The Last Supper is one of the most famous stories from the New Testament, as well as one of the most ubiquitous subjects in the history of art. As the last meal Jesus Christ shared with his 12 apostles before his crucifixion, this moment has been interpreted over the centuries in media ranging from paintings and illuminated manuscripts to sculptures and engravings.
Three momentous events occurred within the Last Supper and are often depicted in art. Jesus announces that one of his apostles—Judas—will betray him, though he does not mention him by name. The Supper also contains the origin of the Eucharist, the sharing of bread and wine as representations of Jesus’s body and blood. And finally, Jesus bids farewell to the apostles.
We’ve opened the cover on the Getty’s fabulous manuscripts collection, which contains multiple depictions of the Last Supper in pigment and gold on parchment, to come up with a list of 7 interesting elements in the scene that will make you sound incredibly smart.
1. Wine and bread are a must
The Last Supper is a meal, after all, and each food has a special meaning. Wine and bread are found in many images of the Last Supper as they were understood by medieval Christians to be the origins of the Eucharist. A chalice, or goblet, may represent wine as well.
By the way, if the apostles look surprised and scrambling in this image, it’s most likely because the image depicts the moment when Jesus announces Judas’s betrayal.
2. If not the fish, then the lamb
Besides wine and bread, the two most common food items you’ll see in illustrations of the Last Supper are fish and lamb.
The fish was a common symbol for Christ, and the first letters of the Greek words for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” spell “ichthus,” meaning fish.
As to the lamb, according to the Gospel of John, the Last Supper was the Passover meal shared by Christ and his disciples. Jewish law mandates that a lamb should be sacrificed during Passover, and the lamb could also be an allusion to the sacrifice of Christ.
3. The hero
Artists used various methods to highlight the special status of Jesus. He was often portrayed as larger in size than the 12 apostles, and a special detail might single him out, such as a particularly luminous halo. He is also usually seated at the center of the table. In some artworks, the background might emphasize his higher status. For example, a green brocade canopy, a medieval marker of nobility, is hung behind Jesus in the image at the top of this post.
4. The villain
Artists also used various methods to identify Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus. Some highlight his betrayal by literally creating distance between Judas and the rest of the party. For example, Judas is often portrayed in front of the table and alone, either standing, sitting in a folding chair, or kneeling. Sometimes Judas looks away from the table, has a worried countenance, or turns slightly as if he wants to get away. An apostle with a purse nearby or hiding something behind his back? Judas.
In the image above, an evil spirit enters Judas’s mouth. In some similar images, the spirit takes the form of a black bird. So basically, if there’s something weird going on with one of the apostles, you can usually safely assume that he’s Judas.
5. Sleeping at the table
Once you start looking at several images of the Last Supper, you’ll probably start noticing a strange phenomenon. Why is there a man passed out on the table?
Don’t be worried—it’s just Saint John the Evangelist leaning his head toward Jesus, a reference to a passage in the Gospels where John, the favorite apostle of Jesus, is described as “leaning on Jesus’s bosom.”
Scholars believe that this phrase refers to the tradition of leaning on one’s left arm and lying in a reclining position when eating, a custom of the ancient Romans who lay on long couches called triclinia during mealtimes. Many images, especially older ones, show the 12 apostles and Jesus reclining on these triclinia.
6. Wait, is that a pretzel?
Yes, it is! This manuscript image contains what may be one of the earliest depictions of the pretzel, and interestingly, it is not the only Last Supper image that features a pretzel on the table. It is said that a pretzel was made to resemble a child’s arms folded in prayer, and thus symbolizes everlasting life. Other images that feature a pretzel on the table during the Last Supper can be found here and here.
7. And last but not least, that guy in the corner
Once in a while, you might see people hanging around in the corner of the image. They don’t seem to be a part of the party, which has already filled its capacity of 13 people, but seem to be observing the party from a distance. Who are they? None other than the patrons who commissioned the painting.
And why not put yourself, at least virtually, in one of the most important scenes of the Bible if you have the money to do so?
See several of these images in Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Food in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, on view through January 3, 2016, at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center.
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