17 April 2014

Art for Lent (44): ‘The Last Supper’
(1592-1594), by Jacopo Tintoretto

‘The Last Supper’ (1592-1594), by Jacopo Tintoretto

Patrick Comerford

Today, on Maundy Thursday [17 April 2014], we are coming to the climax of Holy Week, and Lent is almost over.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for today are: Exodus 12: 1-4, (5-10,) 11-14; Psalm 116: 1, 10-17; I Corinthians 11: 23-26; and John 13: 1-17, 31b-35.

Today’s Gospel reading provides the Johannine narrative of the Last Supper, including Christ’s prediction of his betrayal by Judas, Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet, and the great command to love one another. Notice how it does not provide an institution narrative, and instead in today’s readings we find that in the Epistle reading (I Corinthians 11: 23-26).

John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8 Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ 9 Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10 Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

The painting and the artist

My choice of a work of Art for Lent this morning [17 April 2014] is ‘The Last Supper’ by the Italian Renaissance artist Jacopo Tintoretto. This is an oil painting on canvas and measures 365 cm × 568 cm. It dates from 1592-1594, and is in the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.

The Last Supper is a popular subject throughout the history of Christian art, and some of the earliest depictions can be seen in frescoes in the Catacombs in Rome, where Christ and the disciples are depicted reclining around semi-circular tables.

The three major themes depicted in paintings of the Last Supper: the washing of the disciples’ feet by Christ, the betrayal by Judas, and the Eucharist meal.

Byzantine artists sometimes used semi-circular tables in their depictions, but more frequently they focused on the Communion of the Apostles, rather than the reclining figures having a meal.

By the Renaissance, the Last Supper was a favourite subject in Italian art, especially in monastic refectories. These paintings often show the reactions of the disciples to the announcement of the betrayal of Christ.

Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ (1498) is considered the first work of High Renaissance art. He balances the varying emotions of the individual apostles when Christ states that one of the 12 would betray him. He shows a variety of attitudes from anger and surprise to shock.

Most of the Italian paintings present an oblong table rather that a semi-circular one, and sometimes Judas is shown by himself clutching his money bag. With an oblong table, the artist had to decide whether to show the apostles on both sides, so that some of the 12 are seen from behind, or all on one side of the table facing the viewer.

Sometimes only Judas is on the side nearest the viewer, allowing his bag of money to be seen.

Placing the Disciples on both sides is further complicated when haloes are needed, so that some haloes are placed either in front of the faces of other apostles, or obscure the view. Duccio was the first artist to omit haloes, albeit the haloes of those apostles nearest the viewer. Giotto, in his fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (1305), uses flat haloes, but the view from behind causes difficulties, and Saint John’s halo has to be reduced in size.

As artists became more interested in realism and the depiction of space, a three-sided interior setting became clearer and more elaborate, sometimes with a landscape view behind, as in the wall-paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Perugino.

Some of the apostles are identifiable in some works; Judas often has his bag with 30 pieces of silver visible; Saint John the Evangelist is normally placed on Christy’s right side, usually “reclining in Jesus’ bosom” as his Gospel says, or even asleep; Saint Peter is generally on Christ’s left.

The food on the table often includes a paschal lamb. In Byzantine versions, fish is the main dish. In later works, the bread may look more like a Communion host. Later still, we see more food, eating, and even waiters and servers, including women.

The Last Supper was one of the few subjects that continued in Lutheran altarpieces after the Reformation, sometimes portraying leading Reformers as the apostles. For example, the painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1565) portrays leading Reformers as the Apostles, and also show the Elector of Saxony kneeling.

In the 20th century, Salvador Dalí’s depiction combines the typical Christian themes with modern approaches of Surrealism and also includes geometric elements of symmetry and polygonal proportion.

