DIVINE MERCY – ‘The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant’ by Jan Sanders Van Hemessen

Jan van HEMESSEN (c. 1500-c. 1575); Parable of the unmerciful servant.; 1548-1552; Painting; Ann Arbor. University of Michigan Museum of Art.; Netherlands.

DIVINE MERCY – ‘The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant’ by Jan Sanders Van Hemessen

We move from Florence to the Dutch Provinces. The unprecedented political, economic and religious changes of the late 15th century led to the rise of Antwerp, a Flemish city in modern day Belgium. Nicknamed the ‘Queen city’, it served as the mercantile hub of the land. Antwerp also boasted of a highly accomplished bourse that attracted bankers, financers, merchants and moneylenders from all over Europe.

Complementing its economic rise was its artistic growth. Its affluent cosmopolitan atmosphere attracted numerous artists. It encouraged them to lay hand and explore a gamut of new styles. Art was no longer solely religious. Surpassing narration it provoked interpretation.

One such thought stimulating artist is Jan Sanders Van Hemessen. A leading Flemish Renaissance painter, he perfected the art of genre paintings. What is a genre painting? Put into simple terms, it is an illustration of an everyday event wherein a mundane individual plays the protagonist. Art then was no longer ideal. Rather it was raw and real.

Hemessen also played an important role in the development of the ‘Mannerist inversion’ technique. The essential here was the background and not the foreground. While the foreground featured a secular setting, a scene at the background revealed the climax moment of the narrative. This about face approach is best executed in today’s painting.

It skilfully articulates the Gospel of Matthew chapter 18, verse 21 to 35. In the context of the narrative, Peter approaches Jesus, posing the million dollar question. ‘Lord how many times must I forgive the offenses of my brother?’ He then proposes a perfect number; ‘Seven times?’

Jesus clean bowls Peter by his answer: ‘Seventy times seven’. To further emphasize his point of limitless forgiveness, Jesus puts forth a parable with 3 acts as represented in the painting. The first scene is tightly framed in a clustered office. In a triangular symmetry are seated four men.

The first is the Flemish king as recognized by his crown. His heart shaped facial feature is reminiscent of his unconditional love and mercy. He extends his compassion and kindness, forgiving the magnanimous debt of the servant pleading from across the table. The hour glass set above the king indicates the fragility of mortal behaviour and life.

Next to the King are seated two noble burghers of Antwerp. The first is engaged in counting the clinking coins. The second has his eyes fixed on the king who points out to the book into which he is to pen down the decree. However, the King’s gesture calls to attention something beyond the closed frame of the room.

We are adverted to the cityscape outside the window. Time travels from the inside out. Amidst archaic structures is set the next scene. The unruly servant who received afresh the benevolence of the king goes on to do the contrary. He condemns his fellow servant, ‘grabbing him by his throat and choking him.’ He ignores his cries for mercy, imprisoning him.

However what skips his attention is the witnessing presence of the king’s courtiers above the little mount. They report the unjust attitude of the servant to the king. Subsequently, the merciless servant had to amend for his callousness and cruelty.

Through this painting the artist exploits the genre character of the Gospel to drive home a moral message. He makes vivid the words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.’ His work condemns malice and vengeance and exalts compassion and kindness. He dwells upon and calls us to imitate the Divine Mercy of the Almighty!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

For a scriptural understanding of today’s Gospel please refer to: http://www.pottypadre.com/seven-or-seventy-seven/

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