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Focus On Last Supper

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Current Feature: The Last Supper

The Last Supper

Adele Reinhartz

Visitors to Milan routinely make a stop at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, for one reason: to stand before one of the most famous art works in the world, Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, or Il Cenacolo, as it is known in Italian.

Leonardo painted this mural in the late fifteenth century, for the refectory, or dining hall, of a monastery at the request of his patron Duke Ludovico Sforza and his duchess Beatrice d'Este. The mural captures the precise moment narrated in John 13:21-26 when Jesus, in the course of his last meal with his disciples, suddenly announces: "Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me" (13:21). The disciples are shocked and suddenly fearful: Who could it be? They look at one another in suspicion. Leonardo's painting depicts the moment that Peter, the disciples' spokesman, motions to the young man sitting next to Jesus to ask Jesus to identify his betrayer (13:24). In the very next moment, the disciple will ask Jesus, "Lord, who is it?" And Jesus will respond: "It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish" (13:26). If one can imagine this tableau as the first in a series, the panels that follow would show Jesus dipping the bread, giving it to Judas, and in this way set in motion the dramatic chain of events that leads inexorably to Jesus' crucifixion on Golgotha.

At first glance, Leonardo's decision to line the participants up on one side of a banquet table seems strange; after all, would this arrangement not have hindered table conversation? It seems much more reasonable to seat the disciples around a table, as in this fourteenth-century fresco by one of Leonardo's famous predecessors, Giotto:

But the moment we walk into the refectory and see Leonardo's depiction on the wall, it becomes obvious that Leonardo's Jesus is not hosting a private dinner, as seems to be the case in the gospels, but rather presiding over the head table of every meal shared by those who broke bread in that refectory.

Jesus' central position in the painting reminds the diners that they come together for a meal that is not merely for their physical and individual sustenance, but also for their spiritual and communal benefit. Indeed, they would not be dining together at all, and certainly not in a building known as a church, were it not for Jesus himself, and especially, his death on the cross. But Jesus is not merely there as a reminder of the Christian context of the meal. His calm demeanor and outstretched arms, which contrast too strikingly with the dynamic tension exhibited by his own dinner companions, identify him as the host of the meal. All who gaze upon the painting are invited.

Jesus, however, invites us not merely to dine before him, but to enter into the painting and break bread with him. In accepting this invitation, we are somewhat in a quandary. Where shall we sit? None of the disciples is looking in our direction, and none seems prepared to welcome newcomers to the table. The disciples in Giotto's fresco are sitting in quiet and reverent silence, solemn but calm, so calm, indeed, that one of them—the Beloved Disciple—is asleep next to Jesus. We might well imagine sliding onto a bench alongside any one of them. The disciples in Leonardo's painting, by contrast, are engaged in heated discussion. Here Leonardo has drawn not only upon John's Last Supper scene but also from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), in which disciples ask Jesus in horror "Surely, not I!" (Mark 14:19; Matthew 26:22) and debate, naively and arrogantly, which one of them is the best or greatest of them all (Luke 22:24).

Leonardo has arranged the disciples in four groups of three disciples each. If their animated gestures prevent us from slipping in quietly, we must consciously decide which group to join, that is, with which disciples to identify ourselves. Are we like Bartholomew, James, son of Alphaeus, and Andrew, who comprise the group to the far left of the painting? They seem surprised and uncertain, as they eagerly await Jesus' identification of the traitor in their midst. Or are we like their counterparts at the far right of the painting, Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot , who are disputing among themselves? Perhaps we should join the group closest to Jesus' left hand. These are Apostles Thomas, James the Greater and Philip. It seems that they are asking "Is it I?" and demanding recognition of themselves as the greatest among the disciples.

Or perhaps we belong to the group to Jesus' immediate right. This group is far from unified; indeed, they represent the extremes when it comes to devotion to and faith in Jesus. The middle figure of the three, whose head is poking through between the other two, is Peter, traditionally known as Jesus' right hand man, the rock on whom Jesus' church will be built, and the one to whom Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:18-19). He would be a fine person with whom to identify. Could we possibly feel ourselves, in secret, more like Judas, the disciple to Peter's right (or immediately to the left of Peter from the viewer's perspective)? Judas shrinks away from Jesus in fear, as he clutches the money bag that exemplifies his role as the group's treasurer and symbolizes the greed that has led him to accept thirty silver coins as payment for betraying Jesus. Surely we cannot be like Judas!