Looking at the scenes

In some paintings, Judas may only be identifiable because he is stretching out his hand for the food, as the other apostles sit with their hands out of sight, or because he has no halo. In the West, he often has red hair. Sometimes Judas takes the sop in his mouth directly from Christ’s hand, and when he is shown eating it a small devil may be shown next to or on it.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, in his ‘Last Supper’ (1480), depicts Judas separately. The painting in Old Saint Peter’s Church, Strasbourg, dating from1485, shows Saint John leaning across, and Judas in yellow carries his 30 pieces of silver in a bag. Pietro Perugino’s paining in Florence (ca 1493-1496), which is regarded as one of his best pieces, also shows Judas sitting separately.

The betrayal scene may also be combined with the other episodes of the meal, sometimes with a second figure of Christ washing Peter’s feet. The ‘Last Supper’ by Rubens (1630/1631) introduces a dog near Judas, perhaps representing Satan (see John 13: 27).

The depictions of the Eucharist meal are generally solemn and mystical. They may show either Christ while he speaks the dominical words or words of institution over the bread and wine, with all still seated, or show the disciples moving forward to receive from Christ, with Christ standing and delivering the bread and wine of the Communion to each apostle, like a priest giving the sacrament of Holy Communion.

In ‘Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles’ by Meister des Hausbuches (1475), only Judas lacks a halo.

Tintoretto and ‘The Last Supper’

Tintoretto’s ‘Last Supper’ (1590-1592) in the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, depicts the announcement of the betrayal, and includes an array of additional people carrying in food or taking out dishes from the table.

Tintoretto painted the Last Supper several times during his career. His earlier paintings for the Chiesa di San Marcuola (1547) and for the Chiesa di San Felice (1559) from the scene from a frontal perspective, following a convention observed in most paintings at the time, including Leonardo da Vinci’s mural in Milan.

This scene by Tintoretto, painted in his final years, departs drastically from this style of composition. The setting is similar to a Venetian inn, in which the centre is occupied not by the apostles but by secondary characters, including a woman carrying a dish and servants taking the dishes from the table.

This is a complex and radically asymmetrical composition. The apostles sit at table that recedes into space on a steep diagonal. His use of light is also worth noting – see how it appears to come from the light on the ceiling and from Christ’s aureola.

Jacopo Comin, or Tintoretto (“little dyer”), was also called Il Furioso because of his phenomenal energy in painting. His work is characterised by its muscular figures, dramatic gestures, and his bold use of perspective, while maintaining colour and light.

He was born in Venice in September or October 1518, the eldest of 21 children. As a child, he began daubing on his father’s dyer’s walls. His father took him to the studio of Titian to see whether he could be trained as an artist. Titian is said to have been jealous of his talent and sent him home.

Tintoretto then studied on his own, and placed an inscription over his studio: “Il disegno di Michelangelo ed il colorito di Tiziano” (“Michelangelo’s design and Titian’s colour”).

His two earliest mural paintings are probably ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ and a Cavalry Fight, which have since been lost, along with all his frescoes, early or later. Three of his early surviving paintings are the ‘Presentation of Jesus in the Temple,’ now in the Church of the Carmine in Venice, and the ‘Annunciation’ and ‘Christ with the Woman of Samaria,’ in San Benedetto.

The crowning production of Tintoretto’s life is the vast ‘Paradise,’ measuring 22.6 x 9.1 metres, and said to be the largest painting ever on canvas, and commissioned in 1588. After its completion, he never undertook another work of importance. He died on 31 May 1594, and is buried in the church of the Madonna dell’Orto.


God our Father,
you have invited us to share in the supper
which your Son gave to his Church
to proclaim his death until he comes:
May he nourish us by his presence,
and unite us in his love;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Almighty God,
at the Last Supper your Son Jesus Christ
washed the disciples’ feet
and commanded them to love one another.
Give us humility and obedience to be servants of others
as he was the servant of all;
who gave up his life and died for us,
yet is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us a memorial of your passion.
Grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
the fruits of your redemption,
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


O God,
your Son Jesus Christ has left us this meal of bread and wine
in which we share his body and his blood.
May we who celebrate this sign of his great love
show in our lives the fruits of his redemption;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Tomorrow: ‘Christ of Saint John of the Cross’ (1951), by Salvador Dalí.

No comments: