Friday, April 11, 2008

Life of the Party

Nobody expects the Inquisition, but Paolo Veronese should have expected that his depiction of Christ at The Last Supper should have caused some trouble. Veronese, who was born in 1528 and died on April 9, 1528, changed the title of the painting from The Last Supper to The Feast in the House of Levi (above, from 1573), hoping to get the Catholic church off his back. By painting Christ’s solemn last meal with his apostles like a wild fraternity party, Veronese offended the sensibilities of church officials and put not only his career but his life in jeopardy. Making matters even worse was the grand scale of the painting, one of the largest works done in the sixteenth century on canvas. There was no way to hide this painting, just as there was no way to hide Veronese’s genius.

Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana (above, from 1563) shows a similar scene, but the religious implications were different enough for him to get away with this party setting. Again, Christ sits at the center of the action, surrounded by raucous party animals. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself, which is probably what saved Veronese from censure. Veronese concentrated on the life of Christ rather than his death, reflecting Veronese’s own bubbling energy and love of living in the moment. Part of me wishes that Veronese had depicted Christ in a pose similar to that portrayed by Willem Dafoe as Jesus in the film version of The Last Temptation of Christ when Jesus miraculously transforms the water into wine at Cana. When the wine is discovered, they look at Jesus with amazement. Dafoe’s Jesus simply raises his cup in a toast to them. Party on.

Veronese always seems more comfortable painting mythological figures, who posed no pitfalls for his relationship with the church. In Mars and Venus United by Love (above, from 1576-1582) Veronese used this license to its fullest in creating an allegory of love civilizing this war-torn world. Cupid literally ties the knot that binds Mars and Venus. The milk of human kindness flows from Venus’ breast. Mars’ horse, his primary instrument of war, finds itself reigned in as his master indulges in love. While other artists depicted gruesome crucifixions as instruments of meditation on the next life, Veronese painted works of beauty and joy as invitations to meditate on the joys of this life. Amazingly, such a message could get you in trouble with the spiritual gatekeepers of the time. Even then, it was difficult to ask “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?”

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