Saturday, October 29, 2016

Zacchaeus, the Little Man in the Tree

De Roos Factory, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
Dutch (Delft), 1690-1710
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
“At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”
And Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”
Luke 19:1-10

Gospel for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, October 30, 2016

Pietro Monaco after Bernardo Strozzi, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
Italian (Venice), 1730-1739
London, British Museum
This story, found only in the Gospel of Luke, is as full of important meaning as any other portion of the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus between His baptism and His passion.  On one level it is a human, even a humorous story, on the other hand it is profound. 

The action of this story takes place in Luke, as Jesus is traveling up to Jerusalem, where He will be put to death.  It is set as He is about to enter the town of Jericho, one of the oldest continuously lived in sites in the world.  A resident of Jericho named Zacchaeus approaches the crowd awaiting the entry of Jesus out of curiosity.  He is short, so he decides to climb a tree to get a better view.  But, instead of him getting a look at Jesus, it is Jesus who sees him and, it seems, sees into him, for He knows him and calls him by name.  More than that, Jesus tells him that He will stay in his house.  Instead of being upset at this unexpected turn of events Zacchaeus welcomes Him, receiving Him “with joy”.  When unspecified people (? residents of Jericho, the apostles, Pharisees?) grumble about Jesus’ dining with a “sinner” Zacchaeus makes a stunning statement “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” (Luke 19:8) Jesus then tells him that “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.   For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)
Boetius Adamszoon Bolswert, Christ in the House of Zacchaeus
Flemish, 1590-1622
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

It would seem that this small story contains quite a bit of meaning.  For, Zacchaeus is a kind of “everyman” (or perhaps, nowadays, “every person”), a stand in for all of us.  He is curious about this celebrity who is coming to town and struggles to get a better view.  But, what he gets from this particular celebrity is unexpected.  He gets a calling, a personal invitation, to come down and welcome the visitor into his house.  And, instead of shying away, of saying “no thanks, my house isn’t ready” Zacchaeus “receives Him with joy”.  Furthermore, so affected is he by the meeting, he offers to give one half of all he owns to the poor (and we are told he was a wealthy man, so it’s not a small thing).  And, not content with that, he offers to repay anyone he has extorted money from four times over.  Since, the way in which tax collectors went about getting the money they were required to raise was through extortion, this probably represented a substantial amount.  Roman provincial tax collectors were permitted to keep a portion of the money they raised for the Imperial treasury.  This which meant that, in order to make the money they felt they were entitled to, above that required by the Roman government, the sums they extracted from people were pretty large and burdensome, and deeply resented.  By making this offer Zacchaeus is acknowledging his guilt, as well as offering to pay restitution.

The ways in which artists illustrated this story through time is an interesting chronicle, with some divergent branches and shifts of focus. 

To begin with, early illustrations told a fairly simple tale.  Two illuminations in royal books painted in the scriptorium of Reichenau around the beginning of the 11th century provide two different views of the same story, one of which would lead to a branch development a few centuries later.  One shows Jesus, seated on a donkey, entering Jericho.  In the other book, Jesus is on foot, surrounded by His disciples.  The latter image also includes the feast at the house of Zacchaeus. 
Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus as He Enters Jericho
from the Gospel Book of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c.1000
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol. 234v

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus and Dines at His House
from the Gospel Book of Heinrich II
German (Reichenau), ca.1007-1012
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4452, fol.200r

A few decades later, the image was incorporated on the bronze column of Bishop Bernward in Hildesheim, one of the great bronze works that Bernward commissioned that revived the art of bronze casting, after its post-Roman decline.

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
Berward's Column
German (Hildesheim), ca. 1020
Hildesheim, Cathedral

For the next two hundred plus years, illustrations of the text were simple and straightforward.  
Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
from Book of Pericopes of the Monastery of Saint Erentrud
Austrian (Salzburg), 1140
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS, fol. 96v

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
from Gospel Book
German (Passau), ca. 1170-1180
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 16002, fol. 40v
This image cleverly uses initials to represent the tree and Jesus standing on the ground.

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
from a Picture Bible
French (St. Omer, Abbey of St. Bertin), ca.1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 013r

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
English (Canterbury), 13th Century
Canterbury, Cathedral

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus and Dines with Him
North German (Monastery of Weinhausen), ca. 1335
Weinhausen, Weinhausen Abbey
Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
from a 13th Century Pattern Book
German, 1200-1300
Freiburg im Breisgau, Augustiner Museum

Around at the beginning of the 14th century, the image, propagated throughout Europe by such means as pattern books and the interchange of artists, merged into a different part of the Gospel story, the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday.  

Artists began to incorporate one or two or more people in trees in their illustrations of the entry.   And this confusion between the story of Zacchaeus and Jesus’ entry into Jericho and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem lasted for about 100 years.

