Friday, March 10, 2006

Last Suppers - Leonardo, Dali, and the Last Bar-B-Que

I have been thinking a lot about da Vinci's painting, "The Last Supper." Yes, I did read the Da Vinci Code. I thought it was entertaining, but I also thought it contained a lot of what my son and I call, "Baloney Factor" -- stuff that may not be true, but you have to accept it to enjoy the story.

Whatever Dan Brown says in his fictional work, I've been studying the Last Supper as portrayed by Leonardo.

So, is Mary Magdalene really in the painting? I don't think so. Maybe the one traditionally identified as John does look like a woman, but the real painting is in pretty bad shape.

I don't think so.

Take a look at his sketch, "Angel in the Flesh." You see a woman's face, almost identical to the face of John or Mary at the Lord's Supper. Same feminine facial features. A hint of a woman's breast. Look futher south and it is obvious that angel is fully male.

Leonardo was painting John as the youngest apostle, and in doing that, he did what artists did in that period -- portrayed youthful males as having feminine features.

Mary Magdalene was at the Last Supper, but Leonardo only painted Christ and his 12 apostles.

The more I learn about this painting, the more I see.

All lines focus on the head of Christ as the center of the painting.

The Trinity is evident throughout -- three windows and the groupings of all apostles in groups of three are two that are most evident.

I've not seen the actual painting, but I'm told by those who have that the painting produces a sort of illusion. Painted on the wall of a refectory (or convent dining room), it was in fact intended to appear an extension of the room itself; the effect is achieved by the painting's perspective, which matches the lines of the actual room.

Christ is seated with a window behind him, thus the light of daylight gives a sort of halo -- the only one in the painting.

Christ forms a triangle with his body, like the Virgins of Adoration of the Magi or Virgin of the Rocks; his disciples form rippling waves.

He has just announced that one of them will betray him, but he has not yet indicated that it is Judas. Each disciple is eager to acquit himself or identify the future traitor.

Grouped into threes, the disciples on the far right recoil in surprise, while the next group leans toward Christ with curiosity; each group has a slightly different reaction to the news.

Generally, the hands of the disciples contradict the movement of their bodies, giving the whole composition a flowing circuit that always leads back to the center.

At the viewer's far left are Bartholomew, James the Lesser and Andrew, forming the first group of three. All are surprised. Andrew holds both of his hands up in a "stop!" gesture. There is a knife that is pointing away from Christ, and it is aimed at Bartholomew. In many Last Supper paintings of this and earlier eras, the knives pointed toward Judas. Here it points toward Bartholomew, perhaps a reminder of the legend that says he was martyred after being skinned alive.

Judas, Peter and John form another group of three. Judas is in shadow, looking rather withdrawn and taken back by the sudden revelation of his plan. He is clutching a small bag of silver, given to him as payment to betray Jesus. Peter looks angry; perhaps foreshadowing Peter's reaction in Gethsemane. Much has been said about the knife not appearing to belong to anyone at the table, but close examination reveals that it is an extension of Peter's body.

In the next triad, which is to Christ's right from the viewer's perspective, are Thomas, James Major and Philip. Thomas is clearly upset; James the Greater looks stunned, with his arms in the air. Meanwhile, Philip appears to be requesting some explanation.

Finally we come to the last triad: Matthew, Jude Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot. Both Jude Thaddeus and Matthew are turned toward Simon, perhaps to find out if he has any answer to their initial questions.

(These names are all agreed upon by art historians. In the 1800's a manuscript was found with their names; before this only Judas, Peter, John and Jesus were positively identified).

Dan Brown makes a major point of talking about how there was no single chalice, but several cups. In this chapel painting from the 1300's, there is no single cup, but several.

In this work, I believe Judas is at Christ's left side, as this individual seems to be dipping bread into a bowl. In Mark 14:20, Jesus has told the apostles that he will be betrayed. They want to know who it is, and Jesus says, "It is one of the Twelve, "one who dips bread into the bowl with me."

These apostles are also emotionless, and one of the things Leonardo did was to show, for the first time, an emotional Last Supper.

Duccio di Buoninsega painted the Supper between 1308 and 1311. It also shows many cups.

And again, the people gathered around the table all seem without emotion.

Christ is framed as the centerpiece of this work, although not as effectively as in Leonardo's work.

I do not believe this is Judas at Christ's left in this painting, but John. This figure looks to be the youngest, and John was usually painted that way. Without this figure dipping bread into a bowl, this individual reminds me of John's Gospel, where it is noted that the Beloved Disciple " had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, 'Lord, who is going to betray you?'" (John 21:20)

Giotto di Bondone painted his Last Supper between 1304 and 1306. Most obvious to me is the black halo that all apostles share, while Christ has one that is gold. Christ is far from the center at this painting. Again, John is leaning against Christ.

Judas has his back to the viewer, and with his hand he is reaching to dip bread into the bowl. Here Judas is wearing yellow, which was the ecclesiastical color ascribed to Judas -- yellow as in urine. Don't tell me those early church fathers didn't have a mean streak.

Again, there is not much emotion in the faces portrayed in this painting.

Pietro Lorenzetti produced his Last Supper around 1320 to 1330. Again, you see more of a realistic supper setting, with people sitting on both sides of the table.

Can you find Judas? He is on the viewer's left wearing blue with a reddish cloak. He is the only one without a halo.

