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Paolo Veronese. Feast in the House of Levi

Video transcript

we're in the Academy the great Fine Arts Museum in Venice and we're looking at a massive painting by Rivera nazy one of the most important Venetian artists of the 16th century this is the feast in the house of Levi except it's not really because it originally was meant to be and I suppose still is a Last Supper but its title got changed but you may not even know it was the Last Supper because it's hard to find the Last Supper in this painting true first of all there are a tremendous number of figures and the architecture is so imposing it's so grand the specific event being rendered is almost completely lost and it really does seem as though very NAEYC so enjoyed painting all of these figures around Christ and the Apostles much more than he was interested in the spiritual moment of the Last Supper he's got dozens of figures ringing and cavorting welcoming others serving people entertaining and in fact when very NAEYC described his profession he said I paint and composed figures and you can just see the pleasure he had in painting so many different kinds of figures involved in so many different kinds of actions even the most sacred even the most important spiritual figures are engaged in action look at Christ he's just turning to the figure at his left as Saint Peter who's to his right seems to be carving a piece of lamb to pass it over these are the actions of real people and there are real people having that last supper in the space just inside this low jaw so we're looking at a three-part painting that might remind us of a triptych with three arches and in the space between the front row of arches in the second row of arches we see the Last Supper but in front we have figures from Venice in the 16th century they're dressed like contemporary Venetians we're seeing the cosmopolitan nature that was the Venetian city-state Venice traded across the Mediterranean east and west it traded north and so here we have Germans on the right side of the paint patricians we have people wearing turbans on the left side of the painting Venice is this intersection this place where the world meets clearly a sense of enormous wealth and privilege here in some ways it does just look like a banquet and not a Last Supper that's what concerned the Inquisition Veronese II was painting during the period that we known as the Reformation and the Counter Reformation there were people especially in northern Europe that were beginning to question the church and its authority particularly the role of images in the church and there was a concern that images have a certain decorum have a certain propriety and not distract the viewer images played a really important role in what we call the Counter Reformation the attempt by the Catholic Church to re-energize itself to deal with some of the corruption that had weakened it but to really forcefully push forward Catholicism and art was key to doing that and if you have art that's got lots of fun things to look at and is distracting and doesn't help you focus on meditating on the spiritual moment or the devotional image that's depicted then art is not in the service of the church so the Inquisition called the tribunal where the artist was called to answer to what we considered a very serious lapse of judgment it's interesting to note that the church the Commission the painting seems to have been fine with the final product but the Inquisition was not they questioned the artist and they asked him what the various apostles are doing and they said did anyone Commission you to paint Germans buffoons and similar things in that picture in other words who's responsible for this are you responsible for the ridiculous extravagance of this painting and very nazy's responses interesting he says the artist has the kind of license that a poet has that this is from his imagination he was given a very large painting to paint and he needed to fill it with figures that's right he said I received the Commission to decorate the picture as I saw fit it is large and it seemed to me it could hold many figures what the Inquisition had originally demanded was that some of the figures specifically the dog be changed but Varanasi said no in instead what he was going to do was simply change the title and so it went from being a Last Supper to feast in the house of Levi and apparently that satisfied the tribunal had satisfied the church and satisfied the artist at least to some extent in order to preserve his reputation it occurs to me that when Leonardo painted the Last Supper it was so much about removing everything that wasn't necessary to portraying in an emotionally spiritually powerful way this moment when Christ said one of you will betray me and when Christ said take this bread for this is my body take this wine this is my blood and remember me this critical moment for the church and the creation of the sacrament of the Eucharist and Leonardo distilled that but Varanasi exploded it and put it back into our world and took it out of that timeless world that Leonardo had put it in that's right there is all the chaos of people paying attention to all different kinds of things the way that a dinner party takes place there is a kind of truth here that is different from the kind of truth that Leonardo presented did you see the cat under the table I think you see Peter's beak right maybe hoping for some of that lamb and the dog is watching the cat it's filled with anecdote that really does distract from that message on the other hand you're right maybe it makes that message all the more palpable by embedding it in the reality of Venice in the 16th century you