Wherever it has been installed, The Upper Room by Chris Ofili has been a space intended for quiet contemplation. As Ofili explained, he was ‘trying to create an atmosphere for people to feel somehow out of themselves’ (the EYE 2005).
Designed by Ofili in collaboration with the architect David Adjaye, the room is reached via an upwardly sloping, dimly-lit passageway, thus slowing the viewer down while creating a sense of suspense and anticipation (Nesbitt et al. 2010: 17–18).
Upon entering the rectangular, wood-panelled room visitors encounter thirteen canvasses, spot-lit from above. Six lean against each of the long side walls and one against the short wall at the far end. Each of the paintings is supported on two clumps of elephant dung, one of Ofili’s trademark materials. Each displays the outline of a long-tailed, waistcoated rhesus macaque monkey against a background of lush vegetation painted in different colours, reflected in the paintings’ Spanish titles: Mono (‘monkey’ with a word play on ‘monochrome) Gris, Mono Verde, Mono Rosso, and so on. Except for the one at the end, each monkey is painted in profile holding a chalice.
It has been suggested that the monkey figure was a reference to the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, in which the deity Hanuman leads an army of monkeys into a battle against evil (Enwezor in Nesbitt et al. 2010: 73). But Ofili, who was raised a Roman Catholic, is also interested in his own Christian heritage, as is clear from the title of the work. And in Christian iconography, monkeys or apes can sometimes stand for evil, or specifically for Satan (Ferguson 1961: 11). Moreover, in Byzantine icons demonic figures are often depicted in profile as they do not have both eyes on God (Uspenski 1976: 73 n.4; Williams 2009: 53).
We are told in John’s Gospel that when Christ identified Judas as his betrayer, Satan entered him (John 13:27). Yet, in Ofili’s installation, Judas is not demonized as the evil ‘other’. Instead, the work represents all twelve disciples in the same way and may therefore remind us of the fact that all twelve betrayed and deserted Jesus that same evening. (Matthew 26:56; Mark 14: 50–52).
The Upper Room may invite us to ponder the mystery of the eucharistic feast where all believers come to the Lord’s table as Judas did—sinners in need of redemption by the sacrifice made once for all.
Ferguson, George. 1961. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Nesbitt, Judith, Okwui Enwezor, Ekow Eshun and others. 2010. Chris Ofili (London: Tate Gallery Publications)
theEYE. 2005. Chris Ofili, The Upper Room https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theeyechrisofili
Uspenski, Boris. 1976. The Semiotics of the Russian Icon (Lisse: The Peter de Ridder Press)
Williams, Rowan. 2009. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum)
20 When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; 21and as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” 23He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. 24The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” 25Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Is it I, Master?” He said to him, “You have said so.”
17 And when it was evening he came with the twelve. 18And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” 20He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. 21For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
14 And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him
21But behold the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. 22For the Son of man goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” 23And they began to question one another, which of them it was that would do this.
24 A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.
21 When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. 23One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; 24so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.” 25So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast”; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night