The Lord's Supper
Manuscript illustration, approximately 2.3 x 2 inches (6x5 cm.)
The St. Augustine Gospels
Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS. 286, fol. 125r
The word in the upper margin is cena domini, "The Lord's Supper," that is, Jesus' pronouncement that the bread and wine are his body and blood (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20). This image exemplifies the revolution in the iconography of this event that began in the 6th century. In the old pattern, attested through the 5th century, the figures reclined around a semicircular table with Jesus on the left. Now they sit on chairs with Jesus in the center and there is a more explicit linkage between the historical event and the Christian liturgy of the Eucharist.
The violet cloth on Jesus' left shoulder was a vestment worn by priests during the liturgy.1 Like a priest at the consecration of the host, Jesus here blesses bread that is in the shape of a disc. The chalice before him is of the shape traditionally used in the liturgy and disproportionately large to emphasize the unity between the historical Last Supper and its contemporary memorial.
In the center of the table is a plate with two smudged areas that were surely fish when the illustration was first completed. (The plate with two fish had been a traditional element in the earlier iconography.) Ranged around the plate are six loaves; with the addition of the bread in Jesus' hand, we have an allusion to the two fish and seven loaves that he used to feed the four thousand in Matthew 15:32-38 and Mark 8:1-9. In the "Bread of Life discourse" in John's gospel Jesus declares that he himself is "the living bread which came down from heaven" and that "He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life." The discourse was among the most important scriptural bases for the Christian belief in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, second only to the "this is my body" phrases in the synoptic gospels.2
The cross inscribed on Jesus' halo is another iconographic feature introduced in the 6th century.
Read more about images of the Last Supper.
The image is one of twelve panels on the manuscript page:
The manuscript is online at https://parker.stanford.edu/parker/catalog/mk707wk3350 (retrieved 2023-07-12).
1 The vestment on Jesus' shoulder was called a "stole" at the time. Later, the stole developed into a long band of cloth hanging from both shoulders. Violet and other colors were an innovation of the 6th century. See Wikipedia s.v. "Stole (vestment)," and "Origins of ecclesiastical vestments" and Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Stole" and "Liturgical colors."
2 See John 6:1-59, especially verses 51-55; Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:17-20. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (§§1373-77) also cites a number of early theologians affirming the real presence. Also see Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist."