The Last Supper
The mosaic above is an example of a paleo-Christian iconographic type seen in mosaics and in the catacombs
It is often identified as the Last Supper, which is partly accurate. It does place the twelve Apostles at table with Jesus, as in the gospel accounts of the Last Supper at right. But the food before them is bread and fish, not the Passover lamb. This recalls Jesus' feeding of the five thousand from five loaves and two fishes.1 By referencing both episodes simultaneously, the artist can rise above mere history and present an image of the banquet beyond time that is communion with Christ.
The fish continue to figure in "Last Supper" images well into the Middle Ages. In the Catena Aurea Aquinas cites Augustine's idea that the boy in John 6:9 who gave Jesus the fish "is perhaps the Jewish people who, as it were, carried the loaves and fishes after a servile fashion, and did not eat them" (IV, ii, 216). Thus in some medieval images we see a small figure place a fish on one side of the table while the Jesus and the Apostles all sit on the other (example).
The synoptic gospels trace the institution of the Eucharist to the Last Supper, and the commentaries make much of this connection.2 Thus, starting in about the 9th century, Byzantine altars will feature an icon called The Communion of the Apostles in which Christ is dressed as a priest and distributes the host and the chalice to the Twelve (Zographos, 496). Later, Western art followed suit with images of Jesus distributing communion just as in a medieval Mass. The apostles kneel as he puts a host on each tongue, as in the first picture at right.
In counterpoint to these solemn renditions of the Institution of the Eucharist, the 16th century brings more dramatic and down-to-earth images of the supper. In Bassano's 1546 version the Apostles in contemporary fisherman's clothes argue forcibly with each other while on the floor a cat slinks in toward a sleeping dog. Subsequently Tintoretto uses this approach to expound on the meaning of the Eucharist itself, as in this 1570 canvas, where one Apostle shares his bread with a beggar while another hands a fruit to a little boy in rags.
John's gospel implies that Jesus included Judas among the communicants, and most commentators agree with St. Leo that he did so "that it might be made manifest that Judas was provoked by no wrong."3 Accordingly, the images normally include Judas at the Communion. He is also present in most images of the supper itself. Some have him dipping his hand in a dish, as in Matthew and Mark (example), or touching the table at the same time as Jesus, as in Luke (example). Others will show him with a money bag (as in the first picture at right), referring either to his role as treasurer (John 13:29) or to the thirty pieces of silver that the authorities had given him (Matthew 26:14-15).
In many Last Suppers the Apostles are arranged around all sides of the table, with some of them either showing their backs to the viewer (example) or turning sideways so they can be seen (example). But as we see at the top of this page, the original iconography had the figures all arranged in a horizontal row on the far side of the table, and this pattern continued to influence medieval examples such as this mosaic at Monreale and this fresco in Croatia. This of course is the pattern that was adopted in Da Vinci's version.
THE PRETTY MAN
In the da Vinci painting the person on Christ's right hand is most certainly the apostle John. He looks rather girlish to modern eyes, and a recent scandalous book claims that the figure is really Mary Magdalene. But an understanding of the iconography of St. John provides three excellent reasons for rejecting such a claim.
First, a medieval and Renaissance way of representing a man as young is to show him as beardless and girlish (as in portraits of St. Sebastian).
Second, it is clear that medievals recognized the young person in the Last Supper images as St. John, the discipulus (masculine) who the gospel says "leaned on his [Jesus'] breast at supper" (John 21:20). For example, this illustration from a manuscript of the Third Letter of John pictures the author as the young person leaning on Jesus's breast at the Last Supper. And in virtally all Last Suppers, there would not be a total of twelve Apostles if the person in question were not John.
Finally, we sometimes find a girlish John in Last Supper images that also include Mary Magdalene herself. In a 16th-century Last Supper tapestry, for example, a very girlish John rests his head on Christ's chest while the latter drapes his arm around the youth's shoulder. Mary Magdalene sits directly across the table from them, her left hand reaching for the jar of oil that she will use for Christ's feet. In this image, she embraces his feet beneath the table while the beardless John reclines his head on his chest.
Clearly then, the pretty young person at Christ's side in the da Vinci painting is not a coded revelation about the Magdalene but simply a recursion to the conventional iconography of St. John.
THE WASHING OF THE FEET
Secondary topics treated in other Last Supper images include Christ's washing of the apostles' feet. John's gospel records that Peter at first demurred from having the Lord wash his feet, but when Jesus insisted Peter asked that he also wash his head and hands. In some 13th-century images Peter puts his hand to his head in reference to the follow-up request (example). Some of Tintoretto's numerous images of the foot-washing present the initial refusal instead (example); one of them collapses the two moments into a single animated colloquy between Peter and Christ.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-12, 2019-12-02.
Sixth-century mosaic in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. See the description page for details.
Judas the Betrayer, Matthew 26:20-25 — But when it was evening, he sat down with his twelve disciples. And whilst they were eating, he said: Amen I say to you, that one of you is about to betray me. And they being very much troubled, began every one to say: Is it I, Lord? But he answering, said: He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, he shall betray me. The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man shall be betrayed: it were better for him, if that man had not been born. And Judas that betrayed him, answering, said: Is it I, Rabbi? He saith to him: Thou hast said it.
The Lord's Supper, Matthew 26:26-29 — And whilst they were at supper, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke: and gave to his disciples, and said: Take ye, and eat. This is my body. And taking the chalice, he gave thanks, and gave to them, saying: Drink ye all of this. or this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins. And I say to you, I will not drink from henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I shall drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father.
The Washing of the Feet, John 13:1-11 — Before the festival day of the pasch, Jesus knowing that his hour was come, that he should pass out of this world to the Father: having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And when supper was done, (the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray him,) Knowing that the Father had given him all things into his hands, and that he came from God, and goeth to God; He riseth from supper, and layeth aside his garments, and having taken a towel, girded himself. After that, he putteth water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. He cometh therefore to Simon Peter. And Peter saith to him: Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered, and said to him: What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith to him: Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him: If I wash thee not, thou shalt have no part with me. Simon Peter saith to him: Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him: He that is washed, needeth not but to wash his feet, but is clean wholly. And you are clean, but not all. For he knew who he was that would betray him; therefore he said: You are not all clean.