The Tribute Money
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ldewey's picture


Titian’s The Tribute Money proves that nobody fools Jesus.

This painting is definitely reminiscent of some kind of illicit exchange in a gas station bathroom, but hold your horses-- this is Jesus Christ we’re talking about. The painting actually depicts a famous biblical moment in which the Pharisees (represented here by the dude with the sweet earring) ask Jesus who they should be paying taxes to-- him or the Roman government?

This is quite possibly the trickiest question in the whole Bible-- the Pharisees think that they can totally fool Jesus into dissing the Romans. But Jesus senses the trap and asks whose name and face are on the Roman coin. The Pharisees say “Caesar’s” and Jesus responds "Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's” (i.e., God doesn't want your stupid money!) The Pharisees are dead impressed by this line of thinking and decide to leave Jesus alone. 

Titian signed his name on the collar of the Pharisee, which suggests that he identifies with Christ’s questioners. However, that didn’t stop the praise from rolling in-- sixteenth century Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, who is widely considered to be the founder of art-historical writing, thought that Christ’s head was the “most stupendous and miraculous” thing that Titian ever painted. Just like the Pharisees were won over by Jesus’s quick wit, Titian’s contemporaries in the art world believed this painting to be an unprecedented achievement of mastery.  

Titian likely began this painting in the early 1540s but didn’t finish it until around 1568, when it was sent to Spain as a gift for King Philip II. That’s a bloody long time to be working on a painting-- we highly commend Titian for his perseverance.

slibrary's picture

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The following is an excerpt from "Titian; A Collection of Fifteen Pictures and a Portrait of the Painter with Introduction and Interpretation" by Estelle M. Hurll, published in 1901:

During the three years of Christ’s ministry, his words and actions were closely watched by his enemies, who hoped to find some fault of which they could accuse him. Not a flaw could be seen in that blameless life, and it was only by some trick that they could get him into their power.

One plan that they devised was very cunning. Palestine was at that time a province of the Roman empire, and the popular party among the Jews chafed at having to pay tribute to the emperor Cæsar. On the other hand the presence of the Roman governor in Jerusalem made it dangerous to express any open rebellion. Jesus was the friend of the people, and many of his followers believed that he would eventually lead them to throw off the Roman yoke. As a matter of fact, however, he had taken no part in political discussions.

His enemies now determined to make him commit himself to one party or the other. If he declared himself for Rome, his popularity was lost; if against Rome he was liable to arrest. The evangelists relate how shrewdly their question was framed to force a compromising reply, and how completely he [44]silenced them with his twofold answer. This is the story:—

“Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not?

“But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Cæsar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render, therefore, unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. When they had heard these words, they marvelled and left him, and went their way.”

That was indeed a wonderful scene, and it is made quite real to us in our picture: Christ and the Pharisee stand face to face, engaged in conversation. A wily old fellow has been chosen spokesman for his party. His bronzed skin and hairy muscular arm show him to be of a common class of laborers. The face is seamed with toil, and he has the hooked, aquiline nose of his race. As he peers into the face of his supposed dupe, his expression is full of low cunning and hypocrisy. He holds between thumb and forefinger the Roman coin which Christ has called for, and looks up as if wondering what that has to do with the question.

Christ turns upon him a searching glance which seems to read his motives as an open page. There is no indignation in the expression, only sorrowful rebuke. His answer is ready, and he points quietly to the coin with the words which so astonish his listeners.

The character of Christ is so many-sided that any painter who tries to represent him has the difficult task of uniting in a single face all noble qualities of manhood. Let us notice what elements of character Titian has made most prominent, and we shall see how much more nearly he satisfies our ideal than other painters.

Refinement and intellectual power impress us first in this countenance: the noble forehead is that of a thinker. The eyes show penetration and insight: we feel how impossible it would be to deceive this man. It is a gentle face, too, but without weakness. Here is one who would sympathize with the sorrowing and have compassion on the erring, but who would not forget to be just. Strength of character and firmness of purpose are indicated in his expression. The highest quality in the face is its moral earnestness. Its calm purity contrasts with the coarse, evil face of the questioner as light shining in the darkness. There is, perhaps, only one other head of Christ in art with which it can properly be compared, and this is by Leonardo da [48]Vinci, in the Last Supper at Milan. The two painters have expressed, as no others have been able to, a spiritual majesty worthy of the subject.

The early painters used to surround the head of Christ with a circle of gold, which was called a nimbus, a halo, or a glory. The custom had been given up by Titian’s time, but we see in our picture the remnant of the old symbol in the three tiny points of light which shine over the top and sides of the Saviour’s hair. They are a mystic emblem of the Trinity.

The artistic qualities of the picture are above praise. There are few, if any, of Titian’s works executed with so much care and delicacy of finish, but without sacrificing anything in the breadth. We recognize the painter’s characteristic touch in the disposition of the draperies, in the delicacy of the hair, the modelling of the hands, and the pose of Christ’s head. The figures have that quality of vitality which we observe in Titian’s great portraits. The color of Christ’s robe is red, and his mantle a deep blue.



  1. Estelle M. Hurll. "Titian; a collection of fifteen pictures and a portrait of the painter" (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1901) 43-48

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Tribute Money (Titian)

The Tribute Money (Italian: Cristo della moneta, lit. 'Christ of the coin') is a panel painting in oils of 1516 by the Italian late Renaissance artist Titian, now in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany. It depicts Christ and a Pharisee at the moment in the Gospels when Christ is shown a coin and says "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's". It is signed "Ticianus F.[ecit]", painted on the trim of the left side of the Pharisee's collar.

It is possibly the earliest representation in art of this scene, which had a personal significance for Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara, who commissioned it.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Tribute Money (Titian).