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The Parable of the Darnel

The Parable of the Tares among the Wheat

Domenico Fetti (1588/1589-1623). The Prague Castle Picture Gallery – Prague.

The part of the Gospel of Matthew dedicated to the discourse of parables starts with various stories that all pertain to agriculture. Tilling the land, sowing and harvesting were the major occupation of the people in the countryside that Jesus passed. These subjects also lend themselves to metaphors on the pious life and heavenly reward that awaited the just. Jesus told parables to the farmers in stories that were directly linked to their work in the land so that these people could understand rapidly his messages or ponder about hidden meanings. These parables are reminiscent of Jesus’ travels as a wandering preacher in between the cities.

Jesus compared in a parable called the ‘Parable of the Darnel’ the kingdom of the heavens with a farmer who sowed good seed to his land. While everybody was asleep, weary of a day’s work, the man’s enemy came and sowed darnel among the wheat. The evil man made off before the farmer and his labourers awoke. When the wheat grew and ripened, so did the darnel. The farmers’ labourers saw this and wondered where the darnel came from. The farmer understood that some enemy of his must have done that and he said so to the labourers. The labourers then asked whether they should go in the field and weed the darnel out. But the farmer told them that while weeding out the darnel they also might pull out the wheat. So the farmer told to let the darnel grow with the wheat. At harvest time he would say to the reapers to first collect the darnel, to tie it in bundles and to burn it. The wheat could be gathered into his barn. G38

Jesus explained this parable. He said that the sower of the good seed was the son of man, the field the world, and the good seed the subjects of the kingdom. The enemy was the devil, the darnel the subjects of the Evil One. The harvest would be at the end of the world, and the reapers would be the angels. Just like the darnel burnt in the fire, at the end of the world the angels would come and throw all those who did evil into the blazing furnace. The evil would weep and grind their teeth but the upright would shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father. G38

Other such agricultural parables of the New Testament include the parable of the seed that falls on rock, the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the yeast, the labourers in the vineyard, the story of the barren fig tree and of the seed growing by itself. Further parables that can fall in this category are the stories of the lost sheep and of the good shepherd. Matthew was the only apostle to recall the parable of the darnel and the wheat.

Domenico Fetti made a picture of Matthew’s parable. Fetti was born in Rome and may have been a pupil of Cigoli. He became the court painter of Mantua in 1613 and realised monumental frescoes there for the ducal palace and the cathedral. He left Mantua rather soon, in 1622, and settled in Venice where he had been before to buy art for his patron the Duke of Mantua. In Venice Domenico Fetti enlivened the art of painting parables so that no other artist like him treated these themes. Fetti died in 1623, still a young man in his thirties so that his career was short and few paintings remain of his hand. The ‘Parable of the Tares and the Wheat’ was part of a series of thirteen paintings of which nine came into the collection of the imperial castle of Prague. Currently the picture is the only one remaining in the castle Z2 .

In the painting ‘The Parable of the Tares among the Wheat’ one sees the evil enemy, the devil, sowing the darnel seed on the ploughed field. In the foreground the farmer and his labourers are fast asleep. The parable is a metaphor of good and evil and Domenico Fetti showed the menacing moment of evil while the good are asleep. The devil comes with the wind that rocks at the trees and bushes. One can see a palm tree bending against the heavy breeze and next to that a barren trunk, also bent sideways. These two high trees that dominate the painting so much are symbols also of good and evil, of good and prosperity versus death in evil. All the leaves of the trees and bushes of the background feel the disturbance in the atmosphere and the devil blends with them like an antique faun. Menacing clouds are in the sky. On the far right one sees the farmhouse and a primitive plough.

Domenico Fetti painted the picture of the ‘Parable of the Tares and the Wheat’ partly in rapid brushstrokes and partly in delicate, fluent touches. He might have done that because he was in a hurry and because these kinds of picture did not need detailed depiction. The story of the parable represented visually as a narrative was the most important element that the commissioners would ask. Domenico Fetti seems to have made very many works of the parables and more than a wonderful picture showing all the delicate skills of the artist, the narrative was what appealed. The rapid brushstrokes are mostly in the trees however, which may indicate also the use of this technique of long strokes to show movement.

A painter like Fetti had to uphold a fame so he painted a few marvellous parts of the picture in all detail just to show his considerable skill. This is the case with the farmer lying asleep in the right lower corner. Fetti let the light come from the left and play in beautiful shades and hues on the torso of the man. Here Fetti worked in minuscule detail with slight brushstrokes and thus showed to what art he was capable. The tilled land, the devil and the background are not painted in such detail.

Domenico Fetti was the master painter best known for his pictures of parables. For his scene in this painting he chose a very dynamic moment, the crux of the action of the story. It is not always easy to represent a whole narration visually in a convincing way. The parables also contain a meaning and that is of course an abstract concept difficult to represent in a static picture. Remark how Fetti marvellously coped with the task. He showed a painting in movement, but showing the movement of the devil was not enough to give an impression of dynamism to the viewer. So he painted the effects of the disturbance in nature of the wind that surrounds the evil man. One sees the wind in the luxurious palm tree of warm foliage and he brought a general elation from the left to the upper right in the composition. Fetti contrasted the foliage of the living palm tree with the dead, barren trunk of the dead tree and thus clarified the concept. The confrontation between good and evil was symbolically shown in a way that was not only rapidly understood by viewers, but that also immediately induced feelings of tension and unease. Furthermore, the farmers are asleep and their horizontality of lines of course also contrasts with the standing devil.

Domenico Fetti was a Baroque painter and influences by Rubens, Caravaggio and Elsheimer have been attributed to him. We find in this painting of the ‘Tares among the Wheat’ a few – but only a few – Baroque elements. The obvious show of emotions is Baroque and so are the rapid brushstrokes to indicate movement. But overall this painting is quite calm and serene, probably also as the parable is about sleeping men. It does not contain whirling action in the figures, or overladen decoration. The composition is clear and open. Fetti may have preferred the more dignified, solemn vision of the Italian Classicists of the Carracci family of Bologna. These artists were somewhat older than the first masters of the Baroque so might have been seen somewhat more by Fetti. But much more than all these influences, we must conclude that Domenico Fetti simply made pictures that were direct, clear, to the point, of the stories of the parables. Fetti’s symbolical representation of evil and good in the image of the two trees was not exactly new, but how he used that view proved that he was an intelligent young man with a keen, rapid mind for his subject. No wonder then that he was much admired for this kind of work.

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