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Christ and the Centurion

Christ and the Centurion

Sébastien Bourdon (1616-1671). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Caen. 1655-1660.

Matthew and Luke tell the miracle of the cured centurion’s servant. Here is Luke’s version.
Jesus went into Capernaum. A centurion there had a servant, a favourite of his, who was sick and near death. Having heard about Jesus he sent some Jewish elders to him so as to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus they pleaded earnestly with him saying, “He deserves this of you, because he is well disposed towards our people; he built us our synagogue himself.” So Jesus went with them, and was not very far from the house when the centurion sent word to him by some friends to say to him, “Sir, do not put yourself to any trouble because I am not worthy to have you under my roof; and that is why I did not presume to come to you myself; let my boy be cured by your giving the word. For I am under authority myself, and have soldiers under me; and I say to one man, “Go,” and he goes; to another, “Come here,” and he comes; to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.” When Jesus heard these words he was astonished at him and, turning round, said to the crowd following him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found faith as great as this.” And when the messengers got back to the house they found the servant in perfect health. G38

This miracle of the Gospels showed that Jesus did not make any distinction between the people to whom he performed a miracle. It could be a Jew as Lazarus, a blind beggar or a Roman centurion. These acts must have astonished all Jews who remained much segregated from the Romans because of their religion and because the Romans were the invaders of their country. Jesus made it clear with his praise that he had not just come for the Jews, but also for the hated invaders as long as the men believed in God and in himself.

Sébastien Bourdon, a French painter of Louis XIV’s reign period, made a picture of this scene. His ‘Christ and the Centurion’ was made around 1655 to 1660. Louis XIV still had Mazarin then and the Peace of the Pyrenees was just signed in 1659, whereby Louis married Maria Theresia of Spain. Another Maria Theresia, Maria Theresia of Austria, renounced her claims on the Spanish throne. By the agreement of this Peace and Louis’ marriage to an heiress of the Spanish throne, a Bourbon king would later reign over Spain.

Bourdon was one of those painters who had a great natural talent, but who was born in a period of many other prominent artists. He was not awaited for and although almost a child prodigy – he painted very young, at less than fourteen years old – he had it difficult to attain enough renown to live off his art. And he had one handicap that alone would have made it tedious to be accepted easily in Paris: he was a Calvinist from Montpellier. Sébastien Bourdon was born in 1616, under Louis XIII, in the midst of the wars of religion the Cardinal Richelieu fought against the Protestant cities of France. Montpellier was attacked by the Catholic armies and taken in 1621. La Rochelle, the proud, magnificent, old port led a heroic resistance under its mayor Jean Guiton also surrendered to Richelieu’s armies after a siege of more than a year. Bourdon’s parents sent him to Paris, to one of his uncles, soon after the siege of Montpellier. Very young, without resources, Bourdon entered the army. But an officer remarked his talents, discharged him from duty and apparently gave the young man enough money to go to Rome.

Sébastien Bourdon arrived in Rome not even twenty years old. He would stay there for five years. He met Nicolas Poussin, and of course copied him. But Bourdon earned a living by painting small pictures in the style of the Bamboccio. These were pictures of Roman landscapes filled with figures of the common people, of artisans, peasants, often of gypsies and thieves. Dutch painters had popularised this style that was close to their genre painting and Bourdon eagerly became one of the better-known Bamboccianti in Rome. When he returned to Paris, it was first to paint for the Parisian Protestant merchants and better-off artisans. He took the Bamboccio style to Paris. Soon however he gained success with the style that was really in demand and that suited French and Parisian character best. This was the grandiose art that was in fashion at the court of the King and thus also for the nobility: scenes of history, scenes of classic antiquity and religious themes. Protestant circles favoured scenes from the Old Testament and Bourdon also became proficient at these themes. The wars against the Reformed Church were over by then and national unity was primed in France over the religious differences. Bourdon’s Protestant references helped him even also for he was called to the court of the King of Sweden. Bourdon arrived in Stockholm in 1652 and made portraits for a while at the court there, for instance several of Queen Christina.

