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Washing of the Feet

jesus peter disciples supper

According to the Gospel of *John (13:4-17), during the *Last Supper, Jesus paused and washed the feet of the disciples. This act, traditionally performed by slaves (or the hosts of highly respected guests), startled Saint *Peter in particular, who objected to his teacher’s actions. Jesus explained the gesture of service, humility, love, and cleansing, and directed the disciples to be willing to serve others rather than expect to be served. The subject appears in art from the early Christian through late medieval period, and the symbolism is also reflected in liturgical and monastic practices where ritual feet washing formed part of the rite of *Baptism during the early Christian period and was performed, especially by monks and bishops, on Maundy Thursday through the Middle Ages. On early sarcophagi, the image may show Jesus (barefoot and often with a towel around his neck) standing before the seated Peter, who raises his foot over a basin. In early seventh-century manuscripts, the scene becomes more active; Jesus is shown stooping over the basin; Peter gestures toward him, and the disciples stand watching. The motif of the disciples removing their sandals occurs in tenth-century and later examples. Medieval theologians interpreted both the removal of shoes and the feet washing as symbols of cleansing and liberation from sin. Sometimes the seated Peter is shown touching his own head as Jesus stoops to wash his feet. This makes reference to their conversation (John 13:9) in which, once Peter understood the significance of Jesus’ action, he requested that Jesus wash not only his feet but also his head and hands. An architectural background or interior setting is often indicated for this theme. It is sometimes combined or paired with the Last Supper but also occurs as an independent image. The subject is found in all media in both western and Byzantine art (i.e., an *icon illustrating the major feast is traditionally found in *iconostasis programs) through the Middle Ages.
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