Friday, October 18, 2019

Illustrating the Parables – The Pharisee and the Tax Collector


James Tissot, The Pharisee and The Tax Collector
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum




“Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
"Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.

The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'

But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."


Luke 18:9-14 (Gospel for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, October 27, 2019)





Of all of the parables of Jesus, this one, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is one of the best known, appreciated by believers and non-believers alike.  But it is also one of the least often depicted in the history of art, as far as I have been able to determine.  This is not to say that it has not inspired artists but simply that, when compared to other parables, such as the Prodigal Son, it has not been seen as often.
Christoffel van Sichem the  Younger after Antoinie Wierix, after Bernardino Passeri, The Parable of the Pharisee and the
Tax Collector
Dutch, 1629
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
In this didactic image, the characters and location have been given letters, which presumably corresponded to the position of 
people and places in the parable.  At letter A we see Jesus preaching.  Presumably he is telling the story of the parable.  Letter D is the Pharisee, ostentatiously praying.  Letter E is the tax collector, modestly praying at a distance in an attitude of humble petition.

Jesus offered this parable as a reminder of the truth He wished to convey:  that the Kingdom of God is made up of people who might be considered unlikely candidates.  In the Palestine of that time, the Pharisees were one of the leading religious groups.  They prided themselves on their knowledge of and adherence to the many laws and customs which had grown up in Judaism since the days of Moses.  Much of the opposition to Jesus came from this group.  They found his message and his entire life to be suspect, to be “not quite right”.  And it was ultimately they who orchestrated his death. 
Master Freser, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
German, c. 1688
Stokowiec (Poland), Protestant Church

Their religious knowledge and their very public parading of it resulted in their being considered among the religious elite.  So, it is logical that the Pharisee in this parable took up his favorite position near the front of the temple area and that his prayer was not so much paying homage to God as congratulating himself on his own perfection.  Indeed, the words of the parable underline this “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself”, therefore, not to God. (Italics are my addition.)
The tax collector was a member of one of the most despised groups in Palestine. *  They collected the taxes for the Romans who were the overlords of first century Palestine, as well as the local taxes for the local governments, such as Herod’s kingdom in Galilee.  Both governments were not native, so additional anger was directed at them in addition to the normal human resistance to taxes.  Added to this was the suspicion (and usually the reality) that, due to the way the system operated, the tax collectors filled their own pockets very freely before passing the remainder on to their masters.  Along with prostitutes they were the group most often mentioned among the “sinners” with whom Jesus often ate and to whom he talked about God.   This public association with such persons was one of the many reasons for the opposition of the Pharisees. 

However, here it is the member of the despised outsider group who offers the truly acceptable prayer, addressed to God and taking the proper position of reverence and sorrow, which asks for God’s mercy.  And he is the one who goes home justified (forgiven).  The Pharisee, with his self-regarding prideful listing of his good points, has only racked up another item which God will charge him with at the final accounting of his life.  Instead, the tax collector asked for mercy for his sinfulness.  And, Jesus says, because he has asked for mercy, mercy will be given to him and not to the self-satisfied Pharisee.  That is because the Pharisee never asked for mercy. 
Anonymous Printmaker, after Adriaen Collaert, after Lucas and Joannes van Doetechum, after Maaeten de Vos
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Dutch, 1643
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
In reality, the one and only unforgivable sin is the one which you never ask forgiveness for.  But, if you are too enamored of your own good qualities, too busy patting yourself on the back, you may think you do not have any sins at all for which you need to ask forgiveness.

Therefore, not only will the one who exalts himself be humbled, and the one who humbles himself be exalted (Luke 18:14) but the one who places himself in the position of God and then tells himself how wonderful he is will receive a severe shock. 

History of Depictions of this Parable

Most of the meaning of this parable is felt inwardly.  It is then, kind of difficult to represent it visually in any profound way.  Artists, therefore, resorted to giving us “just the facts” as a reminder.  What commentary they offered was done in non-obvious ways, in terms of position within the picture and through posture. 

