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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Maundy Thursday: The Washing of the Feet


Maestro de San Esteve de Andorra
The Washing of the Feet
1200 - 1215
Mural fresco
241.5 cm  x  202 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

This work originally was from the central apse of the Church of Sant` Esteve in Andorra la Vella, which lies between France and Spain

Christ is beckoning to Peter to allow him to wash his feet at the Last Supper

Four apostles look on

Another apostle is holding a towel to dry the feet

The setting is of course The Upper Room and we see an arch with curtains

The cycle of the Passion of which this formed part began with the illustration of The Washing of the Feet

This looks like Romanesque but one can see an attempt to show emotion in the features of the participants in the scene. One sees the influence of Byzantine art

The episode is narrated in John 13: 1 - 20

Modern society does not really appreciate the significance of the ceremony

At best it is seen as a public and partly theatrical and quaint act of humility and self abasement

The act of washing another’s feet was one that could not be required of the lowliest Jewish slave. It is an allusion to the humiliating death of the crucifixion.

The word translated as "laid aside [his garments]" is tithemin, a word which is used repeatedly in St. John's Gospel with one particular meaning: to lay down one's life

Jesus requires that Peter undergo this ritual for two reasons. First, unless he accepts this, "You will have no part in me." Second, when completed, Peter will be "wholly clean." 

It was an ordnance of God himself

For a full discussion please see Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J. "The Foot Washing in John 13:6-11; Transformation Ritual or Ceremony?" 

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John has no account of the Last Supper meal just the foot washing ceremony and Jesus’ farewell discourse. 

But such was the importance of the practice that The Rule of St Benedict  provided that that it should be performed every Saturday for all the community by him who exercised the office of cook for the week. 

It also provided  that the abbot and the brethren were to wash the feet of those who were received as guests.

It can also be seen by the fact that in 694 the Seventeenth Synod of Toledo commanded all bishops and priests in a position of superiority under pain of excommunication to wash the feet of those subject to them. 

Here are some other depictions of the same scene from John`s Gospel


f  5r Christ washing Peter's feet
1200 - c 1220
Miniature in colours and gold on parchment 
Royal MS 1 D X, f 5r
The British Library, London



Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1260 - c. 1318-1319)
Washing of the Feet
From Maestà (back, central panel: Scenes of Christ`s Passion
1308-11
Tempera on wood
50 x 53 cm
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena