Jacopo Bassano’s visual exegesis emphasizes social responsibility in an era in which many people in the environs of Venice suffered from poverty, homelessness, and food shortages. As a result, Venice and other nearby cities were besieged by a migration of homeless paupers and, in response to this societal trauma, numerous reformers in the Catholic church criticized the spiritual indifference that included neglect of impoverished people. Vincenzio Giaccaro, for example, cited the parable of the Good Samaritan to argue that Christians should meet their neighbours’ spiritual and bodily needs. Bassano’s religious paintings often clearly reflect such ethical concerns (Aikema 1996: 10, 46, 49; Hornik and Parsons 2003: 99–101).
Although the human drama of the Samaritan’s act of mercy is therefore the centre of attention here—we are shown the Samaritan’s strenuous efforts to lift the wounded man onto the animal (Luke 10:34)—the painting’s naturalism does not prevent interpreters from envisioning allegorical elements in the work. The portrayal of the victim—his body pale, vulnerable, and helpless, with wounds dripping with blood—echoes visual representations of the Deposition, when Jesus’s body was removed from the cross (De Lange 2011: 66–68). There may be a bloody bandage in the place of a crown of thorns, but the painting seems to offer an example of how showing mercy to the ‘least of these’ is the same as showing mercy to Jesus (Matthew 25:40), a symbolism that once again reminds viewers to reflect on their responsibility to assist people in need.
In addition, the Levite at the far left of the composition is shown reading (a detail not in the text), which may symbolize people who who appear to love God’s Law, but disregard its commands to love one’s neighbour. Since Bassano often included dogs in his works to illustrate religious indifference or even blameworthiness, the two dogs likely mirror the callous neglect of the priest and Levite (Luke 10:31–32).
By contrast, the Samaritan, in this dark, dangerous place, does what the Law requires (cf. Luke 16:29). He chooses the good and righteous path, and energetically offers compassion and mercy. In this way, the painting seeks to persuade its viewers, as did Jesus the lawyer, to ‘go and do likewise’ (v.37).