The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant / Jan van Hemessen



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Record Details

Accession Number
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
Artist Nationality
Artist Life Dates
c. 1500-c.1575
Medium and Support
oil on panel
Object Creation Date
circa 1556
Object Creation Place
Europe (continent)
Flanders (former nation/state/empire)
Antwerp (inhabited place)
Creation Place 1
Europe (continent)
Creation Place 3
Antwerp (inhabited place)
Credit Line
Museum Purchase
Antwerp Mannerist
81.6 cm x 155.2 cm (32 1/8 in. x 61 1/8 in.)
16th century
Primary Object Classification
Primary Object Type
Secondary Object Classification
Secondary Object Type
narrative painting
Physical Description
This painting depicts the interior of a room where four men are grouped around a table. They are painted as half-length figures, and their forms fill the foreground. They are painted in warm tones of brown, red and green and dressed in 16th century Netherlandish clothing. There is a king, wearing a pointed crown, who, with his right arm awkwardly crossed over his left, points to another man across the table. He has a furrowed brow and his mouth is partially open as if he is speaking. Next to him is a man looking downward, intently counting coins piled on the table. The third man pauses while writing in a book, his hand with the pen is stopped in mid-air, and looks back at the king. The fourth man, on the other side of the table, has his hands clasped in a pleading gesture and his eyes meet the gaze of the king. Items in the room and on the table such as books, scissors, a money bag, and an hourglass, are painted in great detail. In the upper right, a small outdoor scene, painted in tones of light green, shows an imaginary cityscape with a man being dragged into an underground chamber by some soldiers.
Subject Matter
Jan van Hemessen has been credited with originating this type of moralizing genre painting. Here he paints a version of one of Christ's parables from the New Testament (Matthew 18:23-35). A king was settling his accounts and a servant was unable to pay his large debt of money. After the servant pleaded for mercy, the king took pity and released him from his debt. Later, this man saw a fellow servant who owed him money and demanded payment. The man could not repay him and the servant sent him to prison. When the king heard of this, he summoned the servant and punished him since he had not shown the same mercy that was given to him by the king.
The scene of a tax collector's office was a common subject in Flemish art in the 16th century, but Van Hemesson has added the narrative elements of the parable to relate the importance of forgiveness. He has chosen to show the moment in the story when the king denounces the servant, " You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me: and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?" (Matthew 18: 32-33)
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Technical Details

Image Size
3709 x 1905
File Size
258 KB
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"The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant; Jan van Hemessen." In the digital collection University of Michigan Museum of Art. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed May 27, 2024.
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