The actual event happened on this day in history. Yet looking at artwork that depicts the event, I came to the conclusion that none depict what the event actually looked like.
Leonardo da Vinci gave us the depiction that sticks in the cultural psyche. His masterwork is an exercise in perspective and symmetry but not necessarily one of piety and theology. In fact, I blame Leo for turning a real event into a strange, staged and static sort of “mannequin challenge” that persists from the Renaissance until today. Of course, he was following in the line of other artists who had taken the event and pictured it in frescoes on churches all over Europe. He just added that da Vinci Twist and – BAM! – now it is The Last Supper.
I understand the gravitas behind it all; the “mystical supper”, the First Eucharist, Mass, Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever the Christian tradition you are most familiar with calls it. “This is my body” – “This is the blood of the new covenant” – heavy words even heavier with symbolism; really, heavy with the weight of the core of Christian theology. Therefore, we get artwork that attempts to display the other-wordliness of the event. We get depictions attempting to imagine the divine, the Word becoming flesh and blood, the Word giving us his flesh and blood.
That’s a whole lot of heaven we try to cram into a moment on earth. Perhaps that’s the heart of the issue of so much religious art; our reach exceeds our grasp. But isn’t that religion in a nutshell? And doesn’t that define why we continue to reach, to imagine, to wonder, to attempt to wrap our minds around the infinite? Human beings have always been drawn to climb that mountain, no matter how high or forbidding it looks.
Yet my favorite depictions of The Last Supper have little to do with mysticism and the “Big Questions” of Life, the Universe, and Everything. My favorite depictions are about the subtleties of the Son of God inviting us to the supper table of his Father; they are about the inclusion and universality of this event, the power of gathering together for food and for community that reaches across every culture in our world; they are about the Great Embrace that is at the center of this final Passover meal of Jesus of Nazareth.
There are so many versions of this key event in the life of Jesus Christ in art that it can make your head swim. Below are just a few that jumped out at me as I searched the Mighty Web.
Then he took a loaf of bread; and when he had thanked God for it, he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This wine is the token of God’s new covenant to save you – an agreement sealed with the blood I will pour out for you.” – Luke 22: 19-20