Dante and Virgil in hell,
Painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905),
Painted in 1850,
Oil on canvas
© Musée d'Orsay, Paris
They do not practise what they preach
Addressing the people and his disciples Jesus said, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do: since they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they! Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels, like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi.
‘You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one master, and you are all brothers. You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, for you have only one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.’
Reflection on the painting
In our Gospel passage today we read how critical Jesus is of the Pharisees. He makes the point that there isn't anything wrong with what they say. Their teachings are correct. However, they did not practise what they preached, and it is with this that Jesus takes issue. But none of us fully practise what we preach. We are all guilty of being hypocritical to some extent. We claim to follow Christ, but we fail, every day.
Our painting by Bouguereau from 1850, depicts Dante and Virgil in the eighth circle of Hell (where the hypocrites, falsifiers and counterfeiters are). Dante, accompanied by Virgil, is watching a fight between two damned souls: the kneeling figure is Capocchio, an alchemist and heretic. He is being bitten in the neck by Gianni Schicchi, who had usurped the identity of a dead man in order to fraudulently claim his inheritance (we see that man lying on the right). The background depicts more hypocrites in the eighth circle of Dante's Inferno. The painter is exploring the aesthetic limits of what he can possibly paint. The muscle structures are exaggerated and the bodies are in an unnatural, entwined, twisted pose.
That is also what hypocrisy does: it bends, it twists reality, in order to suit our needs. We twist and manipulate the way we are perceived by others in order to claim to have higher standards or more faith than is actually the case. The painting is 280cm. (9ft.) high, which makes this canvas simply breathtaking to look at.
Share this Gospel Reading
Did you like this Gospel reading and art reflection?
Join in the discussion about this artwork & Gospel reading
Readings related to Matthew 23:1-12
Join our community
In addition to receiving our Daily Gospel Reading and Art Reflection, signing up for a free membership allows you to: