The Passion of Christ

The Last Supper - page 1

  The Last supper is a complex event. Once again, John’s gospel is different in a number of respects from the synoptic gospels.

The date
In the synoptic gospels, the Last Supper is eaten as the Passover feast. (Nisan 15) John's gospel moves the events a day earlier, (Nisan 14) the day on which the paschal lamb was slaughtered, so that the Last Supper and the crucifixion happen before the Passover. Effectively, Jesus became the Paschal Lamb, the Passover sacrifice. Note that, as far as the Passover is concerned, ‘day’ begins and ends in the evening, not at midnight. Images which include a cooked lamb on the table agree with the Synoptics, but not with John. It has to be said that most artists’ attempts at painting a convincing roast  lamb are pretty unconvincing!

The Eucharist
  The Last Supper as the institution of the Eucharist is not referred to in John, but it is in the Synoptic gospels, and in the first epistle to the Corinthians.

The events
John includes events not mentioned in the synoptics. The washing of the feet we have already dealt with. In John’s account, it’s a little unclear when this actually happened – ‘ He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. (Ch 13, v 4) suggests to end of the meal, but later it seems the disciples have returned for the next course.
     John also includes a homily to the disciples, and a farewell to them.  (from verse 31, then chapter 14) The only image of this I have found is from the Maesta by Duccio.

All four gospels mention the betrayal by Judas and the prediction of Peter’s denial of Christ.

   The two key elements are the announcement of the betrayal by Judas, and the institution of the Eucharist. The problem artists have is – how to portray a series of events in a single static image. The announcement of the betrayal may be considered a single event, but it isn’t – see the account by Matthew below. In any picture showing the betrayal, it has to be asked if it is a generalised view or an image of a specific part of the narrative, such as Christ dipping his hand in the dish. In particular, is the emphasis on the narrative, or on the sacramental?
  'Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve. And as they did eat, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I? And he answered and said, He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me. The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born. Then Judas, which betrayed him, answered and said, Master, is it I? He said unto him, Thou hast said. And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.' (Mathew Ch 26 v 20 – 28)

Visually, these statements by Christ call forth quite opposite reactions; alarm and disbelief on one hand, and quiet contemplation on the other. So is it possible to combine both elements in one picture? Leo Steinberg in The Incessant Last Supper has some interesting things to say about this in relation to what is probably the best known version, that by Leonardo,  and we’ll look at this later.

The Disciples
   How do we know which disciple is which? Images of the last supper are narratives rather than devotional paintings and so it is not appropriate, by and large, to give the apostles their identifying attributes – St.Peter’s keys, for example. Nevertheless there are clues. John the Evangelist is easy -
  Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. John Ch 13 v23)

Master of Portillo
Allen Memorial Art Museum Oberlin U.S.A.

Duccio: from the Maesta.
Museo del Opera del Duomo Siena

Master of the Housebook
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Despite anything you may have read by Dan Brown, and others, this always has been John, traditionally young and with long hair.

  St Peter is usually easy to spot; quite close to Christ, elderly with a short white beard. Sometimes he holds a knife, appropriate for a meal but also prefiguring the ear-slicing he will be responsible for in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Pietro Perugino
Convent of the Tertiary Franciscans, Foligno

Duccio again!

Lorenzo Monaco
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

  Judas is generally easy to find too. Often an unattractive figure, he may be shown on the nearside of the table, and will frequently be clutching a purse. This is clearly a symbol of the bribe, but John tells us that the other disciples thought the best of Judas:

  'For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, But those things that we have need of against the feast; or, that he should give something to the poor'. (Ch13 v29)
  In early versions, such as those above, the lack of a halo is another giveaway. 
  Cats may sometimes be seen hanging around the feet of Judas. Sadly, cats are regarded as symbols of treachery, which, on behalf of my very loyal cat, I rather object to. 

Hans Holbein: Kunstmuseum, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel. 
he ugliest Judas ever?

Fray Nicholas Borras: Private collection

Jacopo Bassano: Galleria Borghese, Rome
Judas and the much-maligned cat.

 The painting below, by Pieter Pourbus, is possibly the silliest ever representation of Judas, who, tempted by Satan in what looks like a frilly dress and a tiara, rushes out,  knocking over his chair in the process. An ultra-efficient servant is picking up the chair, while one of the disciples grabs his cloak to stop him going. I'm not sure which of the gospels this is based on. 

Groeninge Museum, Bruges

 I'm aware that someof the images on this page are details.  You will find complete versions on the Web Gallery of Art.

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