The Last Supper Altarpiece by Dieric Bouts the Elder

Dieric Bouts the Elder

The Last Supper Altarpiece, 1464–68, Oil on panel, 150 x 180 cm, M Treasury of St. Peter's, M-Museum Leuven, inv. S/58/B, Photo: Erich Lessing/ Art Resource, NY

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Heavenly Food

Commentary by

The despondent Elijah fortified by the bread and water that the angel brings to him in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:5-8) constitutes one of four Old Testament scenes that anticipate the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper in this large multi-panelled altarpiece for the parish church in Leuven.

Two professors of theology, Jan Varenecker and Aegidius Ballawel, were asked to provide the painter with precise instructions as to the choice of subjects: the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, the gathering of manna in the desert, the feast of Passover, and Elijah fed by divine providence in the wilderness. The four scenes are thus intended not simply to foretell the Last Supper but also to explain its significance.

In the Elijah panel, the head of the sleeping prophet rests upon his right hand while next to his head are the miraculous sources of sustenance which the angel is about to show him: an earthenware jar of water with bread on top of it (1 Kings 19:6). Dieric Bouts the Elder thus omits the most dramatic moment of the story: Elijah’s awakening and finding this miraculous gift of food. The artist has chosen, rather, to suggest the effects of the heavenly food—for we also see Elijah in the background, nourished both physically and spiritually, boldly setting out on his long and symbolic journey of forty days and forty nights. This will take him to Mount Horeb, the site of his mystical divine experience (1 Kings 19:8). Like the Eucharist, perhaps, this food and drink are a route to theophany.

Bound together by their eucharistic connotations, Bouts also unites the various scenes through the use of a vibrant red—particularly in the outer garments of many of the painting’s figures—and this has the effect of focussing particular attention on the mantle in which Elijah is wrapped, and which also billows confidently in the wind as he makes his journey to Horeb in the background. Shortly afterwards, he will cast this mantle upon his disciple Elisha (1 Kings 19:19) as a sign of passing on his spiritual authority.

 

References

McNamee, Maurice B. 1998. Vested Angels: Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish Paintings (Leuven: Peeters)


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