Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Last Supper Lecture Part 2

(Continued from this post)

Like many biased art historians, I will now deftly skip from the art of the Renaissance straight into the supremely interesting 19th century, to a Last Supper painting that combines both the horizontal format of Da Vinci and the vertical, triangular format of Durer that we discussed previously:

William Blake. The Last Supper. 1799. Tempura on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Yes, you are reading that caption right. This is a painting by William Blake, the famous poet, who also had careers as a painter, engraver, and illustrator, although that knowledge is now mostly confined to nerdy art history circles. 

Herald of the Romantic era, Blake thought of the Bible as the greatest work of poetry ever written, and he created a set of ethereal, radiant illustrations for the Bible that convey the poetic nature of many Biblical stories. Hilariously, Blake thought the classical art of the Renaissance was masked paganism :) which I find funny because, to me, the mysticism and the suffused glow of HIS works to connote paganism more than anything the rational Renaissance ever put forth.

In my opinion, Blake was painting not a factual reimagination of the historical event of the Last Supper, but rather a representation of the symbolic nature of that moment, fraught with destiny, betrayal, and love. As an aside, the patron for Blake's collection of Biblical illustrations was Thomas Butts, a prominent Swedenborgian. If you ever want to study a super fascinating line of Christianity suffused with seemingly clashing principles like science and heavenly visions, read about the Swedenborgians.

But back to Blake. Notice anyone different around the table?

Oi! Who sits right below Christ and Mary Magdalene? A happily conversing, totally topless Adam and Eve! What might the inclusion of Adam and Eve in the sacrament ordinance signify? For me, I like to think about Eve's choice to leave the comfort of the garden because she wanted children. She wanted to progress in love, knowledge, and family. I also like to think of Adam, who loved God and obedience so much, but realized his wife was right, and chose to follow her into the lone and dreary world. I like to think about the joy that came shortly after their decision, when God revealed to them that their transgression would be forgiven, and that their fall was temporary, because their line would one day include a Savior who would redeem them and all of mankind. In their bravery, their obedience, and their faith and love, they are truly types of the Son who, in this picture, sits above them. Can you imagine what their reunion looked like? Father, Mother, and great-great---- grand Savior/Son.

How could including Adam and Eve in our sacrament participation increase the experience? Something to think about...

Does anything else about the work reveal new facets of the Last Supper for you? A student in my class commented on the contrast of the bright mandorla of light around Christ with the black background. He said it reminded him that one of Christ's names is the Light, and that to be anywhere but near him is to walk in darkness.

I am drawn to the two men bowed prostrate on either side of the table: the one laid full out and face down on the bottom left in a red cape, and the other man with only a bowed head and arm visible, in the middle of the right hand edge of the painting. Blake seems to be painting the Last Supper in a symbolic rather than factual way, including people like Adam and Eve whose presence at that moment are more of a spiritual inclusion, so I like to think that these two worshipers could represent me. After all, each week during sacrament I too approach that upper room where Christ introduced the bread and the water. I too come to mourn him on the hill where he died, and witness the tomb where he laid and which he walked out of, in my mind's eye.

My next painting starts an examination of how the 20th century conceptualized the sacrament and the Last Supper, and I think you will find its interpretation a far cry from both the monumental moment of the Renaissance and the supernatural occurrence of the 19th century:

Salvador Dali. Sacrament of the Last Supper. 1955. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Boom! That's right! Salvador Dali enters the fray! If you are reading this and you are in Washington, do yourself a favor and go quickly to visit this painting yourself in the little nook by the elevator in the East Wing of the NGA, before the museum closes in January for a $68 million dollar renovation. Phenomenal piece of art.

I didn't know this before I began researching this painting, but Dali actually broke with Surrealists and returned to the Catholic faith in 1949. He had a new interest in nuclear physics and was beginning to see order in the world where he previously envisioned chaos and the uncanny. I find it lovely that he found order restored within the tenets of Christianity.

What changes occurred in the conceptualization of the Last Supper and the sacrament in the 20th century? There are lots!

Dali has removed many of the more arcane, traditional Christian symbols of the Last Supper (no lurking Judas, no fancy goblets or heaps of bread, no red or blue) and instead created a more universal reimagination of the act of partaking of the Bread of Life. He is still interested in the Classical celebration of the human body; you really can't escape a contemplation of the reality and power of God as your eye travels around that massive torso at the top of the canvas. I think Dali's inclusion of this non-traditional view of God and the Savior, who still retains a closeness to his father-- see him gesturing up to him?-- represents Dali's hope that God is nearer to man than often presumed in these modern days. The savior's gesture up brings to mind the scripture, "If ye have seen me, ye have seen my Father." Despite the attention paid to the Father and Son's presence and power, Dali questions the extent to which they are operating in our lives. Note that both Heavenly Father and the Savior are transparent.

Dali did away with the traditional identification of the different apostles; if you look closely, the men gathered around the table are all mirror images of each other. I both like and dislike this. I dislike it because it takes away a bit of the historical reality of the Last Supper. I like it because it puts the emphasis on the personality of the Savior and the eternal nature of the sacrament. Because his disciples don't come with a particular identity, I can easily imagine myself to be one of those gathered to the table.

You can tell Dali is interested in elucidating the challenges modern worshippers have in combining scientific discoveries and faith. He was VERY interested in science, physics, and "new religiosity." The brassy enclosure surrounding the scene is a dodecahedron, which is apparently the most stable solid element. Dali also took pains to recreate all the elements in the landscaped background of the painting: water, air, fire, earth. This reminds me of my moments in the woods, or camping, or hiking, where I feel closer to God, and more accepting of the reality of Christ, than I do almost anywhere else (except the LDS temple!!).


My final piece is a contemporary painting by one of my favorite Mormon artists, Ron Richmond. It will look familiar to any of you who visited the Beholding Salvation exhibit at BYU's Museum of Art a few years ago.

What symbols of the sacrament does this utilize?

How is this depiction different from others?

I love the removal of all human figures. The artist encourages meditation on just the symbols of the sacrament; no more being distracted by John's personality or Christ's hair or the size of the upper room. The red cloth is vivid enough to bring Christ's painful passions to life, and the silver swath of cloth on which the bowls rest delivers the idea of the sacrament into our hands, down through the bottom of canvas. I end with this one because it is my favorite reminder that, in a very real way, the choice of how we view the sacrament, what we make of Christ, how we remember him, is all up to us.


Olsen Family said...

Beautiful! Thank you for sharing!

iyouandme said...

I LOVED that piece by Ron Richmond and still remember it very well. Thanks for sharing.