November 30, 2018
Christ shares his last meal with the Apostles and institutes the Eucharist
THE LAST SUPPER
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie
This is Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous work of the 1490s. The scene was painted directly onto the wall of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and shows Christ’s last supper with his disciples before his arrest and execution. It shows the exact moment when Jesus declares: “one of you will betray me”. Da Vinci conveys the twelve disciples’ consternation at this news.
The writer Mathieu Bandello observed Leonardo at work and wrote that, some days, he would paint from dawn to dusk without a pause – even for meals – and then would stop work completely for three or four days in a row. According to Vasari, this work pattern angered the Prior, who hassled the painter until da Vinci asked the Duke of Milan, Ludovic Sforza, to step in. Vasari also describes how da Vinci doubted his ability to paint the faces of Jesus and Judas, telling the Duke that he may have used the monk as a model.
When the painting was finished, it was lauded as a masterpiece of conceptualisation and characterisation, later even winning the admiration of Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt. The work has been restored continually as the paint peels away from its plaster support. The painting deteriorated rapidly, and even before its hundredth birthday it was described as “totally devastated” by a visitor. Instead of using the tried-and-tested fresco technique, Leonardo da Vinci had used the ‘tempera technique’, a painting process using egg yolks to bind pigments; as the plaster support was mainly made of ‘gesso’, a type of calcium carbonate chalk, the surface is prone to dampness and crumbling. Despite these setbacks, the painting remains one of the world’s most reproduced works of art.
Taddeo Gaddi, ca. 1360, Fresco (detail) - Refectory, Santa Croce, Florence, Italy
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The Biblical origin of the Eucharist can be placed in the context of Passover, the Jewish festival commemorating the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt (Book of Exodus). This celebration usually took place over seven days. It was during this festival that Jesus instituted the Eucharist: “Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they killed the Passover lamb, His disciples said to Him, `Where do you want us to go and prepare, that you may eat the Passover'” (Mark 14:12, Matthew 26:7)
In his World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson highlights the fact that many accounts confirm the influence of the cult of Bacchus: “Bacchus-Dionysus was already considered a saviour – to rise from the dead was normal for the old gods, while to eat a god’s body and drink his blood (represented by wine) was a familiar concept to the Ancient Greeks who believed in the myth of Orpheus. The grape, to the Ancient Greeks an attribute of Dionysus, was to become a symbol of the blood of Christ for the Eucharist.”
There is an incalculable number of depictions of the Last Supper. Will they end up seeming banal to us? We have chosen to comment on several works which stand out from the rest.
5/Bouts has chosen the moment where Christ blesses the bread and wine. By this gesture, he institutes the Eucharist. The traitor Judas, in the foreground on the left, is treated as an unremarkable silent witness – something fairly rare in representations of this character.
9/ The church of Saint-François-Xavier in Paris, consecrated in 1894, is home to a magnificent but little-known work by Tintoretto: The Last Supper, painted in 1559. It was commissioned by the Scuola du Saint-Sacrement of the Church of Saint Felix, in Venice. Stolen during the Napoleonic era, it was sold in France. The Baroness of Teil donated it to the Parish of Saint-François-Xavier. In the image, Jesus has just announced that one of his disciples is about to betray him. The disciples stare at each other, shocked and suspicious, wondering who will be the culprit. Tintoretto places Judas in the foreground, opposite Christ. He hides behind his back the payment given to him by Jesus’ soon-to-be captors.
14/ This famous work by Veronese is an immense canvas measuring 13 meters in length. It represents Christ surrounded by a group of individuals who are not mentioned in the Gospels. The Last Supper takes place not in a Palestinian inn, as in the Bible, but in a rich palace with Classical architecture, probably inspired by one of those designed by Palladio. As in The Marriage at Cana, Veronese stays true to his mocking, bawdy and pagan artistic identity. The painting’s basic theme is that of ‘The Last Supper’. Veronese painted this scene at the request of the Dominican monks of Santi Giovanni e Paoli. However, his very particular approach to the subject aroused the suspicions of the Prior of the monastery, who reported Veronese to the Inquisition. He was accused of impiety by the Tribunal of the Holy Office for having placed the Last Supper in a setting where drinkers, dwarves, black people and animals circulate – an atmosphere deemed ‘profane’. The artist responded to the judges, who questioned the bustling scene and numerous characters represented: “if there is space on the canvas, I’ll fill it with as many figures as my patrons, and my imagination, want.” Ordered to alter the work to fit the religious ‘good taste’ of the Inquisition, Veronese pointedly did nothing, merely changing the title of the painting. The Last Supper became the Feast in the House of Levi – the new title drawn from an episode in the Gospel according to Luke (Luke 5: 29-32), in which Levi (the Hebrew name of the apostle Matthew) gave a great feast in his house. Levi’s guests were invited to partake of the celebration in good company, for the love of God. An ingenious way for the artist to mock his censors!
17/ Poussin was one of few painters to combine in a single work the two most important moments of the Last Supper: the announcement of the treason of one of the disciples, and Christ’s institution of the Eucharist. Judas seems to be shown slipping away from the supper unnoticed; in the Gospels, it is not clear if he stayed until the end of the Passover meal. Saint Augustin, of whom Poussin was a follower, supported the Gospel according to John above the three other versions of the story; in this version, Judas indeed leaves the room. Poussin demonstrates a certain contextual rigor by presenting the disciples lying down on divans in the semisdraiati position (normal feasting behavior in the Roman period), rather than in a more contemporary setting and position, as was usually the case for biblical (and mythological) scenes.
21/ Maulbertsch's painting of The Last Supper is an interesting example of the Baroque style of sketching. The figures, leaning far forward or far back, the abrupt foreshortening and the countless diagonal lines make this scene of men grouped around a table appear disturbed and agitated (Source: Web Gallery of Art).
24/ The Blind Man's Meal is a restatement of the Christian sacrament-the ritual of tasting bread and wine to evoke the flesh and blood of Christ-in contemporary terms. "A blind man at the table holds a piece of bread in his left hand and with his right hand reaches for a jug of wine" (Pablo Picasso).
Bible text: New Testament, Luke 22:14-20
"When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. Then He said to them, ‘With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you."
GALLERIES THE BLOOD OF CHRIST IN THE NEW TESTAMENT AND CHRISTIAN ICONOGRAPHY
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