Monday, November 29, 2010

The Centurion's Servant

Paolo Caliari (Il Veronese) (1528-1588)
Der Hauptmann von Capernaum vor Christus
The Centurion of Capharnaum before Christ
Oil on canvas
1.78m x 2.75m
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany

This is a later version of Veronese's celebrated representation of Christ and the Centurion of Capernaum which is in the Prado. It is a difficult subject. There is no action: only conversation. The action (the cure of the slave) happens miles away "offstage"

This copy in Dresden was acquired in 1747 by Augustus III

The first recognised paintings in sixteenth-century Venice that dealt with the subject matter of the Centurion were those executed by Veronese and his workshop

The painting depicts the events described in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10 Veronese`s version is more Matthew than Luke.

In Matthew, a centurion comes to Christ upon the letter's entry into Capernaum end begs him to heal his paralysed servant; the act of healing takes place during this encounter.

"5 And when he had entered into Capernaum, a centurion approached, petitioning him,
6 and saying, “Lord, my servant lies at home paralyzed and badly tormented.”
7 And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
8 And responding, the centurion said: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed.
9 For I, too, am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
10 And, hearing this, Jesus wondered. And he said to those following him: “Amen I say to you, I have not found so great a faith in Israel.
11 For I say to you, that many shall come from the east and the west, and they shall sit at table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.
12 But the sons of the kingdom shall be cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
13 And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go, and just as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And the servant was healed at that very hour.

In Luke, the centurion sends Jewish elders to ask Christ to save the life of his slave who is at the point of death, and when Christ is nearing the house, he sends his friends; again because of the centurion's great faith, his request is granted.

"1 When he had finished all his words to the people, he entered Capernaum.
2 A centurion there had a slave who was ill and about to die, and he was valuable to him.
3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and save the life of his slave.
4 They approached Jesus and strongly urged him to come, saying, "He deserves to have you do this for him,
5 for he loves our nation and he built the synagogue for us."
6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was only a short distance from the house, the centurion sent friends to tell him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.
7 Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.
8 For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come here,' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it."
9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him and, turning, said to the crowd following him, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
10 When the messengers returned to the house, they found the slave in good health."

There are differences in the two versions.

Today`s Gospel at the beginning of Advent is the account in Matthew.

Abbot Cuthbert Johnston gives an interesting meditation on today`s Gospel and in particular on the words of the Centurion:

"The gospel of today to calls us to reflect upon that personal encounter with Christ who comes to us and manifests himself to us in the breaking of the bread. From the lips of the centurion in today’s gospel we have the words which have been used by countless generations of believers as the immediate preparation for the coming of the Lord in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood:

"Lord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word, and I shall be healed”.

We read in the gospel of Saint Matthew that upon hearing the centurion’s words the Lord marvelled, and said that not even in Israel had he found such faith. We too should marvel when we consider how many millions of times, in every part of the world and in so many languages these words have been repeated.

The centurion, the unknown soldier of the gospel, was able with his word of faith, make the Word of God marvel, has found an exalted place in the Liturgy. His words which are placed on our lips are linked to the great mystery of faith and the most sacred moment of communion with the Body and Blood of the Lord.

The anonymous centurion’s words have been on the lips of countless Saints, on the lips of repentant sinners, they have been repeated with devotion and fervour by all who love the Lord and approach his holy table to receive the bread of life.

When these words are on our lips, let them also be in our heart, for we are called to be among those whom the Lord declared would come “from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven”. "

This event at Capharnaum is only one of the two recorded events at which Jesus was said to be astonished or amazed. The other is in Mark 6:6 when Jesus is said to be amazed at the lack of faith of the people of Nazareth and when he did not perform miracles.

One of the most striking depictions of this scene is by the British artist, Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959 at the Tate Gallery, London. It depicts the servant.

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959
The Centurion's Servant 1914
Oil on canvas
1143 x 1143 mm
Tate Gallery, London

In Issue 18 / Spring 2010 of Tate Etc, Shirin Spencer (the daughter of Sir Stanley Spencer) provides an insight into the background of the painting and a letter her father sent to Henry Lamb regarding The Centurion’s Servant

She said:

"The picture is and isn’t about war – it’s about healing and redemption; but without the war, would it have been painted?

Three of Stanley’s older brothers had joined up at or near the beginning of the war, but Stanley and his younger brother Gil (Gilbert) did not enlist until 1915. In the meantime, they tried to concentrate on their painting and did first aid and drilling in Maidenhead. They were not dare-devils, but they were as ready to go as most of the young men in that village or elsewhere ...

The months between the outset of war and July 1915 were probably the most frustrating and distressing of his young life.

“The more beastly the stories become, the more I feel I ought to go and do something… Gil walks around like a lump of lead.”

His brother Will played Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata.

“The slow movement makes me think the world’s nearly coming to an end.”

For me, the most poignant of the statements is:

“When I feel the horror of war most is when I go to bed.”

When brother Sydney was on leave they would share a bed. He wrote in his diary how Stanley tossed and turned, and it was during those months that Stanley painted The Centurion’s Servant. ...

I think that this is a picture of hope. The servant will rise and greet his friends, and Stanley has found an oasis of peace and joy – and the strength to paint a miracle."

In 1915, the Royal Army Medical Corps took Spencer away from Cookham for the first time in his life after he volunteered to join up. His war service lasted till 1919. The effect was indelible.

Spencer had planned to make the painting one part of a diptych. Christ and the Centurion was to be the theme of the other companion painting.

In The Centurion`s Servant, the male figure on the bed has the visage of a young Spencer. Note also that each of the figures has their own individual "praying positions", as Spencer called them. The scene is set in 1914. Christ's miracle of healing at a distance is located in the maid's bedroom of the Spencer family's home, with his own siblings serving as the actors. The Spencer family was very religious. The vision is that of Luke rather than Matthew.