The Last Supper

Circa 550
Manuscript miniature
Rossano Gospels, Rossano Cathedral, Italy

In the miniature above, the left side pictures Jesus and the Apostles at a semi-circular table. As in ancient times and as the synoptic gospels specify, they are reclining at the table, not sitting as was the custom in later times. The table bears a large dish and is covered with what seem to be stylized fish. The man reaching into the dish would be Judas (Matthew 26:23, Luke 22:21). The apse at Santa Pudenziana arranges the Apostles on seats in a semicircle and puts Jesus in the center, a pattern that Grabar (72-73) traces to classical images of philosophers and their disciples, but when the subject is the Last Supper paleo-Christian images put Jesus on the left, as in this 6th-century mosaic, this 5th-century ivory, and even as late as this mosaic from the 12th/13th centuries.

To the left of the table scene is the washing of the feet (John 13:1-11). The man who stands at Jesus' left and seems to be expostulating with him would be St. Peter, who initially refused to let Jesus wash his feet (John 13:6-9). Here and in the table scene he has the short, square beard and the same gray hair and bald patch that became a traditional indicators of his identity.

In the lower register are three images of David in a crown, introducing apposite phrases from the Psalms. The inscriptions above him abbreviate his name to ΔΑΔ. The fourth image is labeled eosramias or perhaps cosramias, possibly a scribal error for the name of Jeremiah.

In medieval art it was common to picture the Last Supper as a communion service, and these two pages may be the earliest example of that trope. At first one might think that the Apostles are lined up to kiss Jesus' hand, but the Greek text in the page on the right concerns the Eucharist, and Grabar (89) recognizes the queues to be communion processions, with Christ distributing hosts to his people just as a priest might do in the 6th century. Strikingly, the way the Apostles queue up is just like the Catholic practice after Vatican II. Even the bow by the person at the head of the line is the custom in some parishes in the U.S.

At the bottom of these pages more Old Testament figures stand with their presumed prophecies of the Eucharist. On the left the first label is illegible; the next two figures are both David, and Solomon is on the end. On the right the figures are labeled David, Moses, David, Elijah.

Read more about images of the Last Supper.

Source: this page at Wikimedia Commons.