The Feast in the house of Levi

Paolo Veronese - 1573
oil on canvas - 1280x555 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

In 1573 Paolo Veronese completed a new "Last Supper" for the Dominican convent of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. Even in this huge canvas (almost 13 meters long), the painter builds a precise architectural setting in central perspective. The scene is dominated by the large porch, under which there is the table at which sat Jesus and the Apostles. The porch also has obvious references to the architecture of Palladio, as well as some buildings in the background. Note the cloudy sky that creates a polarized light, which ends up making almost white of the background buildings: atmospheric widespread effect at northern latitudes, which is here represented by Veronese with great precision, as well as from typical tradition of Venetian painting of the sixteenth century.

Despite the sanctity of the scene, one of the culminating moments of the Passion of Christ, the there are too many details unrelated to the Gospel story, which desacralize the overall atmosphere.
This peculiarity went on to create a case that went beyond the purely artistic intentions of the painter. It is after the conclusion of the Council of Trent that just in the last session, standards for the proper performance of images intended to holy places had been also dictated. In those years was a strong contrast between the Catholic Church and Protestant reforms, and one of the issues that divided the old from the new religions was that of transubstantiation, or the transformation of bread and wine during the Eucharist, in flesh and blood of Christ. Protestants denied the phenomenon of transubstantiation, which is for the first time expressed in the words spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper. Then, having an unorthodox attitude towards this precise moment in the history of Jesus, it may see a hidden affirmation of adherence to the Protestant positions.

For this reason, the Veronese was summoned by the ecclesiastical court. They asked about the reasons for this non-adherent to the religious spirit, he justified by invoking the freedom that typically artists, like poets, are taken to give free rein to their imaginative power. It was not the end, of a real process, and then, to avoid other problems, he found the compromise to rename the work that was called "The Feast in the house of Levi" and no longer "Last Supper".

The incident to which the title refers is that for the conversion of St Matthew, who, prior to the call of Jesus, was a publican, or a tax collector for the Romans rulers. His name, before taking that of Matthew, was Levi, and he, as a man of great wealth derived from his position, gave a great banquet for Jesus at which intervened other publicans. The ecclesiastical court considered that the scene painted by Veronese was more related with this banquet than with the "Last Supper", so the painter was forced to make small changes and indicate the new title on the upper frames of the parapet of the staircase in the foreground.

This episode, the Inquisition that interrogates Paolo Veronese, is a significant event in the atmosphere of those years, because in fact symbolically marks a transition between two ages: freedom of narrative and style of the late Renaissance add the new age of control and censorship on "art implemented by the Catholic church".

Convito in casa Levi
José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia