Inquisition vs. Last Supper

In 1573 the Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese painted a Last Supper that included drunken Germans, dogs, parrots, and dwarfs. He liked it, but the Inquisition had other ideas.

José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, via Wikimedia Commons

Veronese liked big scenes and many people in his paintings. His earlier biblical work The Wedding at Cana is stuffed to the rafters with musicians, jesters, sultans, emperors, and poets. When he was commissioned to paint a Last Supper for the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, he opted for a larger spectacle than the more traditional twelve apostles and Jesus.

The Roman Inquisition was on the lookout at that time for anything that smelled of heresy or that ridiculed the Catholic Church. Protestants were supposed to be their primary concern, but they cast a wide net – Copernicus and Galileo were two of their most famous targets. And they were not happy about Veronese.

The full transcript of their interrogation is worth reading (see the link below), but Veronese’s defence is priceless:

INQUISITION: In this Supper which you painted for San Giovanni e Paolo, what signifies the figure of him whose nose is bleeding?

VERONESE: He is a servant who has a nose-bleed from some accident.

INQUISITION: What signify those armed men dressed in the fashion of Germany, with halberds in their hands?

VERONESE: It is necessary here that I should say a score of words.


VERONESE: We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants.

INQUISITION: And the one who is dressed as a jester with a parrot on his wrist, why did you put him into the picture?

VERONESE: He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures.

Fortunately, the artist had some powerful friends to compensate for this cheekiness. The Inquisition commanded him to change the painting within three months, so he just renamed it to The Feast in the House of Levi and kept the painting exactly the same. Clever chap.

(By the way, this event inspired the Last Supper sketch in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl – which you can view below.)

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