Finally, our eyes fall upon the most important disciple, the one with whom we should all ideally identify. This is the disciple who is immediately to Jesus' left from our perspective, that is, to Jesus' own right hand within the painting. This disciple is the so-called Beloved Disciple, traditionally identified as John, son of Zebedee, though his true identity is in fact not known. He is the only one among his colleagues to shares Jesus' calm demeanor. His smooth face, youthful appearance, and long hair have led some to imagine that he is not a man but a woman, perhaps even Mary Magdalene, whom modern novelists such as José Saramago and Dan Brown have linked romantically with Jesus, and about whom ancient Christians also speculated. Intriguing as this speculation is, the Gospel of John, Leonardo's main source, clearly identifies this disciple as the male disciple, known as the one whom Jesus loved, whose devotion to Jesus was unquestioned and unquestioning, and who exemplifies ideal discipleship. Here is where the viewer, and the diner, is meant to be: at Jesus' right hand, in perfect confidence with him, with perfect faith, as demonstrated by the meal that the diner himself or herself can partake with Jesus, namely, the Eucharist.

Leonardo has created an image that invites us into the story, and into faith. Whether we engage in this imaginative exercise or choose not to do so will depend on our own theological perspective and religious affiliations. But wherever we stand, we cannot help but marvel at the way in which this painting brings to life—at the same time as it interprets—the most dramatic moment in the gospel accounts.

Of course, Leonardo does not address the event's historical and theological issues that resist scholarly resolution. Perhaps the most important historical issue concerns the chronology of this Last Supper vis-à-vis the Jewish Passover. That Jesus dined with his disciples on the night before his betrayal is an early tradition, mentioned not only by the gospels but also by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-27. While all four gospels stage the Last Supper on a Thursday evening, they vary as to its timing with regard to the Passover. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper takes place on the first night of Passover, and for that reason it is a Passover seder, the traditional feast that celebrates the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 12). In John, however, the Last Supper takes place on the night before the Passover and for that reason is not a Passover seder but an ordinary meal.

Within the context of Jewish observance, the Johannine chronology seems more likely. It does not seem realistic to think that the Jewish authorities would have interrupted their own Passover celebrations and observances in order to arrest Jesus and preside over his interrogation, as the Synoptic Gospels suggest. Both the Johannine and Synoptic chronologies have strong theological symbolism. While such symbolism does not in and of itself rule out the historicity of the event and its chronological placement on or before the Passover, we may well wonder whether and to what degree the gospels' theology has shaped the narrative at this point. In John, the chronology results in a situation whereby Jesus is crucified at the precise moment that the Passover lambs were slaughtered, whereas in the Synoptics, the timing of the Last Supper has Jesus talking about the necessity to eat the bread (Jesus' body) and drink the wine (Jesus' blood) at the same meal at which it was traditional to eat the Passover sacrifice. For John and the Synoptics alike, Passover symbolism reinforces the belief that provides divine salvation for humankind, in the same way that the sacrifice of the paschal lamb represents God's entering into history to save Israel from Egyptian bondage.

Paul's references to the Lord's Supper suggest that already within a short time, perhaps a decade or two, after Jesus' death, the eating of bread and drinking of wine in remembrance of Christ had become part of Christian ritual. In writing to the Corinthians, a Gentile community of believers in Christ that Paul had founded, Paul describes Jesus' words on this matter in a way that is similar to Luke's version, and then emphasizes: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:26-27; cf. 1 Cor 11:23-25).

What it actually means, theologically, spiritually, experientially, to participate in the Last Supper varies considerably across the spectrum of Christian churches and communities. But at the very least, the practice invites believers, from the time of the earliest church to the present, to participate commemoratively in Jesus' final meal with his disciples, and thereby to enter into the drama of his life story, and, for many, reconfirm their connection to and faith in Jesus as the Christ. For all, however, believers or not, Leonardo's wonderful painting takes us into that moment of fellowship right before it all changes, for Jesus and for history.


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  • Ehrman, Bart D. Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Feeley-Harnik, Gillian. The Lord's Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity, Symbol and Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
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  • Finegan, Jack. Handbook of Biblical Chronology: Principles of Time Reckoning in the Ancient World and Problems of Chronology in the Bible. Rev. ed. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.
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  • Marjanen, Antti. The Woman Jesus Loved: Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library and Related Documents, Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.
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  • Segal, Judah Benzion. The Hebrew Passover, from the Earliest Times to A.C. 70. London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.
  • Steinberg, Leo. Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper. New York: Zone Books, 2001.

Related Content

Biblical Passages and Apocrypha

The Gospel According to Matthew, Chapter 26 [NRSV]
The Gospel According to Luke, Chapter 22 [NAB]
The Gospel According to Mark, Chapter 14 [NRSV]
The Gospel According to John, Chapter 13 [NRSV]
Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 11 [NAB]

Subject Entries and Commentary

Lord's Supper
How God Saves
Art and the Bible
Reading Through Matthew's Gospel
New Testament Communities
Oxford University Press

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