“When it was evening, he sat at table with the 12 disciples; as they were eating, he said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’ And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord?’ He answered, ‘He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me.’” (Mt. 26: 20-23)
This particular event in the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ has been interpreted by various European visual artists from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Their pictorial interpretations vary, despite the fact that they had only one source—the Holy Bible.
Four of the varied interpretations are herein deconstructed. The version of Dierick Bouts (15th century) shows Jesus Christ at the center of a rectangular table, surrounded by the 12 disciples, two of whom, who suffer from anatomical flaws, are seated in front. Behind is a mini retablo with quasi-Baroque designs—in start contrast to the window and door of the room. Two servitors are ready to bring in the food. The presence of the attendants is not validated by the gospel of Matthew.
Il Tintoretto’s version (16th century) shows the event like a fiesta gathering where everybody is in wild and carefree abandon. Hangers-on and just about anybody had invited themselves in, resulting in Jesus Christ and the 12 disciples lost in the rowdy crowd. Creative/artistic freedom is definitely not a license to go beyond the specific number mentioned in the Holy Bible.
In the 17th century, Philippe de Champaigne did his own version. Jesus Christ sits at the center of a relatively long table, as 11 of the 12 disciples huddle close to him, leaving the front clear of any disciple. Jesus Christ wears a pained look on his face. The 11, generally in stiff and frozen kinetics, display various facial emotions. Only a glass of wine or water is all there is on the table. Surely, Jesus Christ is the paragon of simplicity and poverty, but not in this sense of visual nothingness, for there is no loaf of bread, for instance.
Leonardo, the Florentine artist and scientist, painted the “Last Supper” ca. 1495-1498. (Medium: Oil and tempera on plaster. Size: 460 x 880 cm. Provenance: Milan, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Refectory).
Before he did his version, Leonardo did several sketches using pen and ink. He studied “the expression of the face” (Frank Zollner, “Leonardo,” Taschen GmbH, 2005). The sketches finally led to “stage-like setting” of the most-photographed version of the theme.
Leonardo’s version shows Jesus Christ seated at the center of a long table surrounded by the 12 disciples arranged in four groups: two on his right and left sides, with three disciples each. He gently opens his arms sideways as he says his prescient words, his composure kept calm and serene.
Conversely, the 12 are caught unawares; some try to stand up, but their knees could hardly carry their weights. Others are ensconced on their seats, their arms ostensibly asking the rhetorical question “Who could it be?”
Jacobus Major, on the left side of Christ, seems to be saying “Not me!” And Thomas, he with the forefinger pointing upward, seems to be saying, “I doubt the Lord’s word.”
The third disciple on Christ’s right side tips the bottle of salt, an act, conscious or unconscious, that he was going to betray Jesus Christ. His name: Judas.
The rest of the disciples are (from left to right): Bartholomaus, Jacobus Minor, Andreas, Petrus, Johannes, Philippus, Matthaus, Thaddaus, Simon Zelotes.
Much more is discerned from the compositional arrangement beyond the ambit of mathematical exactitude. Christ, being at the center, is a clear and graphic depiction of his word spoken through the lips of Matthew: “When two or more are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20). This also underscores the
fact that Christianity is Christocentric.
The four groups, identified from one another by inverted triangles between them, show the 12 disciples pointing toward Jesus Christ as the focal point. Furthermore, the four groups point to the four corners of the world to whom he was to upbraid the eleven, thus: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15). The three disciples in each group strongly recall the Triune God, at least numerically.
The whole composition is conceived and actualized within the pictorial structure of a one-point linear perspective, with the lines vanishing toward Jesus Christ. The resultant genius of Leonardo in the arts and sciences is further highlighted by Christ’s face being framed by the widest of the three windows behind.
Everything in this painting is predetermined, including the halo that Leonardo eliminated above the head of Jesus Christ. Without the halo, the divinity of Jesus Christ is not at all diminished. After all, there had been pictures of Jesus Christ without a halo since the 400s.
Leonardo’s “Last Supper” is an unrivaled fusion of theology and ideology. It is a living and continuing pictorial narrative on the heartrending moment in the Lord’s last supper on earth.