July 8th 2022

Jacopo Bassano, active about 1535; died 1592
The Good Samaritan
about 1562-3
Oil on canvas, 102.1 x 79.7 cm
Bought, 1856

The Samaritan is struggling to lift the man left for dead by the side of the road, which behind him descends steeply from Jerusalem to Jericho.  The Levite and the Temple priest are visible as as they make their hurried descent.  The artist is Jacopo da Ponte but known as Jacopo Bassano, after his native Bassano del Grappa, which is just north of Venice.  In the painting his native town does duty for Jericho. Bassano del Grappa is situated at the foot of the Alps, so such a view is not implausible.   As he tries  to lift the wounded man, you can see  strain on the Samaritan’s face, with his furrowed brow and flushed cheeks.  He uses his right leg and arm to prevent the man from falling sideways towards the viewer.  The bright garments of the Samaritan contrast with the pale bare flesh of the victim.  The contrast between the Samaritan’s flushed skin and the victim’s death-like pallor suggests just how close he has come to death. The victim, although half-dead, has a fine head of hair, and sturdy muscular legs.   The Samaritan is an older man.   His bald head and swollen ankles suggest that he is past his prime.  Bassano positions both their heads side by side, so that we can see a family resemblance.  This could be a father and his son.  The Samaritan has by this stage dressed the man’s wounds, but we can see his blood seeping through the bandages.  Below them, two dogs, which are standard in the works of Jacopo Bassano, lap up the spilt blood.  It is not hard to make connections with other parables from the Gospel of Luke, not least the prodigal son and the the rich man and Lazarus.  In all of this, Bassano leaves us to ponder the asymmetry of care and its position in our lives.  The victim will live and, perhaps, he will live long enough to see the Samaritan grow old.   In the Aeneid,  Aeneas rescues his father from the flames of Troy.   Artists often depicted the old man being carried by his son.   But here this ancient and well-known motif is reversed.   When this painting is compared to certain portraits, which are now attributed to Jacopo’s son, Leandro, it is hard not to see the hand of the son in the very skilled rendering of bare flesh seen here, so that perhaps this hugely insightful work flows from the familial and professional dynamics between a father and his son,  working together in their studio in the provincial town of Bassano del Grappa.


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