If I accosted you on the street, grabbed you by the shoulders, and blurted, “The Last Supper!” involuntarily (and to spite your fear of being pawed and shouted at by a lunatic) an image would form in your head. We all know what that image is without any need of my describing it because its roughly the same image we all conjure up. It would seem that Western depictions of the last supper, most notably Leonardo Da Vinci’s incredibly iconic version, have dominated the popular imagination in regard to this biblical event to such a degree that we’ve been left with an unshakeable mental image. As it happens, however, it’s an image which deviates considerably not only from scriptural description but from historical reality.
In his 1980 book Now I Lay Me Down to Eat, Notes and Footnotes on the Lost Art of Living writer, architect, collector, teacher, designer, and social historian Bernard Rudofsky used this misconception as a jumping off point to examine western attitudes toward everything from eating to sleeping to sitting to bathing to crapping. It’s a terrific book which, like many of his books, served as an accompaniment to a museum exhibition exploring the same subjects.
In any case, sticking with the Last Supper, I wanted to share a few paragraphs by Rudolfsky on the subject as it’s an interesting historical wrinkle which I suspect many remain unaware of.
“One would think that a people that swears by the Bible would be at least vaguely familiar with some of tlie customs of biblical times. Alas, we are not; devout and impious alike are uninformed about testamentary etiquette. What, for instance, do we know about the seating and eating ceremonial at the Last Supper? No more, to be sure, than the fifty-odd generations of artists who, unacquainted as they were witli ancient usages, concurred in misrepresenting the momentous event. Thanks to them, the picture we have formed of it is a glaring anachronism—the apostles might as well be wearing black tie. The legions of painters and carvers were forever at a loss to interpret such stage directions as Saint John ‘lying close to the breast of Jesus’ (John, 13:23). All their attempts to follow the Scriptures to the letter— that is, to portray a recumbent John among companions stiff as pokers—presented an unsolvable problem. Whatever the extenuating circumstances, their common expedient to depict John napping is nothing short of slander.
A trifling incident in our eyes, it does, however, illustrate our ignorance and ensuing intolerance of all conduct that deviates from our own, and this furnishes the keynote to our musings. If Jesus Christ should want to visit this country, he certainly would have to mend his ways. A repetition of the multiplication of bread might be greeted with hosannas, but a miracle of changing water into wine would land him in jail in the holier of our states. Clearly, we’ve gotten the better of scriptural ethics.
To our way of thinking, lying down to a meal connotes debauch. Yet that was the way to eat in Christ’s time among middle- and upper-class Romans and Jews, just as it was for centuries before and after. A corroboration comes from instructions for Passover service: ‘On drinking the four cups, one leans to the left side, as it was the custom in ancient times among free noblemen wlio used to dine on couches in a leaning position.’ Although endorsed in religious doctrine, such behavior seems absurd to us; the whole concept of palpable conviviality flies in the face of our presumed respectability. And yet, wise men with a flair for good living have been known to disregard popular prejudice. ‘I like to eat and drink in a recumbent position (preferably on a couch)’ wrote Nabokov.
The mosaic (above) shows the recumbent figures on a sigma—a crescent-shaped couch—which, together with the table, forms one single piece. The apostles fit into each other as neatly as stacking chairs—a tangible expression of conviviality. Following the custom of the time, Christ, the host, occupies the place of honor, at the extreme left.
Little of this fraternal closed circuit remains in the Westernized Last Supper. Body contact has given way to discreet stand-offishness; invisible place cards have spread a chill through the proceedings. So has the inexorable grip of symmetry. Christ has been assigned a place in the center and, following Western protocol, everybody is sitting upright, except Saint John, who snuggles up to the Savior s bosom. Such seeming lack of self-control calls for closer inspection.
Christian iconography reveals a surprisingly rich repertory of John’s labored poses. He nestles his head in Christ’s palm or in the crook of His arm; hides behind His back; leans on His shoulder; or, most unceremoniously, rests his head right on the table; while Christ, to all appearances, remains oblivious of his beloved disciples difficulties. A New Testament Rip van Winkle, John failed to make the transition from past to present, from East to West. He alone remained faithful to his forefathers’ habits, which his companions, finding them out of place, preferred to ignore. They are portrayed either occupying benches or stools or simply sitting on the floor. A few artists who knew better put them on couches; yet, right down to our time—and this ought to set us thinking—not one presented them sitting on chairs. They all seem to have been aware that there was something very wrong with the looks of a chair.” -Bernard Rudofsky, Now I Lay Me Down To Eat, 1980.
Now granted, for many of us the first thought might be something along the lines of, “well, does the historical accuracy of paintings depicting fictional events matter much?” To which I’d have to agree, no, not really. But it’s still interesting.
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