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The Raising of the Youth of Nain

The Raising of the Youth of Nain.

Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). Kunsthistorisches Museum. Vienna. 1565-1579.

Luke tells that Jesus arrived in a town called Nain. The apostles and a large number of people accompanied him. When Jesus arrived at the town gate, he saw that a dead man was carried out and he heard that this was the only son of a widow. Jesus felt sorry for the woman. So Jesus touched the bier and said, ‘Young man, I tell you: stand up.’ The young man indeed stood up and began to talk. So Jesus gave the son back to his mother. Since a large crowd had accompanied the funeral bier, all wondered in awe at what had happened and said among them that a great prophet had risen. Jesus’ glory spread over Judaea.

Paolo Veronese made a painting of this scene. We see a picture in warm subdued colours but we do not know really whether these were entirely Veronese’s original colours, as the hues may have smoothed with time. Even then the hues are harmonious. The colours are mostly orange and red hues that are very close, as well as various shades of blue. The only other colour is a bright brown in the architecture and in the cloak of Saint Peter. Two features are most striking in this picture: the unusual oblique composition, and the nice view of the widow of Nain as a wealthy Venetian lady.

Veronese applied a daring composition for his painting. He showed Jesus and the apostles, the widow and the dead son. But we would expect emphasis on the resurrection of the dead young man. Veronese showed the dead only in the far left corner so that one really has to deliberately search for him to find the scene of the funeral bier in the picture. Only a small part of the man is to be seen so that the viewer has to imagine the rest of the body. We do not find the many people that accompanied the bier. A servant holds the dead man at the arms, and Veronese also painted this figure only in half, and partly hidden by the corpse. Then the scene follows entirely, very obviously and theatrically along the left diagonal over the mourning widow pleading for her son, to the standing Jesus. There is a very strong line of emotion going from the lower left to the upper right, along this diagonal.

The dead man represents death, the earth, the end of being able to think, the end of intelligence and feeling. The scene rises upwards to the pleading woman, showing in an overt way her disarray, her sorrow and maybe also her future happiness. She still has to be supported by two servant women. She kneels down, half belonging to the earth like her son, half rising from the earth. She symbolises humanity and human emotions. The woman is the centre of the painting and since she is elegant, demanding sympathy and consolation, the real theme of Veronese’s picture can but be elegance. The theme is not death but charity and pity for strong but beautiful widows overwhelmed by the vagaries of fate. The scene rises further upwards towards Jesus, standing compassionately, commanding, imposing, in the glory of his being the Son of God and with a halo around his head. Jesus represents ultimate love. He is the only one that can help. He is the essence of spirituality. The dead man thus has to arise like a newborn from the state of non-thinking, inanimate corpse to the state of emotions and finally to spirituality.

The scene also foresees what will happen to Jesus. Once he will be dead, a corpse over which his own mother Mary will weep in the Pietà and then his Father in Heaven will resurrect him from the dead. The ‘Raising of the widow of Nain’ thus also symbolises Jesus’ own life, suffering and death. It was a strong theme, for which a strong picture was needed.

In such a painting our eyes follow the diagonal, rise with it and cannot escape the ascending movement. The viewer’s eyes will always converge to Jesus and linger there, for Jesus wears a nice red robe and a deep blue cloak painted in warm colours. The widow of Nain is a virtuous woman, so she is clad in a very light blue robe that is almost of such a light tone to be white. But she also has a warm orange cloak thrown over her shoulders. The light blue colour is the colour of reserve, of distinction and of innocence. The Virgin Mary wears these colours, but the widow of Nain is an elegant wealthy lady that wears her cloak with sophisticated grace. The widow has a warm heart and character, indicated by the warm orange of her cloak and by her gently pleading eyes. Look how she holds her head in an oblique way, as humans do when they ask for pity and sympathy and help. Paolo Veronese modified his scene a little as compared to Luke’s story, for in the story the mother does not plead for her son. In Luke’s miracle, the widow does not know Jesus or his reputation as a healer. Jesus takes the initiative in Luke’s story, un-appealed to.

