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Art for meditation - August 2023

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Dierick Bouts (Haarlem c.1410– Louvain 1475), Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee, between 1450 and 1475, oil on wood, cm 42.2 x 62.5 cm, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie 

Month of August. 

New Testament women: the Sinner in the House of Simon. 

A Pharisee invited him to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee's house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner." Jesus said to him in reply, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Tell me, teacher," he said. "Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days' wages 12 and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?" Simon said in reply, "The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven." He said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little. “He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." The others at table said to themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins? But he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Lk 7, 36-50)


The small panel faithfully reflects the Gospel account. Actually, it seems to compress it into a narrow space, maybe to better highlight the scene. On the right, the presence of the patron (we do not know his name, but if we look at his clothing, we understand that is a Carthusian monk) tells us, first and foremost, that what is narrated concerns us too; it is a scene that each of us must contemplate and meditate. And the fact that the apostle John, on the right, seems to be interacting with the monk who is on his knees, confirms all of this. But let’s come to the subject of the painting. We are in the house of Simon, the table is set for lunch, Jesus is sitting at the right of the host, while Peter is on his left. The main characters are moving, looking beyond the table because something happened: a woman has entered, leans down at the feet of Jesus, bathes them with tears, dries them with her hair, anoints them with perfume. This unexpected event causes three different reactions in the three protagonists, situated right in front of us, the spectators. Simon, at the centre, seems irritated by the interruption, with his half-open mouth and impatient gaze, almost seems to seek an immediate solution to the situation that has arisen and that, in his opinion, is annoying Jesus. Peter, on the host’s left, seems, in turn, to want to ward off the indecorous spectacle that the woman is giving. And finally, Jesus, on Simon's right, who focuses on what the woman is doing, without retracting his foot, but rather seems to extend it towards her. And the fact that his right hand is blessing the woman confirms what the Gospel account makes explicit: much has been forgiven her, because she has loved much.

And here we are finally in front of her, the woman whose name we do not even know. She is relegated in the left corner of the painting, has taken the pose of servants, but we cannot help but turning our gaze to her. We are impressed by her beautiful blonde and wavy hair, the slender hands, and the jar of perfumed ointment near her right hand. Curiously, the colours of her clothes – the green of the dress and the red/blue of the coat – recall respectively the colours of Simon and Peter’s clothes; those who are criticising her and who would like to take her away from Jesus. Instead, her attitude and silent choice to declare herself at the service to the Messiah earned her the Lord's consideration, forgiveness and blessing.

To her, courageous woman who knew how to challenge the culture of that period, the slanders of people, and the prejudices of the self-righteous, goes all our admiration and our wish that we might be able to draw on us, as she did, the benevolent and saving gaze of the Lord Jesus. I like to think that the extreme care with which the Flemish painter has represented every detail (the wonderful geometrical design of the floor, the realism of the fish prepared for the dinner, the fragrance of the small breads, the transparency of the glasses, the preciousness of the veining of the marble column that, on the left, opens onto a terrace from which a beautiful landscape can be seen, the soft red leather of Simon's shoes, and his precious headgear ...) is also a tribute to the protagonist of the painting, to the woman who will soon leave that room where she met Jesus, in peace. And she will probably not be the same as before, because she has experienced mercy and forgiveness.

(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)

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