A happy, holy and blessed Holy Thursday to all who read this blog and their loved ones.
Let’s look at some nearly randomly chosen Last Supper art:
Along the east coast of Italy, facing what used to be the Eastern Roman Empire across the Adriatic Sea, there are a number of churches that look east for their architecture and style. San Marco, in Venice, is the most outstanding. Above is a mosaic of the Last Supper, from sometime after the 10th century, capturing the moment in St. John’s Gospel where, at Peter’s urging, John lays his head on Jesus’s chest and asks who it is who will betray Him. Typically of iconography, little attempt is made at realism – feature, not a bug, as the point of all such art is to raise our minds to contemplation of the Truth, not artistic realism.
An oddity: all 12 apostles are shown – and each has a halo. Since, at this point in the narrative, Judas has not yet left to lead the soldiers to Christ, is the artist trying to tell us he is still an Apostle, still counted among the holy?
Here, for example, from a few centuries later:
Note that John still had his head on Christ’s chest, even though at this point Christ is shown consecrating the bread and wine. Judas, front center left, does not have a halo. He is depicted as having already abandoned himself to treachery and the devil. There’s a long history of northern Europeans – largely, the Germanic tribes – having a very legalistic view of things which the missionaries from Italy had a devilish time trying to convert them from, such as compiling books of exactly what penalty each carefully-defined sin would get them in the confessional. The Eastern artist wanted to convey that even Judas was chosen by Christ for holiness and salvation. Huguet wants us to know who the bad guy is.
Meanwhile, back in Italy at roughly the same time, Blessed Fra Angelico painted this Last Supper in San Marco – the Florentine Dominican monastery, not the Venetian Basilica.
Fra Angelico wanted to be realistic, after the fashion of Giotto, with real figures shown doing real things. He’s also working with the existing architecture – he’s fitting this fresco on a wall under an arch, which intrudes in the upper left. He takes these considerations, and makes them strengths. He can’t hang his Apostles suspended in mid-air behind a table whose surface is in another plane from wherever it is the Apostles are located, so he wraps the table around under the arch, gives the three Apostles sitting there a higher built-in bench to sit on so that they line up nicely heightwise with the Apostles along the other stretch of table.
But there’s not enough room to show all 12 in this manner. Our Byzantine artist in Venice would have just packed them in, and that’s what Huguet did – nobody is eating dinner in his picture, they’re practically sitting on top of each other. Fra Angelico instead shows 4 empty seats that, had the Apostles been sitting on those benches, would have put them awkwardly with their backs to us, and instead has them kneeling – a nice reference to the way people would have received Communion in the churches in Italy in his day. These four Apostles obscure each other – unlike the other 8, they are not individuals, but a crowd. I think Fra Angelico did this on purpose, to have those 4 represent us, the people not at the table at the Last Supper, kneeling to receive Him today nonetheless. Also, he sticks Judas in that crowd, compromising on the halo question by giving him a dark one – Judas is still among the chosen Apostles, but he is losing the gift of grace as he embraces treachery.
Unlike the other paintings, here the table is cleared of dinner. “When supper had ended” we are told in Scripture, Christ consecrated the bread and wine. The other artists wanted to emphasize the Passover meal, and so showed it still on the table. Fra Angelico wants to emphasize the connection between what went on at the Last Supper and what goes on today at Mass, so the table is cleared. It is the Lamb of God distributing Himself Who is portrayed, Who completes and supersedes the pascal lamb of the Israelites.
Christ comes around the table to distribute Communion, just as the priest at Mass comes down to the railing. Assuming Christ was sitting in the middle, he’s starting with John, who would have been next to him according to John’s Gospel, and, as the youngest would be a beardless Apostle. But there’s also a clean-shaven Apostle on the end, so can’t be sure.
Finally, he puts Mary (I’m pretty sure) kneeling in lower left. Some tradition place her at the Last Supper, although she is not mentioned there in the Gospels. It serves Fra Angelico’s purposes to show her there – she is also us, in a way, the woman who said yes and for whom the Almighty has done great things. That yes and use by God for great things is what we aspire to. Judas is in a kneeling crowd, a crowd of those aspiring to what Mary has achieved – total surrender to the will of God. He could have chosen otherwise.
There are hundreds of other wonderful representations of the Last Supper. Maybe in future years we’ll get to a few more.