Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Last Supper Lecture Part 1

A few weeks ago my friend Rachel invited me to teach part of her Institute class on the sacrament as a memorial ordinance. She has long been inspired by this -> contemporary painting that she found in the Ensign during her mission. My directive was to discuss other famous artistic depictions of the last supper and to illuminate different facets of that sacred moment that are transmitted through the art. I had a great time sharing my thoughts (I need to get back to teaching!!!) and I am going to recreate my lecture here on this blog for you in several posts.

"I will never be alone, because of what he did, alone." - comment from a student in my class

"To start off my lesson," I explained "most importantly tonight, I want everyone to learn not any one particular fact, bur rather, I want you to get into the habit of looking through art for encoded ideas. One of the most wonderful things about religious art is, in my opinion, our opportunity to sound out faithful motivation in every brushstroke, every detail, every lighting choice and spatial arrangement. Pictures really do speak a thousand words.

Before class I roamed through various art history books and museum websites in search of suitable works, and I was impressed by two ideas:

1. Artists over time have conceptualized of the first sacrament very, very differently, and
2. Those artistic differences connote the differences in people's understanding of Jesus Christ over time.

I hope as you consider each artwork, you will get a sense of the universality of Christ, of his ability to inspire men and women from all societies with his wisdom, love, bravery, and sacrifice. I hope to convey a little bit of my personal testimony of him, too.

First, the McPherson piece that Rachel loved:

Benjamin McPherson. And It Was Night. Oil on canvas. 2006. From here.

How do you think this artist thought about Christ? What is his personality in this moment? What clues in the painting make you think that? Rachel loves that his face is serene, focused inward, despite the clamor around him. She imagines this is right after the moment when he announced that one would betray him, and his disciples almost look silly, out of place, reacting with fear in such a stupendous moment. She likes to remember that now, as then, he knows all, has overcome all, and that instead of panicking, we ought to keep our peace and trust in him. 

My second example of the last supper is eponymous with the event itself: Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper. Tempura on gesso. 1494-1498. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

The Da Vinci Code beat this painting like a dead horse, so I don't have too much to say about it. Ok, no, I'll give you a brief background:

In the Renaissance, artists utilized geometric concepts like symmetry, the square, the triangle, and the circle to signified wholeness. To them, geometric precision imitated God's perfect creative process. The Italians fervently believed that man will one day attain this celestial ability, and they celebrated their potential in art by creating precise, orderly, calm paintings of glorious moments in the Bible.

Note that Christ, with his arms outstretched, is roughly the shape of a triangle. His outline and the angled lines of the room and the ceiling all serve to draw our eye towards his face and imagine his composure, his thought process and his feelings, during his last dinner on earth. Has anyone had any deep experiences with this painting, or has it changed how they view the sacrament?

Do you happen to know where this painting is located? It's on the wall of a monastery, in a room that was basically the fifteenth-century version of a cafeteria. Can you imagine sitting down to eat every day and looking up at this painting, being reminded that we are to partake of the bread of Christ, that we eat with Christ on a daily basis?

My third piece came from the OTHER master of the Renaissance, the German visionary Albrecht Durer. He was perhaps more famous that da Vinci in his day because he was a virtuoso in printmaking, thus his works were easily distributed among masses. 

Albrecht Durer. The Last Supper. Ca. 1509-1510. Woodcut. Rosenwald Collection, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
This is one of three different depictions by Durer of the last supper, from the archives of my favorite hometown museum, the National Gallery of Art. It is the earliest of Durer's last supper engravings. Notice how he uses a very different spatial arrangement than the last two paintings. Da Vinci's Last Supper features a long table stretched out horizontally across the canvas, with Christ in the center and the apostles fanning out to the right and the left. This arrangement spawned many, many similar paintings (including And It Was Night, even in 2006!), so I found it interesting that Durer chose to depict his last supper table vertically, with Christ at the top of the painting instead of the center.  Also notice that Durer relies on the shape of a triangle, drawn from the top of Christ's head down to the two benches the apostles sit on. For me, this layout connotes stability, unity, and power, where the horizontal format of Da Vinci connotes primarily formality.

Does this piece connote a different view of Christ?

Durer sympathized with Lutherans, and didn't like the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, wherein the bread and wine is thought to actually turn into blood and flesh after we have swallowed it. Durer instead believed that the sacrament was commemorative, as Latter-Day Saints do today.For some reason, I was really struck by the fact that the plates are all blank, commemorative of the real "meal" of Christ, the fact that his sacrifice has occurred already and we have the opportunity to partake of it, as his disciples have done.

Do you see anything else new in this work? I feel a better sense of Christ's relationships with his apostles. Part of it is because of the circular table; everyone is basically hugging each other! John is leaned on Christ's breast, and Christ's arms are active. One embraces his beloved disciple, one is raised in benediction. Different, and cool.

Durer's vertical spatial arrangement is similar to this sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Just beautiful! Fine details! The folds of the drapery! The movement! I really have no words for this piece, except that I admire it so much. I spent probably 20 minutes marveling at its details on the Met site. It probably was set into a wall above an altar at a church in Germany or the Netherlands, and it was created around the same time as Durer's print. Do you think they could have been an influence on each other? Which one could have come first?"

Next week I'll continue recapping my lecture and show you how the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries have conceptualized this sacred moment... See you then!


Camille said...

But I don't want to wait til next week...

Hannah said...

I absolutely LOVED when you taught this lesson in Institute! I have thought about it numerous times as I've taken the Sacrament. Thanks for being so amazing and imparting your knowledge with us!

Milan Cox said...

Love your thoughts here! Always appreciate when you take me back to my art history undergrad days... I'm always meaning to revisit all my old text books or finally crack open the various artist biographies I've collected over the years, but I never get to it. Thanks for providing a wonderful alternative in the mean time!

Side note: As I went to write this, I noticed my sad ol' blog of years past is still linked on your side bar. Oy vey, nobody needs to read that drivel! I so appreciate the link, but if you wouldn't mind removing it (or updating now that I'm blogging elsewhere, but I don't want to presume), I'd appreciate it even more!