Who Belongs in the Picture?

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Venice Academy of Arts

Everyone agreed that it was a wonderful painting – Paolo Veronese’s ginormous depiction of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. 
But was it really a religious painting?   
Church authorities in Venice in 1573 were deeply offended by what they saw on the canvas.  Why were so many of “the wrong people” basking in the gracious presence of Jesus?
Veronese, along with Titian and Tintoretto, was one of the three most famous Venetian painters of the high Renaissance.  He was a master “colorist.”  In an era before the availability of shimmering pigments, he somehow created paintings that glowed.  Veronese was also renowned for capturing a wide range of human emotions.
Then there was his preference for monumental scale.  For Veronese, it was go big or go home.  His painting of the Last Supper, which would decorate the entire back wall of a Roman Catholic refectory, was no exception.  It was 18 feet high and almost 43 feet long – so big that it’s hard to discern details in the image you see above. 
Those who were able to walk right up to the painting, however, definitely got an eye full. 
Veronese had obviously felt free to include characters who do not appear in the original gospel accounts.
There are Roman soldiers playing some kind of game over in the corner.  There are drunks.  And dwarves.  And a man with a nosebleed.  And a jester with a parrot on his arm.  And one of the apostles picking his teeth with a fork.  And a child.  And German soldiers (at least a millennium and a half out of date).  And stray dogs roaming throughout. 
Three months after the painting was unveiled, Veronese was informed that the Inquisition wanted to have a conversation.
This was generally not a good thing. 
The six-member tribunal functioned as the morals police of the Venetian Catholic Church.  If a painting in a public space – especially in a church building – sent the wrong message, there could be serious consequences.  What in the world compelled Veronese to include so many “scurrilities” – inappropriate characters who might corrupt the sacred imagination of God’s people?    
The painter argued that artists ought to be granted a certain degree of license in determining a picture’s content.  He also pointed out that he had a lot of space to fill.  After depicting Jesus and his disciples, what was he going to do with the rest of the canvas?
Chiefly, however, Veronese pointed out that it was entirely appropriate to depict Jesus in the presence of low-born, less-than-perfect “sinners.”  That’s because according to the gospels he had routinely attended gatherings with prostitutes, tax collectors, and people who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.   Jesus made it clear that God loves drunks.  And thieves.  And adulterers.  And even irreligious people who utterly fail to keep the sacred laws of Torah. 
The Inquisition was not impressed.  They ordered Veronese to repent – actually, to repaint.  He should immediately paint over the undesirables. 
The artist politely declined.  Instead of repainting, he opted for retitling.  The Last Supper thus became The Feast in the House of Levi.  It now was a depiction of the “secular” party that Jesus attended in Luke 5, and no longer a religious painting.     
The members of the Inquisition probably didn’t even notice, but they had taken the side of the Pharisees – the Holy Huddle who stood at the margins of Jesus’ ministry and snickered at his willingness to spend time with losers.  Unfortunately, that temptation afflicts every generation.
Contemporary preacher Fred Craddock once playfully reversed the details of Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son.
Instead of telling the story of the father running to meet his sin-shattered, broken younger son, Craddock said that the father put his signet ring on the finger of the older son – the self-righteous prig who had stayed home and felt sure he had always done the right thing.  He slaughtered the fattened calf and threw a party for the Good Boy, the one who had never brought shame upon the family.  It was all supposed to be tongue in cheek.  But a woman sitting at the back of the sanctuary suddenly shouted, “That’s the way it should have been written!” 
What we so often fail to realize is that trying to be Very Religious in our own strength separates us from our heavenly Father just as much as running away. 
Everybody in Veronese’s painting is a sinner – not only those skulking in the corner, but those sitting at the central table.
Which means we belong in the painting, too.  Scurrilities R Us
And just like the characters the church authorities were eager to paint over, we’re all invited to bask in the gracious presence of Jesus.