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Christ in the House of Simon

The Supper at Simon’s House

Pierre Subleyras (1699-1749). Musée du Louvre – Paris. 1737.

When Jesus was on his travels to preach, a Pharisee called Simon invited him to a meal.

When Jesus arrived at the Pharisee’s house and took his place at table, suddenly a woman came in, who had a bad name in the town. She had heard he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointmentG38.

After this scene, Simon the Pharisee wondered whether Jesus was really the prophet everyone told he was, because surely Jesus would have seen that this woman had a bad name and would not have let her touch him. But Jesus retorted with a parable and he showed the difference of welcoming he had received from Simon as compared to the welcome of the woman. Simon had poured no water over Jesus’ feet and Simon had not anointed Jesus’ head.

Jesus said: “For this reason I tell you, Simon, that her sins, many as they are, have been forgiven her, because she has shown such great love. It is someone who is forgiven little who shows little love”. Then he said to the woman: “Your sins are forgiven”G38.

John in 11:2 names this woman Mary, sister to the man Lazarus that Jesus would resurrect, and sister to Martha, all of the village of Bethany. Tradition associates her with a woman Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out (Luke 8:2). This woman walked with Jesus and the twelve apostles when the Christ was proclaiming the Good News. Further women accompanying Jesus on the travel are named by Luke as Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna and many others who provided for them out of their own resources.

John also told that the house was filled with the scent of the ointment. Then Judas Iscariot – one of his disciples, the man who was to betray him – said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief; he was in charge of the common fund and used to help himself to the contents. So Jesus said, “leave her alone; let her keep it for the day of my burial. “You have the poor with you always, you will not always have me.”G38

Pierre Subleyras was a French painter and engraver, born in 1699 during the reign of Louis XIV in St Gilles du Gard of the South of France. He studied with his father Mathieu who was also a painter. Pierre worked in Rome, where he was known as a painter of religious panels and of portraits. Subleyras remained essentially a Baroque painter, but he was also French with a rather austere tradition of portraiture. So there is quite a difference in the way he handles portraits and scenes like ‘The Supper in the House of Simon’. This picture came to France in the early years of the French Revolution, in 1799. The revolutionaries fancied the grand epic works of Subleyras even though he was mainly a religious painter. They confiscated several of his pictures from the court families, from the Countess du Barry, and from the Duchess de Nouailles. The vast painting (it measures 2.15 by 6.79 meters) of the ‘Supper at Simon’s’ came from the Asti convent near Turin.F1

The painting is all Baroque action. Simon the host is seated or lying as an oriental satrap at one end of the long table. Jesus is sitting in the same manner at the left end. The tale of Luke and John is represented. Simon is whispering to his Pharisee neighbours, “Who is this man who forgives sins?” Other invited Pharisees pass the question along and comment on it. Near Christ may be Susanna, who accompanied the apostles on their travels. A little further wine is served to Peter. Other apostles are near. Judas Iscariot is behind Jesus. He is clearly protesting and pointing at Mary Magdalene. Mary is wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. She has her back all bare, the only one to show any naked skin around the table except a servant at the exact symmetrical opposite. Christ is dressed in a red robe. Red is the colour of love. He makes a sign of blessing or of forgiveness. Subleyras has added a lively scene of servants bringing the food, pouring wine, and washing the dishes. The scene in the foreground refers to various famous painting of the ‘Last Supper’, such as the middle theme of the picture. Indeed, there wine is being poured to Peter. The lines of movement from the right and from the left point to this act of presenting the wine, which is of course a reference to the Eucharist.

One can analyse this picture to find various symmetries in the horizontal and vertical lines. The figures are positioned in symmetrical groups around the middle vertical axis of the painting. Symmetries are also to be found in the colours; for instance the red of Jesus’ robe is matched on the other side by the red of the robe of Simon. Jesus and Simon are the two most important figures of the theme. The blue of Jesus’ cloak finds an answer in the blue robe of the youth on the other side, and so on. Subleyras has added the traditional symbols also like the dog, the tilted dishes, the basket and the pitchers, which have their own particular symbolic value, and which were often depicted in scenes of the ‘Last Supper’.

Subleyras was a professional painter. His ‘Supper in the House of Simon’ is a professional picture that lacks maybe the intensity of a very original creative imagination, but that shows the symbols and refined representation that one could expect of the better works of art.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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