Giotto, Entry into Jerusalem
Italian, 1300-1305
Padua, Arena Chapel

Duccio, Entry into Jerusalem
from the Maesta Altarpiece
Italain, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Pietro Lorenzetti. Entry into Jerusalem
Italian, c.1320
Assisi, Church of San Francesco, Lower Church

German Master, Entry into Jerusalem
Detail from the Osnabrück Altarpiece
German, 1370s_
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum

The Limbourg Brothers (Herman, Jean and Paul), Jesus Enters Jerusalem
from Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry
Dutch, 1412-1416
Chantilly, Musée Condé  
MS 65, fol. 173v

However, early in the 15th century, the images became unwound once again.  The emphasis again returned to the dramatic moment of the meeting between Jesus and the small man in the tree.  

Paintings from this period, which lasted up to the beginning of the 20th century and continue today, are infrequent.  It is through the medium of prints and other of the “minor” arts that the images were transmitted.  This made them much more available to the ordinary person, since prints are cheaper and more mobile than paintings. 
Claes Brouwer, Alexander Master, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
from Bible historiale
Dutch (Utrecht), ca.1430
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS KB 78 D 38-dl2, fol. 173v

Delft Master, Meal at House of Zacchaeus and the Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
Dutch, 1480-1500
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Antwerp Master, Meal at  House of Zacchaeus and the Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
Flemish, 1485-1491
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Anonymous, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
A Cutting from a Gradual Book
Dutch, ea. 16th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Musseum

Glass Roundel with the Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
North Netherlands, 1500-1510
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection

Adam Petri, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
German, 1514
London, British Museum

Glass Roundel, Jesus at Supper in the house of Zacchaeus
German, ca.1530
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Philips Galle after Maerten de Vos, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
Flemish (Antwerp), 1547-1612
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Jan Collaert after Maarten de Vos, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
from Thesaurus Novi Testamenti elegantissimis iconibus expressus continens historias atque miracula do[mi] ni
nostri Iesu Christi
Flemish, c.1585
London, British Museum

Bernardo Strozzi, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
Italian, c.1640
Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Alexandre Ubelesqui, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus at Jericho
French, c.1700
Bayonne, Musee Bonnat-Helleu

Glazed Tile, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
English or Dutch, ca.1718-1725
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Domenico Tiepolo, Christ in the House of Zacchaeus in Jericho
Italian, ca.1750-1800
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Joseph Anton Feuchtmayer, Encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus
Austrian, 1761-1763
Sankt Gallen, Cathedral

Thomas Schaidhauf, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
German, c. 1780-1807
Furstenfeldbruck, Catholic Parish of St. Bernard

James Tissot, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
French, 1886-1896
New York, Brooklyn Museum
There was one significant further development on the theme, that of Zacchaeus as a penitent, detached from the meeting with Jesus or His reception in Zacchaeus’ home.  In these Zacchaeus is very clearly offering his ill-gotten gains to Jesus or is repenting in private prayer. 

Boetius Adamszoon Bolswert, Christ in the House of Zacchaeus
Flemish, 1590-1622
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Willem Isaacszoon van Swanenburg after Abraham Bloemaert, Penitent Zacchaeus 
from a series of prints of Penitents
Dutch (Leiden), 1611
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

A further interesting image of Zacchaeus, showing him climbing the tree, preparatory to the arrival of Jesus is found in the book Predigen teütsch (German Preaching), by the popular preacher Johann Geiler von Keysersberg (1445-1510), who was a popular preacher at the end of the 15th century.1 It shows the figure of Zacchaeus climbing a tree (incorrectly shown as a palm).  The tree is wrapped in a banderol with the words “Leibe”, “Hoffnung” and “Glaub”(sic), which translate as Love, Hope and Faith.  Someone has handwritten in the Latin translations of these words: “Charitas”, “Spes” and “Fides”.  In other words, Faith, Hope and Charity, the three theological virtues.  Zacchaeus is here shown for what he represents, the person who seeks to find salvation through Christ and the church.

Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Zacchaeus Climbs the Tree of Faith, Hope and Charity
from Predigen teütsch by Johann Geiler von Keysersberg
German (Augsburg), 1508-1510
London, British Museum
Charles Lemeire, St. Zacchaeus
French, 1888-1893
Paris, Musée d'Orsay

And, finally, late in the 19th century, Zacchaeus is depicted as a saint in the decoration of the church of the Madeleine in Paris.

© M. Duffy, 2016

1.      Scheid, Nikolaus. "Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 28 Oct. 2016 <>.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

1 comment:

Dave Mehnert said...

It is perhaps significant whether Zacchaeus has climbed a sycamore tree — as the translators of the King James Version recorded it — or a fig tree, as more recent Bibilical scholars have rendered the text. The fig tree connects to Adam and Eve ‘covering’ the nakedness of their sins. In Luke, we find Zacchaeus confessing his transgressions, and repenting before everyone, to Jesus’ hospitable delight and to Zacchaeus’ joyful relief.