Sebastino Ricci painted the scene of Christ and the Cannanite(Syro-Phonecian woman) sometime in the early 18th century. It is an account of one of the most puzzling pericopes of scripture. Jesus at first calls this woman a dog. The Greek word in this passage means “puppy” or small dog. It hardly tempers the harshness of what Jesus says to this woman. Ricci seems to suggest in this painting that Jesus changes his mind about this Gentile and looks with favor upon her faith. She argues with God in a sense and advocates for her mentally ill daughter (impure spirit).
The dog in the painting is so interesting to me. At the time of the painting lapdogs were quite popular with Italian royalty. These small dogs came from China along the Silk Road. Shitzu dogs were often found in Buddhist temples and bred for loyalty and obedience. When they lie down it seems as if they are praying as they place both front paws in front and together. These adorable dogs were all the rage after the Polo brothers returned from China. Ricci places one of these dogs in this painting as a reference to the small dogs Jesus mentions in the Markan passage.
Ricci bridges the Baroque and Roccoco periods of painting in Italy. He was born in the 17th c. in Vienna, Austria, which was part of Italy at the time. As a youth he impregnated a young woman and was accused of attempting to poison her to cover up his shame. He fled to northern Italy. He spent the remainder of his life living in Venice, Milan, Rome and even London. Three times he returned to Vienna. The third time he was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Blue Hall in the Schonbonn Place in Vienna.
Jesus Honors a Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith
24 Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre.[a] He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25 In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27 “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28 “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29 Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
30 She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.