

And the one who is dressed as a jester with a parrot on his wrist, why did you put him into the picture?

“He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures.”

Who are the persons at the table of Our Lord?

“The twelve apostles.”

What is Saint Peter doing, who is the first?

“He is carving the lamb in order to pass it to the other part of the table.”

What is he doing who comes next?

“He holds a plate to see what Saint Peter will give him.”

Tell us what the third is doing.

“He is picking his teeth with a fork.”

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

“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.”

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

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

Should not the ornaments which you were accustomed to paint in pictures be suitable and in direct relation to the subject, or are they left to your fancy, quite without discretion or reason?

“I paint my pictures with all the considerations which are natural to my intelligence, and according as my intelligence understands them.”

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

“Certainly not.”

Then why have you done it?

“I did it on the supposition that those people were outside the room in which the Supper was taking place.”

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?

“I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters.”

Well, what did your masters paint? Things of this kind, perhaps?

“In Rome, in the Pope’s Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary, and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling.”

Do you not understand that in representing the Last Judgment, in which it is a mistake to suppose that clothes are worn, there was no reason for painting any? But in these figures what is there that is not inspired by the Holy Spirit? There are neither buffoons, dogs, weapons, nor other absurdities. Do you think, therefore, according to this or that view, that you did well in so painting your picture, and will you try to prove that it is a good and decent thing?

“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. I had been far from imaging such a great disorder, all the more as I had placed these buffoons outside the room in which Our Lord was sitting.”

These things having been said, the judges pronounced that the aforesaid Paolo should be obliged to correct his picture within the space of three months from the date of the reprimand, according to the judgments and decision of the Sacred Court, and altogether at the expense of the said Paolo.

A new inscription

The transcript of the seemingly technical interrogation contains a number of noteworthy insights and impressions — from Veronese’s groundbreaking definition of artistic freedom, through the interrogator’s broad horizons and relative tolerance to the moderate sentence that was handed down. Also worthy of mention is Veronese’s error (whether intentional or unintentional) with respect to Michelangelo: His nude figures in the Sistine Chapel caused quite a fuss in their day and he too had to modify them. However, what is just as important as all this is the outcome.

In obeying the tribunal’s demand to honor the occasion of the Last Supper, Paolo Veronese found an easy, elegant and impertinent solution — he simply added an inscription to the marble parapet on the left side: “And Levi made him a great feast in his own house,” and on the right side he cited chapter and verse, Luke 5:29. So much for the Last Supper. The banquet held to honor Jesus in Levi’s home did not have the sacred status accorded to the Last Supper. Present in the Levi residence were “dubious” characters — “a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them” — and they had no attributes in the dogma that necessitated disqualifying the motley crowd in the painting. Thus “The Feast in the House of Levi” was born.

The Venetians, for their part, raised an uproar about the interrogation itself. They believed the grand inquisitor had gone too far when he initiated the investigation, just as he had gone too far, in their opinion, in other aspects of his activity. The city’s grandees turned to the pope and demanded that he replace the representative of the Inquisition in their city with someone more moderate, preferably from the more scholarly and educated Dominican order. The pope agreed and Felice Peretti was recalled to Rome.

Eventually, Peretti himself was elected pope (Sixtus V) and is engraved in Catholic memory in fact as quite a successful pontiff. During the five short years of his reign, he succeeded in filling the very deleted coffers of the Holy See, imposing law and order in his dominion, successfully combatting corruption in the Church and initiating an extensive building and refurbishment project in Rome (though to that end he demolished many antiquities). Sixtus V also issued the famous papal bull against birth control and abortion – the man did not lose a scintilla of the religious zealotry that had characterized him in his younger days and he proved to be a stubborn fighter against the spread of the Reformation, thereby succeeding in keeping France a Catholic state.

Today, the huge painting is on display at the Gallerie del’Accademia in Venice, and although its colors have faded considerably in the wake of conservation and restoration efforts, it continues to attracts the eyes of thousands of visitors.

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