This Byzantine manuscript illumination does away with the narrative setting, props, and staging of Luke’s story. We simply have two figures against a gold ground. The colourfully dressed pharisee lifts his gaze and extends his right arm towards a heavenly opening above him. His left arm is extended as if in invitation towards his companion. The tax collector is drably dressed, bent in half to suggest his humility, and without a head covering.
Contrary to the text, in which each man keeps to himself—perhaps even unaware that the other is in the building—here, the men face each other. The penitent’s plaintive eyes look up to the uplifted face of the pharisee and he reaches toward the pharisee’s extended hand. Although their hands do not meet, the energy in the composition flows from left to right then upwards, from the bent penitential back of the tax collector through his outstretched hand to the other man’s upwardly extending body and arm and finally to the opening above him.
Thus, unlike in Luke’s text, the figures facing each other are shown in relationship. The pharisee beseeching heaven seems to be sending the penitent’s prayers aloft as the priestly conduit of contrition.
Triumph and shame defy colourization. The one reaching to heaven is not an exemplification of the disgraced Synagogue as he was so frequently in the church-sponsored works of later artists. The agonized penitent is not the triumphant Church that the Strasbourg sculptor, elsewhere in this exhibition, carved for his cathedral. The artist seems to have turned Luke around.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 10“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”