The Last Supper
The mosaic above is one of the earliest images of the Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-33).1 It developed from
an earlier image type from the catacombs in which a banquet of fish and bread symbolized the departed Christians' union with Christ in the afterlife. In the catacombs the two fish on the table referred both to the miracle of
the loaves and fishes
and to contemporary texts that made the fish a metaphor for Christ.2 These significations explain why some later images have a fish on the table rather than the traditional paschal lamb
In the Middle Ages even the boy who donated the fish for the "loaves and fishes" miracle may be included. St. Augustine suggested that the boy "is perhaps the Jewish people who, as it were, carried the loaves and fishes after a servile fashion, and did not eat them" (Catena Aurea IV, ii, 216). This interpretation may explain the portrayal of the boy in some images as a mature man, as in
3 As early as the mid-6th century,
two miniatures in a Greek Gospel book picture the Apostles queued up as if in a communion line to receive the host from Jesus' hands. Later in the century
this manuscript illustration with the title "Supper of the Lord" has Jesus dressed like a priest blessing a communion host.
Then, starting in about the 9th century, Byzantine altars will feature an icon called The Communion of the Apostles in which Christ is dressed as a priest and distributes the host and the chalice to the Twelve (Zographos, 496). Later, Western art followed suit with images of Jesus distributing communion just as in a medieval Mass. The apostles kneel as he puts a host on each tongue, as in the first picture at right.
In counterpoint to these solemn renditions of the institution of the Eucharist, the 16th century brings more dramatic and down-to-earth images of the supper. In Bassano's 1546 version the Apostles in contemporary fisherman's clothes argue forcibly with each other while on the floor a cat slinks in toward a sleeping dog. Subsequently Tintoretto expounds on the meaning of the Eucharist as Charity, as in this 1570 canvas, where one Apostle shares his bread with a beggar while another hands a fruit to a little boy in rags.
JUDASJohn 13:1-5 implies that Jesus included Judas among the communicants, and most commentators agree with St. Leo that he did so "that it might be made manifest that Judas was provoked by no wrong."4 Accordingly, the images normally include Judas at the Communion. He is also present in most images of the supper itself. Some have him dipping his hand in a dish, as in Matthew and Mark (example), or touching the table at the same time as Jesus, as in Luke (example). Others will show him with a money bag (as in the first picture at right), referring either to his role as treasurer (John 13:29) or to the thirty pieces of silver that the authorities had given him (Matthew 26:14-15).
SEATING ARRANGEMENTSIn ancient Greece and Rome participants in a banquet would lie on couches arranged around a table. This is what the synoptic gospels mean when they say Jesus and the Apostles "reclined" at the Last Supper.5 Accordingly, the earliest images of the supper picture the figures lying on couches around a semi-circular table. The table's shape allows them to be pictured face-forward. Usually Jesus is on the left, as in the image above and this miniature from about 550. In later centuries when people sat at tables the Last Supper images changed accordingly. The earliest known example with seated Apostles is this panel from a 6th-century manuscript illustration. This mosaic from the 12th or 13th century still has the semicircular table but puts the Apostles on chairs. A rectangular table is first seen in a 10th-century evangelary in the treasury of Prague Cathedral.6 By the later 13th century it has become traditional to arrange the figures on the far side of a long rectangular table facing the viewer, with Jesus at the center (example). This of course is the pattern that was adopted in the famous Da Vinci version.
THE PRETTY MANIn the da Vinci painting the person on Christ's right hand is most certainly the apostle John. He looks rather girlish to modern eyes, and a recent scandalous book claims that the figure is really Mary Magdalene. But an understanding of the iconography of St. John provides three excellent reasons for rejecting such a claim.
First, a medieval and Renaissance way of representing a man as young is to show him as beardless and girlish (as in portraits of St. Sebastian).
Second, it is clear that medievals recognized the young person in the Last Supper images as St. John, the discipulus (masculine) who the gospel says "leaned on his [Jesus'] breast at supper" (John 21:20). For example, this illustration from a manuscript of the Third Letter of John pictures the author as the young person leaning on Jesus's breast at the Last Supper. And in virtally all Last Suppers, there would not be a total of twelve Apostles if the person in question were not John.
Finally, we sometimes find a girlish John in Last Supper images that also include Mary Magdalene herself. In a 16th-century Last Supper tapestry, for example, a very girlish John rests his head on Christ's chest while the latter drapes his arm around the youth's shoulder. Mary Magdalene sits directly across the table from them, her left hand reaching for the jar of oil that she will use for Christ's feet. In this image, she embraces his feet beneath the table while the beardless John reclines his head on his chest.
Clearly then, the pretty young person at Christ's side in the da Vinci painting is not a coded revelation about the Magdalene but simply a recursion to the conventional iconography of St. John.
THE WASHING OF THE FEETSecondary topics treated in other Last Supper images include Christ's washing of the apostles' feet (John 13:1-11). John's gospel records that Peter at first demurred from having the Lord wash his feet, but when Jesus insisted Peter asked that he also wash his head and hands. In some 13th-century images Peter puts his hand to his head in reference to the follow-up request (example). Some of Tintoretto's numerous images of the foot-washing present the initial refusal instead (example); one of them collapses the two moments into a single animated colloquy between Peter and Christ.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.
Sixth-century mosaic in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. See the description page for details.