Wednesday, July 26, 2006
There are many aspects of this painting, other than the tragic choice of medium, that made it revolutionary. Take, for instance, the arrangement and expressions of the disciples. Consider some of the following examples which were contemporary to Leonardo's work:
The Last Supper
Cappella Sistina, Vatican
|Andrea del Castagno|
This Scripture passage was the subject of innumerable works of art, and the majority from the Renaissance period - particularly those prior to Leonardo's time but frequently thereafter as well - would have depicted the scene much like the examples above. Some things to note:
- The setting is always peaceful and serene, likely focusing more on Jesus blessing the bread and cup than His pronouncement of his impending betrayal.
- Judas is always segregated from the other disciples and painted in such a way that he doesn't interact with the rest.
- The symbol of the halo above each head (with the obvious exception of Judas) is used to convey the spirituality of the disciples.
- There are always at least two clean-shaven (one of whom is always John the Beloved, often portrayed asleep) and one grey-bearded (Simon Peter).
- In several examples, there is no food visible on the table.
In a 1913 Berlin lecture, anthroposophist Dr. Rudolf Steiner made the following observations:
We see these twelve Disciples with deeply expressive movements and bearing; we see the gestures and attitudes of each of the twelve figures so individualized, that we may well receive the impression that every form of the human soul and character binds expression in them. Every way in which a soul would relate itself according to its particular temperament and character, to what the picture expresses, is embodied in them.Dr. Edgar further notes:
We see what is taking place in each of these twelve souls, so closely connected with the speaker and who look up to Him so devoutly, after the utterance of these words; we see all that wonderfully expressed by each of these souls in the numerous reproductions of this work which are disseminated through the world.
Leonardo's “Last Supper” seems the first to conjure up before us with full dramatic force an expression of very significant psychic conditions.
The disciples are represented in groups of three, permitting the artist to feature their personalities for study in small, focused assemblies. To Jesus' extreme left (our right) are (going from our left to right) Matthew, Thaddeus (Judas the brother of James) and Simon. Matthew points to Jesus with both hands, as if to say, "listen to him, what can this mean?" Thaddeus is the most surprised, whereas the older Simon is troubled but not shaken. To Jesus' extreme right (our left) we have (from our right to our left) Andrew, James the Less, and Bartholomew. Andrew is an older man, who expresses wonder. James reaches over to Peter's shoulder as if to ask, "can this be possible?" And Bartholomew at the end, rises from the table, perturbed, wanting to hear more. Thomas ("Doubting Thomas"), James and Philip are to Jesus' immediate left. What drama in this threesome!
The most important group ... is the threesome to Jesus' right (our left). It is John ("The Beloved"), Peter and Judas Iscariot. John is often portrayed as thoughtful, reflective, calm. The impetuous Peter is whispering something in his ear, no doubt following John's Gospel, where Peter tells John to ask Jesus who his betrayer is (13:24). To get to John, Peter pushes Judas out of the way, which allows Leonardo to show Judas as isolated from the rest. He who would betray Christ is here already out of sorts with his colleagues. In the biblical account, John does ask his Lord, who dips the bread into Judas' cup, whereupon Judas leaves to do his dirty work (13:26-30).
However, composition is only part of the "big picture" as we look into what makes Leonardo's work such a masterpiece.
... to be continued ...
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