BOUTS, Dieric the Elder
(b. ca. 1415, Haarlem, d. 1475, Leuven)

Christ in the House of Simon

Oil on wood, 40,5 x 61 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Dirk Bouts came from Haarlem, where he doubtless received his early training. Later he settled in the university city of Louvain, where his major work can still be seen in the Church of St Peter. When he was appointed City Painter in 1468, he was already over fifty years old. The Berlin panel, as its close likeness to the work of Aelbert Ouwater suggests, must have been one of his earlier works.

The story of Jesus's visit to the house of Simon the Pharisee is told in St Luke's Gospel (vii, 36-50). A woman from the city followed Christ there, 'and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.' Simon condemned the attitude of his guest, saying : 'This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him; for she is a sinner.' Christ answered with a parable and the words: 'Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.'

In a narrow, vaulted room, on the left of which is a window providing a glimpse of a landscape, Simon sits with his guests at a table laid for a meal. On the left of the table the sinner bends down to anoint Jesus's feet. The host, the only one present wearing shoes, and Peter beside him, observe the incident with astonishment and disapproval. The youthful John at the head of the table seems to be drawing the attention of the donor, a Dominican monk, to it. The latter kneels with hands raised in prayer and, as if he dare not look, averts his gaze.

The arrangement of the figures at a laid table recalls two other themes from the life of Christ, the Last Supper and the Miracle at Emmaus, incidents which were frequently represented in painting and, furthermore, established a pictorial tradition of their own. Here the table is laid with bread, wine and fish, the last of these being an ancient Christian symbol. The composition of the various objects represents one of the most delightful still-lifes in old Netherlandish painting. Among the vessels on the table one can recognize a late medieval form of glass known as a 'cabbage-stalk'.