103 – The Last Supper

Giotto, The Last Supper, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

I know, it’s supposed to be Scrovegni Saturday, not Scrovegni Sunday, but it’s been one of those weeks. Apart from anything else, this is the first thing I’m typing on a new laptop, the old one having gradually wound down throughout lockdown. I’ve spent the last 3 months without a ‘z’ or an ‘x’ – can you imagine what it’s been like writing about Velázquez?! Still, I don’t have that problem now, and even accents seem more accessible. But you don’t need to know any of this… and Giotto never had those problems in the first place.

Giotto’s Last Supper is an entirely original composition, I think, although to be honest I don’t know many which precede it. However, last week I said that Giotto’s images in the Scrovegni Chapel did a lot to establish what would be the standard iconographic formulae for a number of stories – but this is clearly not the case with the Last Supper. You will know what to expect – I would post an image of Leonardo’s version, but I imagine it is more or less seared onto your retinas already. As it happens, Leonardo was himself drawing on one of the very well established formulae – but one which had a very specific context. Most images of the Last Supper were painted in the Refectories of monasteries – the room in which the monks, or nuns, would eat. If you imagine a large, medieval dining hall, with rows of tables leading along it – actually, don’t imagine, just look at this photograph of the dining hall of the monastic institution I spent a decade at, Clare College, Cambridge.

Three rows of tables lead the full length of the room, and then, up a step, is the high table, at right angles to the others, where the Master and Fellows sit. Now, if this were still a monastic institution, as it was in its origins, then it would have been the Abbot, or Prior who sat in the centre of the High Table, with other senior monks seated on either side of him. The wall at the back is panelled in wood, inset with an oval portrait of Lady Clare, founder of the college. Imagine that, instead of this, there were a painting of the Last Supper. Jesus and the Apostles would be sitting at a table even Higher than the one physically present. It is an arrangement that not only emphasizes the hierarchy of the Church and of the monastery itself, but which also reminds everyone present, while they are eating, of that most important of meals.

This is, therefore, the context of Leonardo’s version (yes, I ended up posting it anyway…) and although he introduced a number of innovations, the function of the painting is basically the same as all those that came before, with the exception, of course, of the one we are looking at today. But then Giotto’s version is not an independent painting in a refectory, it is part of a narrative cycle. And rather than being on the end wall of the room, it is at the side. The equivalent ‘end wall’ here would be the ecclesiastical East end of the chapel, where the High Altar is located.

Giotto’s Last Supper is at the left of the South wall. I’ve only just found this image – and it’s worth having a quick look. At the top we see the Story of Joachim and Anna (Picture Of The Day 66), taking up six fields, with decorative panels in between, including images of saints and prophets – this is very much the rhythm of the North Wall opposite. Underneath this, in the middle tier, we have The Childhood of Christ (POTD 87), with five fields, framed by the six windows, and, at the bottom, is The Passion of Christ. We are starting with The Last Supper at the bottom left, between the two windows. The High Altar of the chapel is to our left as we look at this wall.

What this means is that the altar is to the left here too, and Jesus, at the far left of the image, is seated at a part of the table which is in line with – or at least parallel to – the altar. In effect, he institutes the Eucharist as if he were seated behind the altar. He is also seated in the position that the Prior would in a monastic setting, given just one table and only 12 monks. So the orientation of the image is essentially the same as other examples you might know – although it doesn’t have that unnerving sense that the group has booked a table for 26 but only sat on one side. This turns out to be one of the rather glorious things about Giotto’s painting. We see the five apostles on the far side of the table perfectly clearly, but we only see the backs of those on ‘our’ side. However, when you think about it, it’s not ‘just’ the backs. We see their bottoms spreading across the wooden bench with a very human weight, and we see their legs, in shadow, under the bench and a little further away: Giotto continues to show his brilliance in the depiction of space and in his awareness of the humanity of the situation. However, it does create an interesting problem – that of the halo. A halo, as I’m sure I’ve said before, is meant to represent the glow of sanctity, and using metal leaf allows real light to be reflected, creating a glow around the head.  However, whereas the apostles on the far side have their haloes in the ‘traditional’ location, as if floating above their heads, the nearer ones sit their with what look like black plates floating in front of the faces.  Why are they black? Well, Giotto is implying that they do not have the same status as Jesus, whose halo is made of gold leaf: theirs are fashioned from silver. And whereas gold does not tarnish – it is pure and unchanging, just like God – silver does, and what were silver haloes are now black. But why the odd placement? Well, if he’d placed the haloes like plates behind their heads, we wouldn’t have seen them at all – we would seen a row of bodies and haloes, whereas, when silver, this would have created the glow around their heads. It was clearly important that we should see their heads, even if not their full faces. If you look at the apostles at the far right of the table, the one at the back can be seen in profile, with the corner post of the ‘cut-away’ room passing across his face. But his companion on our side of the table has clearly been repainted – and the post disappears. The church was clearly not happy with having part of his face obscured – even if both he and the chap to his left are both seen in a rather brilliantly depicted profil perdu.

