Looking at the Last Supper

Jason Micheli —  April 21, 2014 — Leave a comment

This is my friend, Janet Laisch. I was last week so didn’t get to post it on Holy Thursday. Better late than never…

 

In AD 200, the birth of Christian art represented the new covenant through abstract references to the Last Supper where Christ commanded us, ” to Love one another as I have loved you.”  Christians began making art on the very walls of the catacombs where they buried their dead and among the first brush strokes they painted were grape vines and leaves to express their belief in an afterlife and their belief in Christ’s new commandment. During the second half of the third century, artists began to depict Christ and His disciples reclining at the Last Supper and other agape feasts.  Ancient Christians blurred the lines between eschatological agape feasts and the Last Supper believing that all feasts celebrated agape love as commanded by Christ.

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In the Gospel of John, for theological reasons, John put the Last Supper before the Passover feast from John 13:1; Jesus was killed at the same moment the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple—making Christ the new Passover sacrifice. In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels, the Last Supper is explicitly identified as the Passover meal from Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7. Early representations corresponded more closely with the Jewish practice of conducting Passover meals round low tables, or no tables at all, with diners semi-reclining on low lounges. The Gospel writers explicitly reference reclining at this meal.  This catacomb fresco (above) shows Christ beardless and young surrounded by disciples and like later Last Supper paintings it represents the moment when Christ says one of you will betray me as the disciples respond to Christ by pointing at themselves and saying is it I? Mark 14.

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At Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, a sixth century Basilica, mosaics (above) depict men and women processing toward the altar with communal offerings for the Eucharist.  These images reenact communion as it was celebrated at this church and others like it in the sixth century. Just above these processional mosaics are scenes from Christ’s life including an image of the Last Supper where Christ and his disciples recline together in a communal meal with fish and wine on the table.  Christ is the only figure shown with a halo. Just as a typical Roman feast featured diners reclining on couches—propped up on their left elbows—around a central table or a few smaller tables in a dining room or triclinium, early Last Supper representations depict Christ and the disciples reclining as described in the synoptic Gospels: Luke 10:39. Food was generally served in a few communal dishes, in which diners would dip their bread or eat with their hands. Wine flowed freely and was served in bowls.

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 In 1305 Duccio painted this image (above) as part of an altarpiece originally placed in the Siena Cathedral. Beginning in the early Renaissance, artists preferred to represent Christ and the Disciples sitting upright along a communal table with Christ in the center and an elaborate Passover dinner including lamb lay out on the table. Last Supper images continue to reflect traditions of when they were painted rather than Christ and disciples from first century Palestine and Christ and the disciples look more Italian than Middle Eastern.  Judas the betrayer is most likely sitting opposite Christ with his hand reaching toward Christ’s outstretched arm.

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In the Renaissance artists begin to distinguish Judas the betrayer more explicitly from the other disciples as seen in Fra Angelico’s example from 1450 (above).

By the middle Renaissance Last Supper images moved from churches to monasteries as this one by Fra Angelico decorates the Monastery of San Marco in Florence. Fra Angelico’s painting makes clear what Renaissance artists sought to achieve: a clear parallel between the Last Supper and Catholic mass. Disciples sit at the table where only a white table cloth and the Eucharist cup remain. Here, the disciples kneel as Christ distributes the communal wafer and holds a common cup. In the foreground on the left a woman kneels probably the blessed mother, Mary while on the right, Judas is depicted as the only disciple wearing a sinister black halo.

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lstsupMore often Last Supper images like this one by Leonardo da Vinci from 1495 (above) decorated the refractory or monk’s dining room wall throughout the Renaissance.  Artists rendered the figures life size and at eye level so monks could imagine participating in the meal along with Christ.Viewers became so familiar with this drama-charged image and so accustomed to the iconography of Christian art, that they would hardly remember it as a cross-cultural art work. They might even need to be reminded that the Last Supper was an event which involved Jewish people and occurred in Palestine. Judas sits beside Christ and rests his hand on the table as referenced in the Gospel that the one who betrays me rests his hand on the table. Through a carefully delineated under drawing and one point perspective where the vanishing point meets at Christ’s head, Leonardo da Vinci achieved serenity in this scene. This painting marks the calm before the storm of the Reformation, before Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door in 1517 (below).

