15 Jan Five Interpretations of the Last Supper in contemporary and popular art
Painted on the wall of the refectory of the Milanese convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie at the end of the 15th century, the Last Supper is one of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest masterpieces. It represents the last supper with Jesus and the twelve apostles, shortly before his arrest.
This Renaissance masterpiece, recognized for its modernity (e.g. the use of perspectives and the placing of Judas alongside Jesus and not in front) has inspired generations of artists. FastPassTours presents five contemporary works all inspired by the famous Last Supper of Christ.
The Sacrament of the Last Supper by Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali, one of the key figures of the surrealist movement, is responsible for one of the most famous interpretations of the Last Supper. This painting echoes the artist’s shift towards Catholicism and Renaissance paintings at the end of the Second World War. An artistic impulse that he himself called “nuclear mysticism“.
This oil painting measuring 168 x 270 cm, painted in 1955 and exhibited at the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), represents Christ preaching to the Twelve Apostles. Several major differences with the work of Leonardo da Vinci can be observed, starting with the position of the apostles, who are inclined and so impossible to identify. Judas, whose representation had generally been very conspicuous in all previous paintings of the last supper, is here uniformly integrated in the group.
The number three, usually very present in the paintings of the Italian master, gives way to the number twelve. Twelve equals not only the number of apostles, but also the number of sides of the room, built on the model of a dodecahedron. Jesus’ companions are no longer placed in groups of three, with Dali having preferred to distribute then in both position and body language symmetrically around the table. The marked absence of movement also lends this composition a special atmosphere. While the original Last Supper presents the emotions of the apostles (having just learned that a traitor was present amongst them), the Catalan painter’s version of the Last Supper transmits serenity and resignation.
Some artistic and theological critics speculate that this composition is not strictly speaking a representation of the supper that took place two thousand years ago, but of the more general theme of Christ’s ascension to paradise. The anonymity of the apostles, the naked torso of Jesus floating above the stage and the transparency of his body are all elements that support this interpretation.
Viridiana by Luis Buñuel
Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1961, the film Viridiana tells the story of a young woman who, after her uncle’s suicide, moved into a luxurious mansion and decided to dedicate her life to helping society’s most impoverished.
On its release, the film caused a furore due to certain scenes clearly criticizing the religious status quo of the day. The Vatican and Franco both judged the film as being blasphemous and copies of it distributed in Spain were quickly seized. Luis Buñuel, known for his irreverence, was not targeting Catholics as such, but rather the hypocrisy of the Church, its mystical excesses and the overarching control it exercised over its followers. One of the film’s most iconic scenes remains the meal for the poor who, having broken into the castle, sit down at the table in a style very reminiscent of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. To the air of the Alleluia from Handel’s Messiah, this moment of grace slips into the midst of the chaos provoked by the arrival of these impromptu visitors.
The level of detail employed in this ephemeral reconstruction of the Last Supper is very notable, with the “apostles” in groups of three, and the chair placed in front of the central figure, representing the door frame that hides the feet of Christ in the original work.
This scene in the film is of particular importance because it is the first interpretation of the Last Supper that is staged photographically rather than cinematographically.
The series of photographs by Raoef Mamedov
The photographic series “The Last Supper” by the artist Rauf Mamedov is an interpretation of the Last Supper using extras with Down Syndrome. This work is divided into five panels, presenting Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. The extras, bathed in an atmosphere of chiaroscuro, reproduce very faithfully the gestures and reactions of the protagonists of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting.
These five photographs, emanating an enormous respect, invite us to question the role and place of the disabled in our society; by playing on our perceptions of normality, beauty and the sacred. The Azerbaijani artist brings us face to face with our own contradictions.
The highly skilful technique of Rauf Mamedov misleads the observer by making us question if we are looking at photographs or genuine master paintings. The artist’s project, which combines staging, history and theology, includes twelve photographs illustrating different passages from the Bible. In addition to the Last Supper, the extras were also used in the work The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and an illustration of the Three Wise Men.
Each extra was photographed separately, with the resulting image being introduced into the various compositions in post-production. This painstaking work of art took more than a year, and required an enormous attention to detail and a very singular artistic vision.
Abendmahl (Last Supper) by Ben Willikens
Ben Willikens’ acrylic on canvas, produced between 1976 and 1979, presents the architectural framework and perspective of the composition of The Last Supper. In this painting, we witness the setting devoid of human presence, history, hero, drama or object. All that remains is a large contemporary table covered with a white tablecloth.
This true ode to emptiness is subject to many interpretations, detailed in the following manner by Horst Schwebel, professor of theology at the University of Marburg / Lahn (Germany):
- The expression of a post-Christian era, where Christianity has disappeared as a cultural reference?
- Would a room, glacial but with harmonious proportions, and with iron doors in the alcoves, be the expression of a technical society having evacuated all belief and memory? The metallic space, seems more like a scientific laboratory than a dining room.
- “An irruption of the infinite in the finite?” The three openings at the back, source of the dazzling white light, recall the Trinity and the eternity of God and are thus a true metaphor of the biblical texts.
- Could the absence suggested by this painting be a reference to the empty tomb and the resurrection of Christ?
Despite such a mystique of emptiness, this painting is much less iconoclastic than it seems. Willikens does not take sides for or against God, leaving observers free to interpret his work.
The oriental interpretation by Zeng Fanzhi
The Last Supper by Zeng Fanzhi is a painting criticizing the shift made by Chinese society in the 1980s and the abandonment of traditional local civilization.
A very introspective work, the canvas makes reference to several elements of the painter’s life. Watermelons in place of the traditional bread and wine here evoke a period when the artist was penniless and obliged to feed himself almost exclusively with this traditional fruit.
The scarves worn by the protagonists in the painting refer to an episode of his childhood, when he was refused membership of the Young Pioneers of China, a group similar to the Scouts but one in which the Chinese Communist Party exerts a great influence.
While Jesus and eleven of the Twelve Apostles wear the movement’s classic uniform, Judas wears a golden tie, a symbol of capitalism, power, and money. In the Middle Kingdom, this clothing accessory only appeared in the 1980s, at a time when the liberalization of the Chinese economy pushed some companies to abandon the collectivist ideals of the cultural revolution for a mode of operation based on individual entrepreneurship.
Upon his arrival in Beijing to study at the School of Fine Arts, Zeng Fanzhi was surprised by the people in the street, all dressed in the same way and showing no emotion. A memory that would explain the masks worn by the characters, making their identification difficult.
This work thus borrows on the the iconography of the Last Supper in order to criticize both capitalism and the Communist Party’s betrayal of the Chinese and traditional society. A criticism that, it seems, did not discourage the wealthy of Hong Kong: Zeng Fanzhi’s “Last Supper” was sold at auction for $23.3 million, a record for a modern Asian work.