First published in The Guardian, 11 June 2014
The Inquisition was a Catholic Church body with the purpose suppressing heresy. But did you know it still exists? Its current name is Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was founded in 1229 to combat the Cathars, otherwise known as the Albigensians – a mass heretical sect which had sprung up in southern France. The Albigensians were renowned for their piety; they preached poverty, chastity and modesty. Researching the topic for an essay in art school I came across the unintentionally funny testimony of a certain John the Miller:
“I am not an Albigensian. I lie and cheat and swear just like any other good Catholic.”
History does not record the fate of John the Miller.
A few hundred years later, in 1573, the great Venetian painter Paulo Veronese was hauled into the dock. He had aroused the ire of the Inquistion by painting a gigantic and extremely lively Last Supper with a ton of people in it. Check it out here. The Inquisition objected to the inclusion of jesters, dwarfs, a man picking his teeth with a fork, and a servant with an unexplained nosebleed. Particularly objectionable was Veronese’s inclusion of drunken German soldiers because at the time the Catholic Church was combatting the Protestant Revolution from the north. They ordered him to change the offensive figures within 3 months. In a ballsy move, Veronese merely changed the title to Feast in the House of Levi. He got away with it. The painting now depicts a banquet held by a man called Levi, mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, which was full of tax collectors and other sinners. Jesus himself copped a bit of flak for going.
“Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
And Jesus answered, saying unto them “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” *
* I am pretty sure this is what he said. It was hard to tell because he had a mouth full of quail eggs at the time. – Luke
I have always loved Albrecht Altdorfer’s stuff – those overly leafy trees and the almost nutty way he pushes differences of scale. I like him even more now. Coming at art from the angle of cartooning can deliver some unexpected insights. For example, I have sometimes searched for particular subject matter in the history of painting, as part of a potential punchline, and been surprised to find that it has never been painted. I am tempted to do a series of paintings to plug these unexpected gaps (what a show!). In the case of this cartoon I wanted to find a martyrdom picture (plenty of those) that could feasibly pass as buck’s night or bachelor party going a bit overboard. Nothing too gruesome but something with a bunch of blokes who could conceivably look like they were having fun rather than just a bunch of psychotic, bloodthirsty maniacs. Altdorfer’s “The Martyrdom of St Florian” was one of the very few that fit the bill. But as the painting was to appear as just a small part of a small cartoon I was worried that the detail would be unintelligible. Not so – it is graphically extremely clear. Look at the dark bridge with its pillars, the clear line of people, the bright saint and his weight standing out from the crowd – everything, including the clouds, is designed for immediate impact. Nothing messy or confusing. it has made me appreciate just how good Altdorfer was at organising his compositions.
It goes without saying that Veronese was a terrific painter. The recent exhibition at the National Gallery in London was a knockout. A ludicrously talented guy.