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In newly-Lutheran parts of Germany, Protestant iconoclasts, sometimes in mobs, physically stripped and defaced countless works of church art. By 1522 Martin Luther recognized art as a valuable educative tool and artists once again created art to instruct viewers.

 

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The German Reformation painter, Luis Cranach the Elder painted this Last Supper in 1547, (above) replacing Leonardo’s long bench with a round table. Jesus is not even placed at the center, but appears on the far left, consistent with the Lutheran practice of distributing the bread and the wine from the side of the altar. Cranach depicts Martin Luther at the Last Supper. Luther symbolized everyman and is taking part in the meal as he receives the cup of wine from a servant.

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As the Counter Reformation warred throughout Catholic Europe, Veronese a celebrated Venetian painter was called before the Inquisition to defend his choices for this rendering of the Last Supper in 1573 (above).  Venice long a trade crossroads attracted people of diverse cultures, so unlike earlier paintings, in addition to Last Supper participants, Veronese decorated the foreground with “foreign” people, a young dwarf holding a parrot, a man with a bloody nose and a dog. When questioned Veronese explained that he liked to adorn with figures of his own imagination to fill any left-over space in the picture. After being asked to remove the dog depicted in the center foreground, Veronese decided instead to rename the image Feast in the House of Levi which ended the controversy.  This Inquisitorial hearing inspired a hilarious Monty Python sketch:
 

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The Pope commissioned works of art as part of the Counter Reformation and Poussin found the Pope and a circle of patrons in Rome interested in stoic philosophy commissioned canvases like this one (above).  Similar to catacomb paintings and early Basilica mosaics, Poussin painted the Palestine tradition of Jesus and the disciples reclining during the Last Supper meal as referenced in the Bible. Poussin’s objective as a classical antiquarian was to study and depict ancient traditions. Washing feet before a meal is an ancient tradition and though not explicitly stated in the synoptic gospels is an understood tradition of the Jewish Palestine. In John 13 , he explicitly states that Christ washes the disciples feet as an act of love and purification. A copper bowl and clean bare feet figure prominently in the foreground referencing Christ washing the disciples’ feet as a way of demonstrating His love for the world. At the Last Supper Jesus gave his disciples a new command to love one another as I have loved you, so you must love one another. One way Jesus demonstrated His love at the Last Supper was to wash his disciples’ feet and take the role of the servant.

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Hundreds more Last Supper images fill the pages of Art History books, many adhered to Leonardo’s format. In 1955 Dali painted the Last Supper (above) in a unique and poignant way where Judas is not included at the modern low stone table. A single glass cup and broken bread adorn the table as the remaining 11 disciples bow their heads in prayer rather than eating or gesturing as commonly depicted in earlier portrayals. Dali created a hologram rendition of Christ who both sits at the table and floats in the baptismal waters below. Christ gestures as if speaking. He points to His body and to the heavens symbolizing his two natures: completely human and completely divine. A third aspect of Christ hovers above to complete the trinity: the Holy Spirit is present above the communion table. As in the Bible the meal takes place in the second floor of a home though all the furnishings are ultra modern and a glass enclosed space reveals a lake and canoes below referencing also when Christ first called the disciples from their fishing jobs to be fishers of men. The placid nature of the water and the color palette give the scene an other-worldly feel. Dali painted in an ultra realistic classical manner that appears almost like a photograph yet he includes many dreamlike impossible details to create a style called surrealism. Dali paints this image as a way to recall Christ’s memory and as a way to depict his view of heaven so it is both an image of the Last Supper and an image of the agape feast in the Kingdom of Heaven.

As varied as these art images of the Last Supper are and as varied as the descriptions of the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels and John are, we know that Christ invited us all to the table. As Christ said about the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me…I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine in the Kingdom of God.” Christ invites us all to partake in the meal as a foretaste of the feast to come.

Jason Micheli

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