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The Institution of the Eucharist by Ercole de' Roberti
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper by Sadao Watanabe

Ercole de' Roberti

The Institution of the Eucharist, c.1490s, Egg tempera on wood, 29.8 x 21 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought, 1882, NG1127, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper, 1492–7/8, Mural, 460 x 880 cm, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, © DeA Picture Library / Art Resource, NY

Sadao Watanabe

The Last Supper, 1977, Hand-coloured stencil print on crumpled paper, 61 x 81.3 cm, The Art Institute Chicago; Gift of the Estate of Lawrence O'Connor, 1982.1355, © 2020 Tatsuo Watanabe; The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

The Last Supper

Video Commentary by

Michelle Fletcher: So, today we’re discussing the Last Supper, which as a biblical scholar is not an easy subject. We have three accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There’s information in the Pauline letters as well, in 1 Corinthians...

Ben Quash: Some of the biggest disagreements between Christians throughout history have been about how to interpret this meal, the final meal on the night when Jesus is arrested before his trial and crucifixion. And it’s a meal which lays the ground for what will become the great sacrament of the church: the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, as it’s variously called. So this gathering is one in which Jesus takes bread and wine and shares them with the disciples in a highly symbolically charged way in which he associates them with his body and his blood. And the reason that this is so contested is really, in part, because the very nature of Jesus’s presence in the bread and wine are interpreted so very differently by Christians at different periods of history. And they still are today. And so how it is that one reveres this event, the extent to which it’s just a remembering of something, or a making present all over again of Jesus in the midst of his people, is one of the things that really both excites disagreement, but also opens up all kinds of artistic possibilities.

Jennifer Sliwka: That’s very interesting because in the history of art, there are certain artworks that represent the Last Supper, but the titles of them can be used interchangeably with the Institution of the Eucharist. And there’s one work in particular that I’m thinking of by an artist from Ferrara known as Ercole de’ Roberti, and he’s painting in the 1490s, and he paints a little panel about this big, which shows the Last Supper, ostensibly…

And it shows the figure of Christ seated at the centre of the table, surrounded by all of his apostles, and on the table are pieces of bread and wine. And Christ holds up a piece of bread, but it’s unlike the bread as it’s represented on the table. It’s a small round eucharistic Host. And you can see why that painting has taken on the title of The Institution of the Eucharist. And it’s a really fascinating small panel because it originally had a little keyhole in one of the sides. And from that we suspect that it probably served as a cupboard door, probably the door to a tabernacle in which the consecrated Host was kept. So what’s represented on the front of that panel actually protected what was contained within.

Ben Quash: So this is not just an imagination of what a historical scene might’ve looked like. It’s the overlaying of a historical event, or the event from the Gospels, onto an image that church-goers would have recognized—Catholic church-goers would have recognized—as the sacrament that they witnessed every time they went to Mass at church. They would’ve been seeing the action of the priest and the wafer—looking just like the wafer they’d have seen in church—mapped onto that narrative event from the Gospels. And also a double mapping too, of the body of Jesus as a human figure onto the presence of Jesus in the Host. So there’s a kind of eliding of two presences of Jesus, isn’t there, in the painting: the presence in the body, the presence in the Host, and reinforcing that connection and the sense that there’s a real presence in the bread and the wine.

Jennifer Sliwka: What I find really interesting is when we have all of these representations of the Last Supper, or the Institution of the Eucharist, the context is key. So for example, in the Ercole the intention there is to really draw out the association between the Last Supper and the celebration of the Eucharist in the church. More often, certainly in the fifteenth century and later, we would encounter the Last Supper as a huge mural—so, over-life-size. And the most famous example of this is of course Leonardo’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

And that mural was meant to adorn the walls of a refectory. And when we consider that mural in that context, I think the meaning has shifted, and it’s moving away from the eucharistic significance because in a refectory, that is the place where all the Dominicans would come together and share a communal meal. And effectively they become participants in the Last Supper, and they might then meditate on what are the events that led up to that episode in the biblical account, and what the next steps will be in the Passion of Christ.

Ben Quash: So what began as a table, around which Jesus and his disciples were gathered for a meal around the time of Passover, becomes more like an altar in the Ercole, but then comes back to being more like a communal table in the Leonardo, folding these different sorts of events together: the liturgical and the practices of daily life.

Michelle Fletcher: And this takes us back to early Christian tradition. As we see in the Pauline text, in 1 Corinthians, they’re having these communal meals. So it’s not this separation of remembering through bread and wine, but a communal feasting and a gathering of the early church together. And so Paul is speaking into that. And we see that in the refectory, almost going back to the way that Christianity was early on: meeting, eating, and remembering together.

Ben Quash: So Leonardo has brought us back to something more like a recognizable, ordinary, everyday meal. And yet in the tradition of Ercole’s palatial setting, Leonardo’s still given us a rather grand kind of space, hasn’t he? So it’s not quite as everyday as it might be.

Michelle Fletcher: And we also have the sense of who has access to look at these images. And this is why we move onto our final object, which is a print made by Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe which throws open the doors of access and who is present.

It’s made in 1977 in Japanese traditional print techniques. And here we see a very humble scene on an object that’s made to be bought to be displayed in a domestic setting, in a home where people can gather around and think about the events depicted in it.

Ben Quash: And it’s domesticated in other ways too, isn’t it? Because the food and the drink that are being shared are very particular to that place and that tradition.

Michelle Fletcher: This is something that we see a lot in representations of the Last Supper. It’s so widely depicted, and because it happens in remembrance in so many different communities, art has reflected that. In South America, we see guinea pigs–cuy–becoming part of the meal. Here, we have a fish and sake appropriate for a Japanese setting, something that the people viewing the print can relate to and can become part of. And there’s a twist here, which takes us back to early church tradition where we see in the earliest catacomb paintings in Rome images of bread and fish. And what this is doing is connecting with a different tradition in John’s Gospel. There, the Last Supper isn’t described in the same way as a meal. But Jesus speaks about being bread at the same time as the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, where he changes a small number of fish and loaves into enough to feed a multitude. And what the early church does with this is it puts the fish onto the table: so we see a Last Supper and the star of the show is a fish. And so what we have in this tradition is a sense of Jesus, of multiplication, and of creating a banquet for many.

Ben Quash: That image of multiplication which you’ve drawn out from the story of the Feeding of the Multitude, I think also helps us to think about the extraordinary way in which these three images are just a tiny cross section of the huge multitude of works of art that have responded over time, and in all kinds of diverse cultural contexts, to that one originating event, already starting to multiply through the various biblical accounts. And whatever Christian tradition you might come from, whatever particular understanding of the meaning of the Eucharist you might have, the one thing everyone can agree on is that that event, the Lord’s Supper, ramifying out through those various early biblical accounts, has also produced responses—artistic and theological—in communities and contexts all over the world, in as diverse a range of ways as possible. And these three images are a wonderful little cross section of that.