Conversatio Divina

O Taste and See: A Meditation on Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Washing of the Feet

Juliet Benner

“Then He poured water into the basin, and began washing the disciples’ feet and wiping them with the towel which He had tied around Himself. . . . ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me’” (John 13:5, 8, NASB Scripture quotations marked (NASB®) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (www.lockman.org)).

A few years ago, I saw a bumper sticker that asked, “Feeling far from God? Who moved?” With wry humor, these questions bring our attention to the theme of this issue—blocks to union with God. The underlying message reminds us that God is the immovable, immutable One, who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” If we find ourselves far from God, we have only to look within ourselves to discover what has caused this separation. God’s presence is constant, and his invitation to union with him always extends to us. He longs for relationship with us and constantly waits for us to share our lives with him. The challenge is to choose to turn to God and learn to discover him in the midst of our life experiences.

The story of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples presents us with two responses to God’s eternally offered invitation. Jesus offers this amazing gift of himself to all twelve of them, but one chooses to reject it. Judas, as Jesus already knows, has determined to betray him. The text implies that Jesus washed Judas’ feet even though he knew what Judas would do. But clearly, Judas did not accept Jesus’ offer of intimacy. Judas turned away from Jesus and chose death. Peter, in contrast, opened himself to Jesus’ offer and with exuberance and abandon asked that not only his feet be washed but the rest of him also.

The story is found in John 13:1–15. Take a few moments to read this story of an event that comes at the beginning of the Passion of Christ. Allow the text to re-create itself for you as you read it. Enter into the story imaginatively. Be present with the disciples as they experience this amazing gesture of humility on the part of their Lord.

Duccio’s artistic telling of the story places the followers of Jesus huddled together, completely bewildered at the scene taking place before them. Jesus kneels in the left corner of the painting and is washing the feet of Peter, who indicates by his posture that moment when he asks Jesus to wash “not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” Two other disciples are removing their sandals, readying themselves for Jesus to wash their feet at the center and far right of the painting.

Look closely at the room where Jesus and his followers meet. Notice the small but significant reminders of the story of the Passion of Christ. The artist has inserted references to the death and resurrection to come. The room is plain except for a ceiling decorated with inlaid panels or coffers and a multi-foiled insert in the center of the rear wall. Across the top runs a wooden rod from which hangs a white shawl. The rod shows the hint of a cross toward its left extremity, a reminder of the cross Jesus himself would soon be bearing. The white cloth may represent Jesus’ outer garment, which he had removed in order to wash the feet more easily. It also reminds us of his garment that was sold by lot, and of the burial shroud left in the tomb after his resurrection. There are two doors in the room, one ajar and the other completely open. They lead outside to darkness and to the trial, suffering, and death that await Jesus.

Jesus’ own feet are bare, symbolic of his own humility and the tremendously important lesson he longs for his disciples to know. He kneels before Peter in the posture of a lover who is making a marriage proposal. Here is a moment of physical intimacy when Jesus holds Peter’s foot as he woos Peter into a closer union with him. His placement in the painting makes him appear isolated from the other disciples, but we know from the text that each one received the same gift as Peter did. His head and body are lower than almost all the others in the room. Jesus’ right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing. His left hand holds Peter’s foot in preparation for the washing.

The ritual of foot washing, important to the culture of Palestine in Jesus’ day, was usually carried out by a servant of the house. When guests arrived, they would have their dusty feet washed on entering. Since it seems that Jesus’ disciples were meeting in secret, there would not have been a servant present, and none of them would volunteer for such a demeaning task. The Passion account in the Gospel of Luke tells of the disciples’ arguing at dinner about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. At this crucial last meal with his friends in John’s account, Jesus teaches them by example how to be servants. We remember the description in Philippians 2:5–8 of his emptying himself and “taking the form of a bondservant” (verse 7). His entire life has been one of service and love, and as he approaches his final hours on earth, he shows them true servanthood and humility.

Implicit in this painting by Duccio is another important aspect of the Christian journey. It subtly portrays two responses to Jesus’ offer of intimacy and union. Without a closer look, we may easily miss the one who refuses. The disciples look either toward Jesus or toward the viewer, except for one whose face we do not see. All we can see is the back of his head and part of his shoulder and left arm. He is placed in the middle of the painting between Peter and another disciple who is taking off his sandals. We may safely identify the disciple whose face is hidden as Judas. The artist has chosen to depict his facing away for the center of the action, his whole body turned toward the back wall and to the open doorway. He is the only one who is completely turned away from Jesus. Will he choose the door on the right, which is fully open, when he leaves, or the door on the left, which would entail passing under and through the cross?

