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The Last Supper and Passion of Our Lord in Art
With the holiest days of the Church year upon us, we turn to some of the great artists and paintings of the Catholic tradition to provide us with reflection.
The Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is one of the best known pieces of holy art. Leonardo was an early Renaissance painter who had begun to try to move beyond the more common artistic styles of the later Middle Ages. He was not, of course, the first to paint the Last Supper, but he did do something new and important.
Most previous Last Supper paintings showed Our Lord and the Apostles sitting calmly and serenely around the table. No such serenity is present here. It is all action and disquiet. Indeed, it is the very point when Our Lord announced that one of the disciples would betray Him.
“When Jesus had said these things, he was troubled in spirit; and he testified, and said: Amen, amen I say to you, one of you shall betray me. The disciples therefore looked one upon another, doubting of whom he spoke” (John 13:21-22). One can see in the painting how the disciples are troubled, turning to one another, their very gestures indicate unease as they ask Him, “Surely it is not I, Lord?”
Only Judas, the third figure to Jesus’ right (our left), does not seem troubled, knowing what he would do.
Two Images of the Crucifixion:
Next, two contrasting images of the Crucifixion are worth our attention. The first is by the late medieval/early Renaissance Dominican brother, Bl. Fra Angelico. Bl. Fra Angelico was loved in his own time and in ours for the simplicity of his images and how they were intended to foster devotion and meditation in their viewers. He presented the sacred story in simplicity and beauty. Bl. Fra Angelico had learned the modern techniques that Renaissance artists were developing–some of his paintings show skilled use of perspective, for instance–but he often eschewed them in favor of simpler paintings. His very humility merits our admiration as much as his paintings do.
And his paintings are much loved for good reason. Here we find no risk of the artist distracting us with bold or showy techniques. His entire focus is on the sacred story and telling it in all its beauty. In one rendering of the Crucifixion, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John stand at the foot of the cross, while blood pours from His pierced side. All is serene and peaceful; the only exception is, presumably St. Mary Magdalene, who raises her arms in dismay, while saints in prayer surround the scene. One can feel a profound silence and stillness in the painting, that stillness itself commemorating His death.
Very different is the Crucifixion, this time by an unknown artist known as Grünewald. Here is none of the calm serenity of Bl. Fra Angelico. Rather, all is in unrest. The Blessed Virgin is overcome with grief, fainting into the arms of the apostle St. John. St. Mary Magdalene too is in anguish at the foot of the cross as she looks on a tortured Christ. Rather than the stillness of Bl. Fra Angelico’s Christ, Grünewald’s highlights the visceral and emotional horrors of the Crucifixion. Even the Lord’s muscles and very fingers show all the tortures He underwent. Only St. John the Baptist appears calm, pointing at him with the words, “He must increase, and I must decrease” fascinating words to see at the Crucifixion.
And yet, the image is not so different from Bl. Fra Angelico’s as one might think. For, like Bl. Fra Angelico, Grünewald also focused on telling the story in a way that edifies his viewers. His focus remains on the sacred story, using art to encourage meditation, to foster devotion, and to proclaim the teachings of the Church.
As we enter into the Sacred Triduum and reflect on Our Lord’s Passion, may we also try to place ourselves at the foot of the Cross with St. John and Our Lady, so that we may enter more fully the joys of Easter..
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