The art essay of the month
The Conversion of Zacchaeus by Bernardo Strozzi (1581–1644),
While Bernardo Strozzi, who was born in Genoa and died in Venice, was admittedly not the greatest artist of his generation, we nonetheless owe him an often profoundly spiritual body of work depicting fairly rare episodes in the history of sacred art.
The art of the “Genoese priest”
Though an artist, Strozzi felt a calling to consecrated life and entered the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor, making vows in 1598. Following the death of his father, however, he was granted permission to leave the monastery to care for his mother and sister, and during this time he pursued his artistic career. His ensuing success—thanks to works heavily influenced by Peter Paul Rubens, whose intense, lyrical work he’d discovered in his native Genoa—no doubt distanced him from his religious calling, to the point that, upon his mother’s death in 1630, he refused to return to the monastery where he had pronounced his vows. Initially imprisoned, he escaped to settle in Venice. In La Serenissima, the “Genoese priest” or the “Genoese Capuchin,” as he came to be known, specialized in portraiture and gained true fame. He reconciled with the Church but, though remaining attached to his faith, he would never again take the Capuchin habit. He was, however, to devote the rest of his life to the depiction of biblical subjects. This Zacchaeus, in the collection of the museum of Nantes, is probably a product of this latter part of his career. Executed around the same time as his Healing of the Paralytic, also in the Nantes collection, it is characteristic of Strozzi’s style, marked by so many different influences: Siennese mannerism, the realism of Caravaggio, the lyricism of Rubens, and Venetian luminosity.
I must stay at your house
This Conversion of Zacchaeus clearly reflects Strozzi’s eclectic style. In a vertical format, the work depicts Christ, immediately identifiable by the gentle authority emanating from his person standing at the foot of a tree. He is accompanied by some of his disciples as well as a numerous and varied crowd: a child in the left foreground holding a dog on a leash is a typical demonstration of the diversity favored by the artist. Jesus looks to the tree, only the trunk of which is visible, and to Zacchaeus. With an open left hand, he invites him to come down. Christ’s feet, suggesting his gait, indicate Strozzi’s attention to the narrative down to the slightest detail—for the Gospel account in effect recounts that Jesus had walked through the town of Jericho before coming across Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. Zacchaeus—whom Clement of Alexandria considered, under the name Matthias, to have replaced Judas after his betrayal, and whom the Apostolic Constitutions identify as the first Bishop of Caesarea—is shown conversing with Jesus. Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house (Lk 19:5). Zacchaeus’ diminutive figure poses awkwardly but gives the narrative all its flavor. We are here at the moment when Christ tells him he wants to stay with him. And he came down quickly and received him with joy. Zacchaeus’ conversion is immediate and full, proportionate to Christ’s mercy upon him.
In a letter to priests on Holy Thursday, Saint John Paul II wrote, “What takes place between Jesus and the chief tax collector of Jericho resembles in a number of ways the celebration of the sacrament of mercy…. [There is in this passage] an urgency to which Jesus gives voice as the one offering the definitive revelation of God’s mercy. He says: I must stay at your house, or to translate even more literally: I need to stay at your house. Following the mysterious road map which the Father has laid out for him, Jesus runs into Zacchaeus along the way. He pauses near him as if the meeting had been planned from the beginning. Despite all the murmuring of human malice, the home of this sinner is about to become a place of revelation, the scene of a miracle of mercy. True, this will not happen if Zacchaeus does not free his heart from the ligatures of egoism and from his unjust and fraudulent ways. But mercy has already come to him as a gratuitous and overflowing gift. Mercy has preceded him!”
The riches of the kingdom of heaven
The conversion of Zacchaeus, whose name means “God remembers,” also offers the occasion to meditate on the riches which can hinder our entry into the kingdom of heaven, for it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (Mt 19:24). Commenting on Psalm 83, Saint Jerome too evoked the figure of Zacchaeus: “He gave up his wealth and immediately exchanged it for the riches of the kingdom of heaven.” Through his conversion, Zacchaeus is in effect saying, 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 (Lk 19:8). Christ looks upon Zacchaeus with a gaze full of mercy, a gaze that sees the heart and not appearances, a gaze that allows the sinner to convert and discover that the only true wealth, the one and only treasure, is God himself. Today as yesteryear in Jericho, Christ calls each of us by name and invites us to leave our riches behind. He wants to stay at our house. Like Zacchaeus, let us welcome into our hearts that desire to see God, the ultimate goal of our lives.
Lecturer in art history at the University of Lille, France.
The Conversion of Zacchaeus, Bernardo Strozzi (1581–1644), Musée d’Arts, Nantes, France. © RMN-GP / Gérard Blot.