Paolo Veronese’ composition is fresh, appropriate, unusual and striking. Was it also innovative? Veronese’s picture of the ‘Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain’ dates from 1565 to 1570. He had a great example in another picture, made by another Venetian artist – and not a minor one – around 1534 to 1538. That was Tiziano Vecellio’s ‘Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple’. Titian painted this picture for the Scuola della Carità. This Scuola held its meetings in the building in which is now the ‘Galleria dell’Accademia’ and it still hangs there in the same position for which it was designed. In this picture a crowd has assembled on the left around Saint Anne, Mary’s mother. Titian shows massive stairs that rise to the upper right. The young girl Mary climbs slowly the stairs, ascending towards the Temple patriarchs who stand at the end, as high as Jesus in Veronese’s painting. Paolo Veronese used Titian’s composition. His innovation lies only in that he brought the scene closer to the viewer. Titian’s painting is a wide scene so that the painter could represent many more figures and a wide architecture. Titian’s picture gives the impression to viewers that they stand farther from the scene. Paolo Veronese brought the figures in the proximity of the viewers. That allowed him only to suggest the dead man more than really showing him. There are fewer figures in Veronese’s painting, so that he could depict the figures of the widow and of Jesus larger. But the basic idea of the theatrical composition must remain Titian’s.

Paolo Veronese was the painter of grace and elegance of rich Venice. We must imagine the ‘Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain’ in one of the halls of a Scuola of Venice. The Scuole were institutions of mutual support of the communities of the lagoon city. Not only would the picture augment the room of the Scuola since it shows a false staircase, but it would also document charity itself as a duty enforced by Jesus. In the miracle of Nain Jesus helps a widow that remained in sorrow without a husband and a son. Such situations must have been common in Venice, as the town’s merchants traded in foreign and far countries. When widows appealed, the Scuola would help. So it is the very image of the basic institutions of Venice that Paolo Veronese glorifies in his picture. The Scuola institution system was venerable. The wisest men of Venice, uncommonly rich and honoured men, guaranteed its management. In the Scuola meeting rooms the best citizens of Venice gathered. The Scuola halls were the scenes of the most elegant gatherings of the town. Massive funds flew to the Scuola, which were the equivalent of our contemporary pension funds. The custodians of the Scuola controlled immense wealth. But the Scuola system was a realisation of one of the basic concepts of Jesus’ teachings and examples, and of one of the basic principles of Christianity. Nowhere else but in Venice were these concepts applied so early and completely in Europe.

The meeting halls of the Venetian Scuole demanded grace, elegance, but also power and dignity, though not forgetting the pious goals of the society. So Paolo Veronese could not show the broken corpse of death. He could show charity. His images had to reflect charm and elegance. So Veronese showed death in a corner and a beautiful, apparently quite wealthy, still young lady in elegant dress in the middle, in the prominent place. Veronese emphasised the concepts of spirituality and of charity, the concepts from which the Scuole took their reason of being. Jesus stands higher than the other people so that everybody in the Scuola halls would have to look up to him as the undisputed master from which all Venice took its spiritual force. Paolo Veronese’s picture is not only a masterpiece of composition, colours and skill of detail. Veronese was also a master professional in the intelligence with which he could ply a composition to the situation and the - often unspoken but acknowledged by all – wishes of his commissioners.

Paolo Veronese was no Venetian by birth. He was born in Verona, hence his name, in 1528 and he initially was trained there in the art of painting. But as soon as 1555 he was in Venice and never really left the city, finding in the Scuole and churches enough patrons of his art. There was only one Scuola for which he could not really work, that was the Scuola di San Rocco, in which worked his rival Jacopo Tintoretto. But Tintoretto was engaged in a titanic work for this institution so that he more rarely worked for other commissions. As no other artist of Venice Paolo Veronese was the painter of Venice’s splendour and he offered works in the most striking colours that a painter could find, with scenes that reflected the wealth and the social standing of the town. Veronese sought beauty in harmony in vibrant colours and charming content. He painted mostly religious and mythological pictures. His subjects were however merely the occasion to show grand and very decorative images for and of Venetian citizens. He had all for himself a Venice avid for pictures and wealthy enough to afford them. Together with Tintoretto he prepared the Baroque period and many of the elements of the Baroque style can be recognised in his and in Tintoretto’s work. For Veronese it was first and foremost a kind of light, joyful profiting of the richness of Venice.

Like the great Pietro Perugino, Paolo Veronese had an ideal of society and he painted his pictures very much to represent that ideal. For Perugino the ideal was one of ethereal beauty, of intellectual purity, of solemn dignity, of frugal decoration, and more of ascetic aestheticism. For Paolo Veronese the ideal was graceful charm, easy heroism, elegant masculinity and decoration for an opulent world of wealth. Perugino lived in fifteenth century Florence, Paolo Veronese in late sixteenth century Venice. Florence and Venice worked themselves out of darker ages by hard and austere work in the fifteenth century. Perugino represents some of the spirit that generated the wealth of the Italian city-states. Veronese represents the ensuing enjoying of the wealth. This joy announced the Baroque period.

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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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