Luke 18:13 “…the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'”
The Pharisee and the Publican, wood engraving, 1864, John Everett Millais, 1829 – 1896
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In mid nineteenth century France, Neoclassicism continued to be the style taught in academies, and Romanticism was receiving a great deal of attention. Realism (paintings of everyday activities of common folks) also had followers, and other artists were painting landscapes in the open air. To varying degrees, English artists were influenced by these styles but they tended to remain independent.
Three young English artists – John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti – were not enamored with French styles or with contemporary painting in England. They also were not pleased with the direction art had taken in the centuries following the Renaissance. In 1848, they formed a brotherhood and called themselves, “Pre-Raphaelites.” Other artists joined them. As a group, they found inspiration in nature and in the art of the middle ages – a time before the painter Raphael and the Renaissance – hence the name, “Pre-Raphaelites.”
Within a few years, Millais’ outlook expanded and he moved away from Pre-Raphaelite principles. He did, however, continue his interest in the spiritual aspects of art. Among his many works are drawings that illustrate parables found in the Bible; these were reproduced as wood engravings by the noted Dalziel Brothers and published in 1864 under the title, “The Parables of Our Lord.” The Pharisee and the Publican is an illustration from this book.
In a typical illustration of this parable, the Pharisee is at a temple, standing in the foreground with arms raised pretentiously in prayer. The publican is often on his knees in the background. In Millais’ composition, the positions have been reversed and the contrast between the two is made even greater by the use of light and shadow. The tax collector is standing in the dark area of the foreground and is the immediate focus of our attention. It is the Pharisee who is now in the background. He and the other men are secondary figures and light in value.
There are differences in body language as well. The publican’s weight is on one leg as he slumps over and leans against a Solomon’s column for support. There is a sense that his mind in burdened and even the twist of the column suggests swirling thoughts. His hands are “beating his breast” and his head is downcast as he is saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” By contrast, the self-satisfied Pharisee is standing among other worshipers and is leaning back in pride. His chin is thrust forward as he strokes his beard.
Note: “Solomon’s column,” is one of the terms given to pillars that have a corkscrew-like shaft. Constantine brought a set of these columns to Rome (for St. Peter’s Basilica) and it was said they were from Solomon’s Temple. This source is unlikely but the descriptive term, “Solomon’s column,” continues to be used.
Hovak Najarian © 2016