In Paris, Bourdon competed with Simon Vouet, with Jacques Stella whom he could count among his friends, with Philippe de Champaigne, Eustache Le Sueur and Laurent de La Hyre. Bourdon was remarked by Charles Le Brun and he became one of the first members of the Academy after Le Brun had founded this most French of all art institutions. Bourdon taught at the Academy. Bourdon’s fame was settled. He painted in the style of French Classicism, but always in a very individual way. Bourdon sought rare themes, both from the Bible such as the rarely painted scene of ‘Christ and the Centurion’ and also rarely painted themes from classic antiquity. He must have been a well-read, intellectual type of a man even though much of an autodidact. He died in 1671.

Bourdon’s late picture of ‘Christ and the Centurion’ represents the centurion knelt before Jesus. Bourdon follows here the traditional representation after the Gospel of Matthew, in which the centurion indeed throws himself at Jesus’ feet. The centurion humbles himself and has taken off his helmet as a sign of respect. The figure of the centurion in the knelt position and with uplifted head leads the viewer’s attention cleverly to the face of Jesus. Jesus praises the centurion for having come to ask help for someone else and he holds his hands in a blessing. His apostles and disciples accompany Jesus. The centurion has his own companions and Roman soldiers. The painting is thus balanced between the two figures grouped together, with Jesus and the centurion in the middle. The painting is roughly sketched in colours more than in line. It shows however Sébastien Bourdon’s skills in representing a traditional religious subject. Bourdon was a follower of Simon Vouet and Nicolas Poussin who had introduced again classic themes in French painting. Bourdon painted in their style, which we would now call academic. All figures are static again. Baroque representations were not of the past. But dignity and poise were added. And the background is also a scene of classic antiquity with the ruins of an aqueduct and a Roman citadel painted in the general brown tones of the whole picture. Such antique landscapes were already very popular in France. Bourdon captured well in this rapidly executed scene the humility of the centurion and Jesus’ praise.

In the oeuvre of Bourdon very few scenes are so seemingly roughly thrown on the canvas. The picture consists almost only of fairly large juxtaposed colour areas of the same pure hues. Bourdon usually elaborated his surfaces in much more detail, though this tendency to reduce colour areas to the essentials can be found elsewhere in his paintings. Here it is as if Bourdon wanted to spare on pixels and as if he had tried an experiment much like the Cubists would arrive at more than two centuries later. But the picture may also not be completely finished in detail and thus merely a stage in the process that Bourdon applied to arrive to reach a final presentation. Then Bourdon first brought the whole composition on canvas and gradually painted in the colour detail. We believe the picture is quite well finished however, as a visual experiment of a mature artist for whom the quick expression of a complete scene, its composition and lyrical colours mattered more than detail.

Bourdon’s style in ‘Christ and the Centurion’ is still baroque in the evident show of emotions in the centurion and in Jesus. The centurion opens his arms and thus abandons himself to Jesus. Jesus has a soothing and surprised gesture. We find the two styles Baroque and Classicism mixed in the attitudes of the two groups. Remark the static vertical dignity of Jesus’ disciples and the more dynamic scene on the left, around the horse. The menacing dark sky and the landscape suggesting wind and storm over Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo also are Baroque.

Once the viewer has absorbed the main figures and the main theme of the centurion and Jesus Bourdon’s picture remains interesting in the many figures and in the landscape features. There is much to discover but the real value of this picture lies in the way the artist could blend these elements in various planes with the strong composition centred on the two main figures. The view is attracted immediately to the essence of the theme, further detail need to be sought thereafter. We find of course French dignity foremost in this painting, but also a calm poetry and a sensuality of soft colours that was more avoided by artists like Poussin and Stella.

French Classicism was on the move. Epic scenes were preferred at one of the grandest courts of Europe. Bourdon took a religious theme, but he did not just paint fishermen for Paris. What better combination was there to be found than a scene of a Roman Centurion – a prominent figure of classic antiquity – and the Christian Jesus? An evolution was on the show with this picture, a blend of subjects and views towards art and religion. Religion served the purpose of adding support to the grandeur, but the grandeur was secular and represented by classic motives. Bourdon however added poetry and softness.

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