The solemn festivities of Holy Week are the source of a long iconographical tradition. Some of the best known images inspired by the events of that week are universally known, and repeated to the point of cliché, which is regrettable because it somehow diminishes the power of the original works.
There are two main events that occur on Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the Last Supper, and the Mount of Olives vigil. Both have had their share of visual representations, but the Last Supper is no doubt the most widely represented.
Of course, the best known representation of the Last Supper is that of Leonardo da Vinci. I have never seen the original as the monastery in Milan that houses it was closed when I visited the city in the spring of 1971. Perhaps it is just as well, as it was in a lamentable state at the time, and has fairly recently been carefully restored as best as can be without compromising the integrity of Leonardo’s original, or what’s left of it. Here is (I think) a fairly recent picture of the masterpiece. which is to be found in the refectory (dining hall) of the Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.
The work was painted between 1494 and 1498 and measures 460 x 880 cm or about 15 feet high by almost 29 feet, and is situated on a high wall above a doorway.
To my mind, the most striking of all Last Suppers, was that of Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) in the Venetian church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Here it is:
If ever there was a picture that illustrated the dynamism and drama of the Baroque period, this is it. I often used it in my lectures to show the difference between the Renaissance (da Vinci) and the Baroque aesthetic. The Tintoretto is probably my favourite depiction of the Last Supper. It is an oil on canvas and measures 365 x 568 cm (about 12 by 18 feet) and dates from about 1592-94. I can imagine the impact this depiction of the Last Supper would have had on people still accustomed to Late Medieval and Renaissance traditions!
There is also a wonderful depiction of the Last Supper by Domenico Guirlandaio (1449-1494) dated 1480, so it predates Leonardo’s by a decade or so. It is a fresco in the Cenacolo di Ognisanti In Florence. It measures 400 cm × 810 cm (160 in × 320 in).
Artists have generally focused on one particular moment during the Last Supper. Leonardo focused on the moment when Christ says that one of the disciples will betray him. Others have focused on the breaking of the bread and the communion-related aspects of the event, the new covenant, etc. Still others have taken a less specific moment.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) for instance emphasized the Eucharistic moment in his 1523 woodcut, shown here.
His woodcut for the so-called “Large Passion” of 1496 had used very similar iconography, but one more filled with incident. Here is that version:
We have some leftover Passover lamb on a platter, with bread on the table and wine being poured. In both instances, as in the Guirlandaio depiction above, St. John is in Christ’s arms, or resting on his breast, as stated in John’s Gospel: (John 13:23) “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.” (King James version). John was the youngest of Christ’s disciples, and was an early recruit, along with his elder brother James, sons of Zebedee, fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.
When I first visited Italy in 1971, I spent most of my time in churches and museums, looking at art first hand. As I had a good knowledge of scripture back then, and Christian iconography in general terms, depictions of the scenes inspired by the Gospels were familiar to me. What was less familiar was some of the earlier iconography, some of it quite literal, which makes for rather awkward pictorial situations. How are we to understand these depictions of St. John “leaning on Jesus’ bosom?” There is greater clarity in the depictions of Judas, of course, who sometimes sits alone opposite Christ across the table.
One extraordinary depiction of the Last Supper, by one Heinrich Lutzelmann (ca. 1450- ca. 1506) was done in 1485 on a panel and is situated in the Church of St. Pierre-le-Vieux in Strasbourg (Alsace). It is about 203 cm high. Once again St. John is seen in Christ’s arms, asleep or just resting.
Traditionally, the Apostles were represented with haloes, and this sometimes posed a bit of a problem. Giotto (ca. 1265–1337) in his 1305 depiction demonstrates how awkward this can be when the figures seen from the back or the side appear to have their heads on some kind of platter that has discoloured over time.
Then there is the wonderful depiction of the Last Supper by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1235-1319) dated 1308-1312. Duccio avoids the problem of the haloes by only placing them behind frontal figures.
There is lots of discussion and scholarly debate over whether or not the Last Supper was a Seder (the traditional Passover meal) or not… the question being exactly on what day of the week did the Last Supper occur? There seems to be some consensus that it was not a Seder, since the meal occurred at least one day before the Crucifixion which was on a Friday (before Sabbath). So the menu served up at the Last Supper is an open question. What was certainly served was bread and wine, and the occasion was a gathering of friends. The farewell sermon of Christ to his disciples on this occasion still makes for extraordinary reading today, regardless of one’s personal beliefs. The Gospel of St. John, originally written in Greek, is the most poetic of them all, as is his book of Revelations.
© Roger H. Boulet, 2015
Scriptural Citations for the Last Supper:
Matthew 26: 24-25; Mark 14: 18-21; Luke 22: 21-23 and John 13:21-30
All images readily available online.