In many representations of the last supper Christ is the only agent. Not so in Brian Whelan’s composition. He shows the disciples holding up objects representing their work, such as fish and money bags, or the instruments of their future martyrdom, as they take their part in Jesus’s eucharistic offering.
The last supper is not overtly described in John’s Gospel but rather the proto-sacrificial foot-washing. The inner meaning of both supper and washing is, however, being explored in the long Farewell Discourse of John 13–17 in which Jesus prepares his disciples for his going away. In John 14:3, Jesus refers to the many dwellings in his Father’s house and promises ‘I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also’.
Clasping their objects, Whelan’s disciples are already predicting and embracing their future heavenly dwelling with Christ, with Judas, in the upper part of the painting, rashly spilling the salt as he reaches for the bread, presaging his own dark participation in suffering. Augustine and Aquinas alike interpreted the ‘many rooms’ of John 14:2 as different levels of beatitude. In a comparable spirit, Whelan reveals an array of character and difference, with John gazing meditatively into the poisoned chalice at the lower left, while Bartholomew at the upper left views the dagger of his future flaying with understandable trepidation, requiring Christ’s comforting words that open the chapter: ‘let not your hearts be troubled’ (John 14:1).
Talk by Christ of his disciples ‘knowing the way’ (John 14:4) prompts Thomas to say that they do not at all know the direction, to which Jesus replies: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me’ (14:6). Whelan’s vibrant painting of incipient martyr apostles can be seen as a vivid exegesis of those words. To follow the way of Jesus is to embrace a life of service and of suffering. It will be different for each follower of Jesus, but each personal enactment indwells with Christ and is united to his salvific activity. The way and the dwelling can already be experienced here and now.