PRETENCE V/S PIETY: ‘The Widows Mite’ by James Tissot (1886 – 1894)
Jacques Joseph Tissot, later anglicized as James Tissot, was born in 1836 near the busy port of Nantes, France to a prosperous draper. At the age of 17, he embarked upon his artistic mission which spanned three successful periods. In the first phase in Paris (1859-1870), he enjoyed great success as a high-society painter. He lived among rich aristocrats near the Arc De Triomphe in Paris. His leisured, well-secured life was soon skewered by the struggles of the French Revolution.
The fall of the Second Empire in 1870 and the bloody Franco Prussian war in 1871 compelled him to flee to London. Here, from 1871 to 1882, his career soared for the second time. However his successful eleven year sojourn ended in an emotional disaster. In 1882, his dearly loved mistress, Kathleen Newton died of consumption.
While working on a series of paintings themed, ‘The Woman of Paris’, James Tissot visited the Church of St. Sulpice in order to sketch the portrait of a choir singer. Here he encountered God in a vision as he saw Christ tending to the broken-hearted and the down trodden. This was his route to Damascus; his Metanoia! The encounter renewed his faith and shifted his artistic focus.
He took off on a research trip to Holy Land, beginning his ten year campaign to illustrate the New Testament. The result was ‘The Life of Christ’ popularly also known as ‘the Tissot Bible.’ It is a monumental series of 350 water coloured imagery displaying profuse observations with lucid realism.
‘The Widow’s Mite’ forms a part of the representations in the ‘Life of Christ.’ It elucidates Christ confrontation with the Jewish authorities, particularly the scribes as described in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12, verses 38 to 44.
Adhering to the narrative, the composition is visually divided into three significant segments. The Pharisees and scribes are depicted stepping into the Temple, tossing their heads with pride. On the other hand, a humble widow, in an attempt to avert disgrace, hurries down the temple steps. Eyes downcast, she huddles together her little babe as the scorching Palestinian sun enhances her discomfort. At the centre of this dichotomy is Christ, seated with his disciples by the verandah along the walls of the robust Temple of Jerusalem.
True to Tissot’s technique, the composition includes not a contemporary cast but rather the first century citizens of Jerusalem. This is clearly attested through the flowing drapery, the dressing style, the linear patterns, the physique and the gestures of the actors, their foot-wear and of course the construction of space. Thus through this painting, Tissot desired to transport the viewer to the time of Christ. He attempts to bring to live the Gospel and stimulate our imagination through his pragmatic depiction. Further, the artist augments our understanding through a scheme of symbols.
Notice the pilaster flanking the portal of the Temple. At its base are placed six horns that served a pretentious purpose. When the rich threw in large amounts, they blew aloud the instrument in order to proclaim with pride their contribution to the Temple treasury. However their deceit is denounced by the iconography right above the horns – namely the acanthus (everlasting life), the pine-cone (wisdom) and the olive (peace).
The heart of the Gospel is not so much the mite of the widow as compared to her pious might. A vulnerable figure since ancient times, the status of a widow was precarious. In a society where women could not earn their bread, the widow had to depend upon the ‘goodness’ of her extended family and the society in providing for her basic needs. And yet, in her nothingness, the widow of today’s Gospel gives more than her best to God.
In contrast to her condition are the scribes who served as interpreters of religious law and the providers of justice. However, beneath the rich layers of their ostentatious garments lay their overlapping hypocrisy. They hoarded honour, power, position, prestige and other public prerogatives under the pretext of noble services. Beneath the guise of protection, they drained out the resources of the needy.
Thus we are invited through today’s Gospel and the painting to contemplate on the great contrast between intention and action, between flaunt and faith, between greed and generosity, between deceit and discipleship, and between pretence and piety!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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