The earliest image I have been able to find comes from the 11th century and is the simple sketch of two figures, one each at the bottom of two pages in a manuscript now in the Morgan Library in New York.  They seem almost modern in their sparse detail, which is meant merely as a kind of visual shorthand for the Gospel story.

The Tax Collector and the Pharisee
From a Gospel Book
Byzantine (Italy), 11th Century
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 748, fol. 134v and 135
Over time more visual elements were added, generally these aimed to set the story in the temple setting.  However, the focus almost always remained on the two men and their differing psychological attitudes. 
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
From a Picture Bible
French (St. Omer), c.1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 17v
Certain gestures continued through time.  Many show the Pharisee kneeling in a very upright posture, or even standing.  Most frequently his hands are shown in the traditional orant prayer posture which is common to many religions. 


The Pharisee and The Tax Collector
From Composition de la sainte ecriture
French, 14th Century
Chantilly, Musee Conde
MS 26, fol. 210r
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
From the Holkham Bible Picture Book
French, c. 1327-1335
London, British Library
MS Additional 47682, fol. 26v
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
From the Egmont Breviary
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1435-1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 87, fol. 303v
However, over time, especially in later images, he is also depicted making a very telling gesture of placing one hand on his chest.  One might be inclined to see this as a gesture of penitence (as a similar gesture is used very often by the tax collector), but it is in actuality a gesture of pride, almost a self-administered pat on the back.  The attitude is one that I sometimes have seen in real life and have nicknamed the “I command God” mindset.


Barent Fabritius, The Pharisee and The Tax Collector
Dutch, 1661
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum


Jan Luyken, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Dutch, 1700
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
German, 1854
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
German, 1890
Cobh (Republic of Ireland), Saint Colman's Cathedral, North Aisle


The tax collector, on the other hand, is most frequently shown kneeling or even prostrate, especially in the earlier centuries.  His eyes, even his entire body, are downcast, unable to look directly at the tabernacle.  His hands are frequently clasped in prayer.  In short, his entire being is focused on his sorrow before God as he pleads for mercy.  He is very much a suppliant.  He is our model for how we should approach Divine Mercy.

Virgilius Solis, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
German, c. 1540-1550
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Maerten De Vos, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Flemish, c. 1580-1600
Private Collection

Abraham de Bruyn After Crispijn van den Broeck, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Flemish, 1583
Amsterdam, Rkjksmuseum
Cosmas Damian Asam, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
German, 1732
Osterhofen, Former Convent Church of Saint Margaret
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
German, 1738
Waldkirch, Church of Saint Margaret

Sometimes the two men have been depicted as tiny figures in an immense space.
Daniel Hopfer, The Interior of the Church of Saint Katherine with Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
German, c. 1530
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Lucas van Doelecum, after Gerard Groenning, The Pharisee and The Tax Collector
from Thesaurus Novi Testamenti ... continens historias atque miracula domini nostri Iesu ChristiFlemish, 1572
London, British Museum


Anonymous, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Dutch, ca. 1630-1640
Private Collection

Anonymous Delft Potter, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Dutch, 1662
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
In this version, which decorates a plate, the Tax Collector is shown at the junction of the square tiled floor and the radiating lines beyond.  He kneels, bent over with sorrow, near the base of one of the columns.  The Pharisee is, of course, front and center.  The figure seated near the Pharisee is a beggar, holding out his hat for alms.
But most of the time there is an intimacy about the depiction, as if we stand quite close to them, able to read the emotion on their faces. 
After Sir John Everett Millais, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
English, 1864
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
James Tissot, The Pharisee and The Tax Collector
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

Jesus Mafa, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Camaroon, 1973
Location Unknown


* Also traditionally referred to as a publican, the keeper of a tavern.
©  M. Duffy, 2019

1 comment:

Quique said...

Excellent post like always.
Beatiful parable and is strange it was depicted seldom time, because both civilian and religious powers had tax collectors.