As so often it is probably impossible to identify each of the apostles – generically we could name all twelve, and Giotto may well have known which was which, but we are given few clues. Traditionally Jesus would sit with Peter at his right hand and John at his left – this is one of the things that Leonardo changes – and so does Giotto. Peter is facing us, at the back of the table at the far left. As so often, he can be identified from the short grey hair and beard, and the yellow cloak over a blue robe (although, as in the rest of the cycle, much of the blue has worn off). I would hesitate to identify the remaining four figures at the back. Likewise, I couldn’t say who the two at the front right are – although the other three are more obvious. In the centre, with his back to us, wearing a cloak that is white and elaborately patterned, is St Bartholomew. I don’t know where this comes from, but he was often shown with a patterned cloak such as this. To the left of him is St Andrew, with long, curly, grey hair, wearing a red robe and a green cloak. He can be identified from his appearance at the Baptism and the Wedding at Cana (POTD 93)

There is a fascinating grouping of characters at the head of the table. Jesus is, of course, in the centre, and has (or had) an apostle sitting on either side of him. I say ‘had’ because one has keeled over with apparent exhaustion, and is fast asleep on his chest – it is a wonderful image of untroubled sleep. This is a direct reference to the Gospel according to St John, 13:23, ‘Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved’. Now, it doesn’t actually say he was asleep, but that is how he is usually shown, and it also doesn’t say who it was – although it is always assumed to have been St John the Evangelist himself, the youngest of the apostles. Jesus has just announced that he will be betrayed, and Peter has asked who it would be. Peter isn’t actually visible in this detail – as we have seen he is seated at the back, on the left – although his right shoulder just creeps into this detail, in blue. He is sitting around the corner from John (if the latter would sit up). As I’ve said, he would usually be sitting at Jesus’s right hand, but in his place we have someone else I would hesitate to identify. I suspect Peter has been moved to give him a greater visibility from our point of view. The only person who remains to be identified is the man in yellow at the front left – the man who has his hand on the table, next to Jesus’s. It is, of course, Judas, and while this gesture could be a reference to the ‘sop’ which Jesus gave to Judas in John 13:26, I think it is more likely to be drawn from Luke 22:21: ‘But, behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table’. Judas is often shown in yellow – both robe and cloak – and here has an odd shadowy presence. My suspicion is that he was painted without a halo, and some later restorer, not knowing any better, tried to add one on. Or maybe Giotto deliberately wanted to give him a dark aura by painting this shadow around his head – this is something I must look into! When the other haloes were silver, it would have been really obvious – either as an absence of light, or as an excess of dark.

Enough for now! Next week we will consider why, in order to move the story forward, Giotto resorted to a flashback.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

6 thoughts on “103 – The Last Supper

  1. Hi Richard… I just wanted to say Dankeschön!!!!!! Via Instagram I saw your impressive 100 artworks and now also your blog and those really really great videos… just saw some intros – and you are even in those few minutes captivating!!! Damn!!!!! You really made the best fromthis lockdown – I really admire your stamina and all the thoughts and work you put into it!!!!

    This is really such a pleasure while almost everything is closed… or so complicated to get into… even Tate wants us to get tickets for the permanent collection…

    You are my „make the best of a pandemic“-HERO!!!!!

    Huge hug and thanks again lieber Richard!!! ☀️

    Liebe Grüße, Claudia

    sent from iphone, excuse the typos…

    Claudia Antonia Merkle M.A. Art Historian – Journalist

    mobile +44(0)7462 766 969 London

    My pronouns are she, her, hers

    „Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.“ (Francis Picabia 1879-1953)



  2. Love this — the composition with apostles’ backs to us — same problem with dinner party scenes in theatre. How do you represent the drama of the table when you can’t see their faces?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: