Charles Twombly – Last Supper or First Supper: The Mystical Supper in the Christian East

Tintoretto - Last Supper First Eucharist
Tintoretto – The Last Supper                     The First Eucharist – Greek ikon

What Protestants and Catholics alike refer to as the Last Supper is frequently called something else by our friends in the Eastern Christian world. Orthodox Christians often refer to Jesus’ meal with his disciples right before his trial and execution as the Mystical Supper. What’s the difference?

Well, let’s look at the image I’ve brought with me. It’s a reproduction of a Byzantine icon in which the disciples of Jesus are arrayed much like they’d be in Western portrayals. We see them here facing outward, as if they were about to have a group photo. In this panorama, there is no Mary Magdalene, no da Vinci code. What we do have is a big Jesus in the center with twelve men (six on each side) spread around the table with a big open space in the foreground.

One doesn’t need to be an expert in Western art to notice this isn’t the kind of picture one would expect from a Renaissance painter or from the art that has flowed more or less continuously from the Renaissance ever since. The figures look somewhat primitive, almost cartoonish. They have individual features, but the individuality is marked more by stereotypical traits (beards or the absence of beards, and so forth). The growing sophistication of Renaissance paintings and sculpture which moves more and more toward photographic likeness is not only missing; it is avoided, quite intentionally.

There’s something else that’s missing: the Renaissance concern for perspective. Byzantine iconography, like early Western medieval art, was only marginally concerned with distance. In Renaissance art, if one figure is smaller than another, it is usually because the first figure is further away. Just as telephone poles lining a straight highway shrink in size the further they are from the viewer, so the objects in Renaissance painting tend to be ranked according to how close or how far they are from the horizon.

Not so in Eastern Christian iconography—or at least in this one on display. Jesus is bigger even though he’s furthest removed from the viewer. Why? Quite simply because he’s the most important. Already, we have an anticipation of the resurrection. The about-to-be crucified Jesus is already showing hints of becoming the risen Christ.

So why the differences? Why does the Christian East, the Orthodox world, portray this scene in a way different from the ways Western Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, tend to do? Well, many things could be said, but let’s start with the labeling (with the branding, as we say these days).

As was noted earlier, what the West calls the Last Supper, the East frequently calls the Mystical Supper. But what’s in a name? Well, let’s make some more generalizations. For Catholics and Protestants, the signal event toward which the Last Supper points is the crucifixion. Jesus’ death on the cross is the sacrifice whereby God and humanity are potentially reconciled. When Jesus talks about his body and blood, he’s anticipating the torture and bloody death he’s about to endure. He tells his followers to recollect often through the symbolism of bread and wine: “Do this [he says] in remembrance of me.” St Paul adds that “as often as you do this, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

For Orthodox, the emphasis is slightly different. The cross is very important for them too, but like John’s gospel, they tend to place the accent on the resurrection and see the cross as a moment of triumph, not defeat. Christ reigns from the cross. “If the Son of Man be lifted up, he will draw all unto himself.”

Both sides are, of course, important: both the brutal sacrifice and the trampling down of death by death. What we’re pointing out is a matter of accent, not two opposing viewpoints. But the differences are important because they complement each other. Each stresses what the other leaves out or downplays. So let’s explore that a bit.

Here’s what I’d like to propose. When we look at Leonardo’s classic painting and the Wesleyan painting that stands in the same tradition, I’d argue that what we behold is a vehicle for recollection. The scene does have its own drama, of course, even apart from Dan Brown’s bizarre conjectures. We can even imagine the disciples saying, “Who’s he talking about? Who’s the betrayer? Is it I? Am I the one he’s hinting at?” But beyond that is the question, what are we (as latter-day Christians) supposed to “get” from our viewing? Are we too perhaps potential betrayers? Or maybe the scene is meant to evoke gratitude. As we “do this in remembrance of me,” it provides the occasion for realigning our lives and focusing our thankfulness. In short, we are invited to recollect and to live out of that recollection.

I’m going to argue that the Byzantine icon has another purpose. It too is concerned with recollection, but it has another aim as well. I would see that aim as participation. Look again at the table in my reproduction. Note that the table is open in the foreground as with Leonardo’s scene. But unlike the da Vinci masterpiece, the open side seems set for others. The icon isn’t merely a means of recollecting a past event; it is an invitation to join in on the eternal feast which began “on the night in which he was betrayed” but which goes on and on and will be consummated when Jesus will once again eat and drink with his loyal followers in his Father’s kingdom. What starts as a Passover meal in an upper room ends in the messianic banquet in the next age. The Last Supper is, in this sense, the First Supper, a supper in which the weekly and even daily celebrations of the Mass or Eucharist or Lord’s Supper or Divine Liturgy or Holy Communion or whatever else we may call it are drawn up into the mystical union which not only connects Christ and his church but also links those devoted to Christ to the heavenly worship which never ends.

So back to the two traditions: the Renaissance and the Byzantine. They not only complement each other, but we can gain a heightened appreciation of each by comparing them. I’m happy to bring the Christian East to our celebration today. The table spread is spacious enough for all. As Jesus himself says in Matthew’s gospel, “Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

Talk given on 15 October 2008 at the dedication of a painting of The Last Supper (Burden Parlor, Wesleyan College)

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