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Mosaic in Basilica di San Marco in Venice, “Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples,” circa 1210
This Byzantine mosaic from Venice’s Basilica di San Marco shows Christ washing the feet of the disciples. Set against a gold background, the disciples sit in two rows around a solid and sturdy table. The faces of the disciples in the front row retain some individuality, while those in the back are by and large a repeated form. We can distinguish Peter as the one closest to Jesus, with his foot in the basin of water. We can also guess that Judas is the one in the back row furthest from Christ, the apostle whose face does not have a full depiction in its profile, and whose halo is cut off as abruptly as the edge of the table.
Repetition of form is an important element of this mosaic. The sturdy legs of the table and the bodies, heads, and halos of the disciples all form a pattern that communicates order and regularity: a visual reflection on how Christ’s command to wash feet is the order and pattern laid out for those who follow him and serve in his name. The fact that some faces look distinctive adds complexity to this pattern and shows us the role of free human will in the choice to pursue the pattern laid out by Christ.
At the head of the table, we see Christ washing Peter’s foot. Jesus stands in the pose of the teacher, as illustrated by his extended hand while he offers his exhortation to Peter. Christ’s other hand demonstrates teaching too, as he is engaged in service, tending to Peter’s foot. The two hands of Christ work together to show how the Gospel is communicated not just in words but also in deeds.
While one of Peter’s feet rests on Jesus’ lap in a towel, the other is immersed in the water basin below. The basin is bejeweled and recalls a baptismal font more than a domestic object. This baptismal imagery shows that Christ’s call to his disciples to do as he has done is a call for every Christian, every person born of the font, to live as a person ready to bend down to wash feet. On the evening of the Lord’s Supper when we receive the gift of Christ in the Eucharist, we too are all called to be a gift to others, in the ways we can love, serve, and care for them.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.
In the Year in Our Church section of Finding God, Grade 8, young people think about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Remind young people that Jesus has provided members of the Church with many teachings about the importance of service. Have young people review the Great Commandment, the New Commandment, the Beatitudes, and the Works of Mercy. Then have small groups work together to develop a mini-lesson for how they might present one of these teachings to someone who is unfamiliar with Jesus and his teachings. Say: In your lesson, include ideas about how you will explain the teaching, examples of how the teaching might be lived out by a disciple, and ideas for an activity that will reinforce the concept. Invite young people to share their completed lesson plans with the group.