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The Good Samaritan

The Good Samaritan

Luca Giordano (1634-1705). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Rouen. 1650.

Luca Giordano was a painter of Naples of the seventeenth century. He was born there in 1634 and died in 1705. Naples was a prosperous city then and many painters from other Italian towns and from other countries worked there either permanently or for short periods. The Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera arrived in Naples in 1616 end remained until his death in 1652. Caravaggio was in Naples in 1607 and 1609. Luca Giordano is a generation older than these two giants are, but we find their influence preponderantly in Giordano’s pictures. Giordano travelled to Rome and Florence and worked also from 1692 to 1702 at the court of the Spanish King Charles II in Madrid, thereby doing the reverse of his master Ribera. Naples and Spain remained closely connected.

Giordano worked for religious commissioners and for aristocrats. He was a very religious painter and very prolific at that. He made hundreds of Baroque pictures, many glorifying in open pathos the victory of Christ, of the Virgin Mary and the Archangels. His paintings are scattered all over Europe; rare is the museum that has no Luca Giordano. The pictures can even still be found in small parish churches such as in the village of Bossière in Belgium. A recent cleanup of the altarpiece that had been offered to the church in the nineteenth century by a local businessman revealed a Giordano. Giordano’s extraordinary capacity of work gained him the surname ‘Fa Presto’.

Luca Giordano loved splendid and bright colours that usually contrasted with the darker tones of Ribera’s Spanish tradition to very theatrical effects. He worked in a suave, devotional, sometimes pathetic and usually sentimental, but strong masculine style. Among the tremendous amount of very classic, though never plain pictures, came a few real masterpieces of expression and individuality such as the ‘Good Samaritan’ of the Rouen Museum of Fine Arts. Giordano painted a parable of the New Testament.

Luke gives account of the parable of the Good Samaritan after a teaching of Jesus. Jesus has been saying that one has to love one’s neighbour as oneself. At that moment a man asks who is his neighbour. In answer, Jesus tells the following parable.

A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of bandits; they stripped him, beat him and then made off, leaving him half-dead. Now a priest happened to be travelling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite who came to the place saw him, and passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan traveller who came on him was moved with compassion when he saw him. He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him. Next day, he took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper and said, “Look after him, and on my way back I will make good any extra expense you have”. “Which of these three do you think proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the bandits’ hands?” He replied, “The one who showed pity towards him.” Jesus said to him, “Go, and do the same yourself.” G38 .

The Samaritans were the descendants of Assyrians. The Assyrian King Sanherib had conquered Israel and sent the ten tribes of the land in exile. He brought Assyrians to colonise Israel. They settled mainly in Samaria and mixed with the remaining local inhabitants, taking over their Jewish religion. When the original Jews returned after the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans asked to be considered as true Jews but they were turned down. The Samaritans then built their own temple on mount Gerizim to compete with the Temple of Jerusalem. The temple of Gerizim was however destroyed in 126 before Christ. Maybe because they were considered outsiders in Israel, many converted to Christianity but their separate sect continues till this day with offers of lambs still being made on mount Gerizim. Jesus used the Samaritans to indicate people the Jews knew intimately, but that remained strangers and outcasts for the same Jews. Talking to Samaritans and praising them was unusual.

Luca Giordano’s ‘Good Samaritan’ is a poignant image of human misery. The images that come to mind immediately when looking at this work are the numerous Saint Sebastians, such as Georges de La Tour’s ‘Sebastian tended by Irene’. In these pictures of the martyr of Sebastian also a miserable man lies defeated and helpless, naked on the ground and somebody is having pity over the injured. In Giordano’s picture not Irene, a woman, is caring however, but a man – the Samaritan.

The body of the injured man lies on hard rock. The body is contorted. The man’s bony body lies with the breast upheaved, its arms and legs and hands are crooked. The neck is elongated; the head hangs down and away. The body is grey-white, bleak, the colour of death. There could be no more gripping, horrible image of misery, ugliness and death. This image reminds us of the Crucified Christ of Mathis Gotthard Niethart alias Dürenwald. Here also we find the crooked fingers and a revelation of pain. Of course, Giordano reminds of Spanish pathetic imagery as brought to Naples by Jusepe de Ribera. The dark colours surrounding the corpse certainly reveal the Spanish master.

Giordano’s Samaritan bows over the injured man. He puts balms on his wounds. The Samaritan is cautious, gentle and caring. He bends over the man’s body. And yet, the Samaritan could be the torturer at the same time. He encroaches on the injured body like a usurper. Giordano has not painted the Samaritan as a loving carer. The Samaritan is old, all the wrinkles of his neck are shown and he is sunburnt to a nasty red from the voyage. The Samaritan’s features are angular. His head with the protruding nose could be the beak of a scavenger bird. The softest image of the painting remains the horse, the head of which appears in the dark background directly confronting the viewer. Innocence and gentleness is in the horse, not in the Samaritan.

Luca Giordano has in fact rendered the most direct and true understanding of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here is not a nice young lady, nor a young handsome nobleman helping a poor injured man. Giordano showed a miserable human, the Samaritan, weary and sunburnt of the road, neither rich nor beautiful himself, helping something that is even more miserable so as to be hardly human. The injured and robbed man is miserable but the Samaritan is hardly less so. Therein lies the true message of the parable: all humans are poor, helpless and miserable and these miserable sometimes help each other. Wherein lies their greatness for God.

It is strange to find a picture like this painted by the conventional Giordano, who should have been an extrovert, laughing and enjoying Neapolitan. There was however also much overt poverty and misery in Naples and Giordano could not but have noticed that aspect of his hometown too. These pictures also are in the Spanish tradition of devotional passion as shown by Ribera and El Greco. The conventional Giordano was a more powerful painter than one might expect. In this picture he has expressed something of his inner soul. This one picture would be enough to reconcile us with the many so easily expected paintings of this artist, and thus to call him a great and individual master. The painting announces the poignant images of Francisco de Goya, who would profoundly sense human misery. Luca Giordano had the same feelings and expressed them in the same dark colours and the same strength of image as Goya.

The Catholic Church always emphasised charity. Its many monk orders were dedicated to poverty for themselves and to the healing of wounds of humans, be these wounds of the soul or of the body. Abbeys cared for the forsaken, took them in and gave them to eat. Pilgrims on the road were sustained. One of the first tasks of priests was to organise charity in their community. Catholics and Protestants founded schools and hospitals. The institutions thus created refer to the parable of the Good Samaritan and its moral lesson. Pictures of this parable frequently adorned hospices and hostels. In many countries of Europe the organisations that were thus created still are a formidable power of human solidarity. One might think that with the lowering numbers of for instance Catholic Priests this caritative power also would dwindle, but nothing is less true. The number of people that help in Christian charity institutions, founded sometimes centuries ago by the clergy, has steadily grown. So have the numbers of helpers in charity of secular institutions.

The parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ appealed to a forceful element in man. Because love for another human, however miserable, meant solidarity and a form of transcendence. These feelings have absolutely not faded away in our present capitalist free economy. On the contrary, most politicians and persons of influence have confirmed them. With his parable Jesus touched a fundamental characteristic of man and gave it a spiritual founding.

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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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