The Unforgiving Servant

Domenico Fetti. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Around 1619-1621. Oil on poplar, 55 x 44 cm. Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. 

Domenico Fetti. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Around 1619-1621. Oil on poplar, 55 x 44 cm. Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

Pamela Askew writes:

A servant having been forgiven his debts demands payment from a fellow servant who in turn is indebted to him. Unheeding of his pleas, the forgiven debtor seizes the throat of his servant and unmercifully casts him in prison. Fetti has represented the debtors in a configuration of interlocking limbs that recalls “struggle” themes in group sculpture. The struggle has reached just that moment when the servant, who has been dragged down a steep flight of steps, braces himself against a ledge at the very entrance to the prison. Fetti suggests the prison entrance by framing his figures and setting with an open arch. As this arch is coincident with the picture plane we are presented with the illusion that our own space is synonymous with the space of the prison and that we are looking out at the scene through the prison doorway. By implication, therefore, we become identified with the predicament of the young servant who looks directly at us in terror and supplication. Nevertheless, Fetti’s peculiar gentleness of spirit and the lively sensuousness of his paint transforms the scene from a grim exposition of moral tragedy to a disinterested statement of human action.

Fetti’s setting of stone and brick structures limits the extension of his picture space and reinforces his dramatic narrative, for the vertical steps, irregularly descending in a succession of short diagonals, suggest the sequence of the struggle. Rugged shapes and uneven contours of stone and stucco dramatically struck by light express the irrational behavior of the figures while the spectator is beguiled not only by their pictorial vitality but by their rustic simplicity. Finally Fetti concentrates his strongest light upon the figures: on the animated contours of their garments, on their attitudes and expressions. To enhance the drama of his scene Fetti includes a Caravaggesque-Elsheimerian spray of wild grapevine. In a picturesque sweep it trails over the walls spatially connecting the horizontal and vertical elements of the composition. But visually, this poetic motif reveals again Fetti’s ability to make the ordinary seem extraordinary at the same time that he makes the extraordinary so convincingly natural.

Pamela Askew, “The Parable Paintings of Domenico Fetti,” Art Bulletin (1961)


Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669; The Centurion Cornelius (The Unmerciful Servant)
Follower of Rembrandt (Willem Drost?) The Centurion Cornelius (The Unmerciful Servant), c. 1660. Oil on canvas, 177 x 216 cm. The Wallace Collection, London

According to the museum:

The subject matter remains the object of debate. It has sometimes been identified as the parable of the Unmerciful Servant in which a king forgives a servant’s debts, only to find that the servant refuses such leniency to a fellow servant. An alternative reading is as an illustration of the story of the Centurion Cornelius. Cornelius had a vision of an angel, who instructed him to send men to fetch the apostle Peter from Joppa. Cornelius, here depicted as the lord of his household rather than as a military commander, did as the angel told him. He summoned ‘two of his household servants, and a devout soldier of them that waited upon him continually’, a description which accords with the appearance of the men who stand in attentive poses on the right.

Bach, “Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht,” Cantata BWV 55 (1726).

The tenor aria begins:

Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht,
Ich geh vor Gottes Angesichte
Mit Furcht und Zittern zum Gerichte.
Er ist gerecht, ich ungerecht.
Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht!

I, wretched man, I, slave to sin,
I go before God’s very presence
With fear and trembling unto judgment.
E’er just is he, unjust am I,
I, wretched man, I, slave to sin.

Julian Mincham writes:

And what a striking entry he makes, his initial phrases continuously stretching upwards towards a high g and even going beyond it to a b and b flat. The stress of the sinner is communicated by the tension of the performer, forced to deliver his lonely song of desolation in the extreme upper registers of his vocal range.

The structure of the aria is one that Bach employed frequently at this time, a ritornello theme at the beginning, middle and end, also separating two main vocal blocks. The central statement is shortened by four bars and the roles of the instruments are reversed, strings taking the main theme with the trembling figure on flute and oboe.

It is difficult to over-praise the exquisite phrases Bach has wrought for the soloist. They rise and fall with a sense of the breathless anticipation with which the sinner awaits his verdict, always beautiful and utterly memorable. Perhaps the most telling is the tortuous falling scale which ends both vocal blocks—-I stand before God, fearful and trembling, awaiting His judgement.

And John Eliot Gardiner:

For this opening tableau Bach seems to have in mind the unjust steward (‘a slave to sin’) summoned before his master, approaching with faltering steps and a despairing heart. Voice and instruments (an unusual coalescence of flute, oboe d’amore, paired violins and basso continuo) rarely double each other, so that six-part writing is the norm. Only Bach could carry this off so naturally, with great intensity but no gratuitous show of erudition. Four ideas alternate: a four-bar woodwind passage in sixths, expressive of utter wretchedness, a derived waving figure for the violins in thirds, a slowly climbing phrase for the flute and oboe d’amore, and an expansion of the waving figure in thirds creeping up by semitones. It is Bach with pre-echoes of Schumann. The opening vocal phrase is weighed down with deep anguish. The twin statements (‘Er ist gerecht, ich ungerecht’ / ‘He is just, unjust am I’) are purposely
contrasted: if one clause moves up the other moves down and vice versa, helping us to trace the process whereby the flint-hearted creditor is transformed into a penitent.

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