Outside, it is dark, but the slightly open door suggests that Jesus’ followers are given a choice to accompany him on his journey or to walk away from him. We know that at this point in the story, Judas has already chosen to betray Jesus. So he sits here with his body turned away from the viewer and from Jesus. When this dinner and washing are over, he will rise and stride through the doorway into the night.

For Peter, it is different. Initially shocked that his Master would stoop to such a humble position, Peter refuses to let Jesus wash his feet. He is also astonished at the physical intimacy this brings. Jesus says to him, “If I do not wash you, you have no place with me” (John 13:7).

So strong is Peter’s desire to be one with his Lord that he asks Jesus to make all of him clean. He says to Jesus, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head!” (verse 8). All he needed to do was to turn toward Jesus and offer himself to be cleansed. In this painting, the artist portrays this decisive moment of union for Peter.

The other disciples are puzzled, unsure of what to make of this unorthodox, almost scandalous activity. The painting portrays them scratching their beards, perhaps consulting with one another as they ponder the scene, and hesitantly moving toward accepting this offer of intimacy with Jesus. They are doubtful, bemused, uncomprehending, but they are open. They will all follow Peter and receive the washing of their feet.

Notice the disciple in the middle of the painting. He has taken off one sandal and is about to remove the other. His face looks out toward us and presents us with a question. How willing and ready are we to come and also receive the washing that Jesus offers? His right hand points to his bare foot, which is slightly outside the frame of the painting. This pulls us into the scene. It also serves to indicate his readiness to go and follow Jesus’ invitation “to wash one another’s feet . . . do just as I did for you” (verses 14–15). Here is one who is making his step of obedience and asking us to do likewise.

We also need washing. Our feet sometimes carry us along paths that take us far from God. Jesus offers us the same invitation to intimacy and cleansing from the sin that separates us from the Father.

God is always present to us, offering us this gift of renewal and communion with him. If we feel distant from God, it is we who have moved. The Christian journey is one of choosing life over death-turning from sin and darkness toward light and life. All we, like Peter, need to do is turn to God and receive this wonderful gift.

A prayerful reflection on the text, along with this painting, offers us the same invitation. Place yourself in the painting with the disciples. Where would you be—standing at the back or sitting in readiness? As Jesus kneels before you, offering himself to you, what is your response? What do you hear him saying to you? How ready are you to turn to him, untie your sandals, relinquish those parts in yourself that need his cleansing, and allow him to wash you? What would hold you back from having your feet washed?

Don’t allow shame, reluctance to be noticed by Jesus, or anything else to distract you from his invitation. Regardless of what holds us back—or even if we temporarily turn away— Jesus’ invitation is the same. Allow yourself to know this union personally and let the Spirit of God help you to surrender all that would keep you from being touched and transformed.

01.  Duccio Di Buoninsegna (1255–1319)

Not much is known of the artist, but his art marked important changes in the painting styles of the period in which he lived. His work brought life, humanity, and new levels of expressiveness to the Byzantine style. Until then, Christian art had been static and austere. Duccio introduced a gentleness of style: draped fabric becoming less angular and rigid, more soft and flowing. Another new element was the way he enclosed his figures within an architectural interior, integrating them into his narrative more effectively than ever before. Washing of the Feet is a small part of a massive altarpiece that Duccio created for the cathedral of Siena, Italy. Called the Maesta, this celebrated masterpiece was painted on both sides. It was 6 ½ feet tall and 6 ½ feet long. Its numerous panels portrayed the story of salvation, beginning with the Annunciation, through the birth, life, works, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Twenty-six scenes depict the Passion of Christ in the center of the back of the altarpiece. In Washing of the Feet, the artist presents Jesus in his last communal act with his disciples before his betrayal.

Footnotes

JULIET BENNER is a spiritual director and retreat leader who was, for many years, a docent at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario, Canada). Her special interest is in art and spirituality, particularly the use of icons and religious art as aids to prayer.