Famous Art, Bigger Myth

lastsupHe leaned back against Jesus’ chest and said to him, “Master, who is it?” (Jn 13:25)

Art has a way of seeping in to our memory in such a way that we interpret other things from it’s remembered images, even when those images are false.  One example of this is Leonardo DaVinci’s approximately 520 year old Last Supper painting on the wall of the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.  I was fortunate enough to see this some years ago, although it has been restored so many times over the centuries that I’m not sure how much, if any, of DaVinci’s actual handiwork was left.  He obviously had artistic and even theological reasons for how he painted the scene.  But although his painting is the image that probably jumps into most people’s minds upon mention of the last supper, it is factually quite wrong.

The Last Supper actually would have taken place in a u-shaped table arrangement.  Everyone would have been reclining on their left side with their heads toward the tables, and reaching in for food with their right hands.  Jesus would have been in the center section, with  John, the beloved disciple, reclining to his right.  This helps to make sense of what happens when Simon Peter gives John the nod to ask Jesus who the traitor is in their midst.  If your image of the scene is somewhat like DaVinci portrays, for John to lean over against Jesus’ chest is – well, let’s just say it seems a tad awkward and effeminate, even in a culture that was more “touchy” than ours.  However, if you are both laying on your sides, it’s pretty easy to lean over against Jesus and ask a confidential question in a low voice.

Unfortunately, the gospel leaves us in the lurch as to what John did with the information.  Did he look back at Peter and give a head jerk toward Judas?  Did he cup his hands around his mouth and lip the word Is-ca-ri-ot?  It’s one of many gospel trivia questions with no answer.  But we can know one thing – as much as we appreciate the art, the actual event wasn’t anything like Leonardo painted.  The goofy looking picture above is much closer to the historical reality.  Whatever “truth” there is in art should not be confused with facts.  A well-done painting is no more likely to be factually true than a poor one is to be factually false.  Artists are not, and shouldn’t be, bound by history.  We in turn shouldn’t forget that, especially in a culture that remembers less and less actual history.  Test everything; hold fast to what is good (1 Thess 5:21).

One comment

  1. Spaniard says:

    Thanks for this information, Didymus. I did always squirm a bit at the visual that has been implanted by DaVinci’s example.

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