Mystical Supper

This icon of the Last Supper is a contemporary rendition of a particular Byzantine style, perfected in Constantinople during the twelfth century.  In this example, Christ is in the center flanked by six apostles at each side. The artist captures the moment in the Gospel of John when Christ reveals: “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me” (13:21). Each apostle gestures as if surprised and in denial, illustrating the next verse: “The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke”.
A few apostles can be identified based on their traditional iconography: to Christ’s left is a very young John, resting on his shoulder, and to Christ’s right is St. Peter, known as the Prince (first) of the Apostles. Unlike later Renaissance depictions, Judas is not easily recognizable as the betrayer; this may be because his act of disloyalty did not take place yet—in art, that act is usually symbolized by his ironic kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:48).

The spatial composition in this icon is based on conventions developed in Late Roman art. The modern viewer often wonders why the apostles do not sit around the table but sit in an awkward horseshoe or D-shape arrangement. This is for didactic purposes: the artist wants the viewer to see each figure’s face without showing the back, which was somewhat taboo in Roman art—and, by opening the space in front of the table, the viewer is included in the gathering.  In other words, the viewer is invited to participate in the communion of saints as he gazes into the icon.  In fact, one of the earliest renditions of the Last Supper has a very similar composition, found in the fourth-century Catacombs of Saint Calixtus (Rome) and this tradition continued in the sixth-century mosaics at Sant' Apollinare Nuovo (Ravenna, Italy) and the twelfth-century Monreale Cathedral (Sicily).

The timelessness of the event and the inclusion of the present-day viewer are just two reasons why there is the inscription “Mystical Supper”. The Eucharistic meal has several layers of meaning, as described by the fourth-century theologian St. Gregory Nazianzus:
“We are soon going to share in the Passover, and although we still do so only in a symbolic way, the symbolism already has more clarity than it possessed in former times because, under the law, the Passover was, if I may dare to say so, only a symbol of a symbol. Before long, however, when the Word drinks the new wine with us in the kingdom of his Father, we shall be keeping the Passover in a yet more perfect way, and with deeper understanding. He will then reveal to us and make clear what he has so far only partially disclosed. For this wine, so familiar to us now, is eternally new.” (Oratio 45: 23-24)
During the Last Supper, Jesus and his apostles were performing the Seder Meal commemorating the Passover. The Passover story was written in Exodus, chapter 12: in brief, God instructs Moses to sacrifice lambs and place their blood on the doorways of the Hebrews’ homes; when the Angel of Death came it would “pass over” the houses and the occupants would be saved from death. 

As Catholics, we believe that God’s instructions to Moses were prophetic; that the Hebrew’s actions foretold the coming of the perfect Paschal Lamb—Jesus—who would save all mankind. The Passover is a “type” of the real thing to come and has several levels of meaning (I provide three for the sake of brevity): (1) The Passover lamb pointed to Jesus, the new Lamb of God who would be crucified; (2) The Passover meal formed a covenant with a group of people (Israel) just as the Eucharist forms a covenant with the Church (3) the Passover was celebrated annually to renew the covenant just as the Eucharist is celebrated daily to renew the Church and bring us together in one Holy Communion with all the saints and God in heaven, as members of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. Regarding the third level, this icon conveys this meaning by placing the ciborium (baldachin) over Christ’s head; it represents the future churches where Catholic worship takes place at the altar, just as in the Chapel of St. Mary’s seminary.  In this sense Christ is the first of all Catholic priests, and in turn, every priest is a representative, and indeed, a tangible representative (sacrament) of Jesus Christ on earth.

Written by Charles Stewart, PhD (Chair, Art History at University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX).

For further reading on this topic:
Common questions regarding Catholic Eucharistic celebration:

The Celebration of The Christian Mystery:
Gertrud Schiller. Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, English transl., Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. II (New York: New York Graphic Society: 1972) pages, 24-40.


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