In past centuries, many artists have depicted the Last Supper scene found in the Gospels. This is a scene where Jesus shares a meal with his Apostles before his crucifixion, making his prophetic announcement. It is very easy to see why it is one of many favourite Biblical scenes to depict. There is a special dynamism to this scene since the Apostles can be presented having their own personalities, and their interaction with each other, their reaction to Jesus’s words, as well as a sense of foreboding, can give a painting a special aura/interest. The interesting thing for many when looking at these paintings is how Judas “The Traitor” is depicted in this scene, and most artists paid special attention to ensure that he stands out from the scene. Below are five “The Last Supper” paintings which I personally find particularly interesting (they are not necessarily the most famous ones).
This late fifteenth century mural painting is the most famous “The Last Supper” painting in the world. This painting by Leonardo da Vinci has been through numerous restoration efforts, the last of which was completed in 1999. This painting (as others below) depicts the moment just after Jesus revealed to the Apostles that one of them would betray him. One can see in this painting the reaction of each of the Apostles to the news. Some are shown as very surprised and shocked by these news, such as Andrew (depicted third from the left) who has lifted his hands, his palms facing the viewer, while others express anger and indignation at the news – such as Peter (fourth from the left in the background), who has a knife in his hand, pointing it away from Jesus, as though he already contemplates revenge. Judas in this painting is depicted as a dark-haired person that sits near John. Judas is the only one who has elbows on the table, and, while others are gesticulating, he seems reserved and calm, as though he is not too impressed or surprised by the knowledge imparted by Jesus. This body language of Judas indicates that he has things to hide. There is a rumour that Leonardo da Vinci searched prison cells in Milan for a person that was to become his “prototype” for Judas. Another interesting trivia related to this painting is that, in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, there is a speculation that the figure to the right of Jesus (to the left of Jesus from our point of view) is not John, but a female, possibly Mary Magdalene. This is now considered to be an unsupported speculation (see the article here).
This is a very interesting depiction of the Last Supper because Ge does not show all of the Apostles and does not make the table the prime focus of his picture. Instead, we see a small room and Jesus is in a reclining position on a bed, his head bowed, surrounded by the Apostles. The dark figure of Judas is on the right, startling some of the Apostles. There is a theme here of the battle between good and evil, light and dark, with Judas and his shadow obscuring the source of light (reason) in this picture. While the Apostles in the painting display certain emotions on their faces, Jesus alone appears calm and composed, being deep in thought (he knew about the betrayal beforehand and is not surprised about the action of Judas).
Produced circa 1632, this painting by Rubens was meant as an altarpiece for the Church of St. Rombout in Mechelen, Belgium. It shows the Apostles gathered around the table, headed by Jesus, who is bathed in light. Judas is also in the centre of this painting, but, unlike other Apostles, he looks away from the table, possibly directly at the viewer of the painting. There is something eerie and unnerving in his stare, and the fact that he has his hand near his mouth may mean that he has things to hide from others. Judas is definitely presented as being apart from others, who are all surprised and agitated to hear the words of Jesus. The dog directly below Judas’s feet may have an inverted meaning. Normally signifying “loyalty”, its position now in relation to Judas may signify greed, selfishness and disloyalty.
This is another unusual depiction of the Last Supper. In this painting produced by Jacopo Tintoretto in 1594, there is a lot of activity near the table and not only Jesus and the Apostles are present at the scene, but also secondary characters, including servants servicing the table. The activity around the table, the unusual angle of the table and the presence of transparent celestial beings (angels) all make this painting engaging and thought-provoking. The presence of angels in particular, as well as halos around the heads of the Apostles (Jesus has the brightest halo), give the impression of some heavenly banquet in progress. There is the same contrast between light and darkness shown here as in other paintings above, hinting at an internal battle between ignorance and reason/enlightenment, but, unlike all the other paintings on this list, Judas in this painting cannot be easily identified.
I have included this work, titled “Last Supper” by Andrea del Castagno, even though it is not a painting, but a fresco, because I used to visit the little convent Sant’Apollonia when I lived in Florence and grew to love and admire this fresco there very much. The Sant’Appollonia convent was a convent of cloistered nuns, and the fresco, completed by Andrea del Castagno circa 1450, was little known outside the convent walls until the late nineteenth century. The distinguishable feature of this work is that, apart from Judas, all Apostles have halo discs above their heads, and the two Apostles on the opposite sides of the table seem to mirror each other in their positions and movements. There are also griffon statues and elaborate wall paintings depicted in this fresco. Some Apostles in this fresco seem to be deep in thought, while others meditating, possibly trying to come to terms with what Jesus has just uttered: “I say to you, one of you will betray Me” [John, 13: 21-30]. John is in a slumber position in the fresco (his head is almost on the table (possibly he is already grieving)), while Judas is very prominent at the foreground of the picture – alert and not at ease like the others, sitting apart from them.