And again, there's John, youthful looking and leaning on Jesus.

By this time, pets and animals are appearing at the Last Supper. You see a couple of them on the floor in the kitchen area at the viewer's left.

Around 1400, Jaume Serra painted a similar version of the Supper. The apostles, void of emotion, are gathered in a circular table. John is leaning on the table, next to Jesus. What I find interesting here is Judas. Again, he has no halo, but he is reaching out for food as if this is his only interest. Others are eating, but Judas is reaching for the lamb -- which is interesting because of his betrayal of Christ, the Lamb of God.

Around 1450, Jaume Huguet, produced what looks like to me a rather standard Last Supper for that time. You see lots of similar themes here that you see in the previous paintings, but I think he takes Judas a step further here. As with Jaume Serra's work, the apostles are in a circular setting, John is at Christ's left, all are without emotion, Judas has no halo and again is reaching for food.

In this case, he is the only one eating while the rest are attentive or reacting to Jesus. It is clearly a lamb that Judas is picking at.

There is also a cat at the Last Supper. It is at the feet of Judas. What's with that? Anyone know?

John is again leaning on Jesus in Domenico Ghirlandaio's work of the late 1400s. Judas sits alone and issolated, across the table. He has also lost his halo. And as with Leonardo's work, it is daylight outside.

I wonder what that means? The Last Supper was at night. But I found that to be common as I looked at other paintings of that period depicting the Last Supper.

By the way, Domenico Ghirlandaio painted lots of birds in the sky, a peacock on the ledge on the viewer's right, and once again we see a cat on the floor near Judas. What's that about? Any ideas?

We see windows in the work of Andrea del Sarto. He painted the Last Supper in the 1520s, well after Leonardo's work.

Like Leonardo, the windows show daylight behind Christ. Showing daylight, as well as having everyone on one side of the table, may be a reflection of how this painter was influenced by Leonardo.

Here is the Last Supper by Juan de Juanes, working after Leonardo's painting, sometime in the 1560s. He is clearly influenced by Leonardo, and he shows daylight behind Christ. You can also see that Judas is on the far right, sitting across the table with his back to the viewer. He wears yellow, as in one of the earlier paintings.

Leonardo has Judas holding a bag, and we see the same here. Judas has the bag in his right hand, held low as if to hide what is probably the blood money from the rest of the group (as well he should).

There is only one chalice, but there are a couple of knives and they help point the viewer's attention to Judas.

By this time, Leonardo's influence of showing the apostles with emotion is being embraced by the artists.

Philippe de Champaigne, painted the Last Supper in the 1600s. By this time, Leonardo's influence is quite visible. Unlike Leonardo, by this time we are seeing one cup and one bread -- what Dan Brown would have expected of all the paintings.
Judas is at the viewer's left, looking defiant and confident. He holds a bag, probably the blood money, but he holds it openly and arrogantly. Again, you see he has a yellow cloak.

John is at Christ's right. He again looks rather feminine.

Daniele Crespi painted the supper in 1624-25. Again, there is daylight in the window behind Christ. John is still leaning on Jesus.
Judas is again an interesting figure. He is looking at the viewer -- you almost want to say, "Hey Judas, don't look at the camera!" You may not be able to see it here, but his left hand is at his side, and just below the level of the bench he is holding the bag, so that clearly this is the figure of Judas.

OK, change of pace. Let's leave Europe and look at some other culture's view of the Last Supper.

The Last Bar-B-Que is one of the best known lithographs of Margo Humphrey. There is watermelon and chicken, along with the traditional bread and wine. Christ and the apostles are all African-American. This is not altogether a humorous look at the event. Humphrey said, "The Last Bar-B-Que is a serious piece: a rewriting of history through the eyes of my ancestry, a portrayal of a savior who looks like my people."

Judas is on the viewer's far right. He has his halo, but he is completely yellow.

In another contemporary rendition of the Last Supper, Judith Wolfe has done a wonderful job showing the theological meaning of the Eucharist. "This cup is the blood of Christ, shed for the remission of your sins." The cup is tilted, so that the blood, or wine, is indeed poured out for our salvation. In the background, the curtain is torn, a reference to the Temple curtain that was torn at Christ's crucifixion.

Finally, I end with Salvador Dali.

I love his work.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

My, my. Our Session did something rather intersting last night.

In 1901, Miss Mary was brought before the elders of her church to answer the charge of adultery.

I stumbled on information about her while reading the handwritten notations in the dusty, moldy Session Minutes book of her tiny country church. I served that church as pastor in the 1980's, and at that time if anyone committed adultery in the church, we'd all just pretend we didn't know anything about it.

But in 1901, the church believed in discipline. There is, in the Presbyterian Church, USA, a manual called, "The Rules of Discipline," which describes how to file charges and how to hold a church court. We use it in regional and national levels of our church, but I don't know if we ever use it in a local congregation.

The amazing thing about Miss Mary is that she seems to have been a very horny Christian. Every 6 to 9 months, she was having to face the elders for adultery. If the man was also a member of the church, he would also be charged with adultery. Try this today and Miss Mary would simply say, "Hey bozo, just transfer my membership to the Lutheran Church down the street."

But not Miss Mary.

She would confess her sins and submit to the authority of the Session -- sometimes she would be barred from the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Sometimes she would be barred from teaching Sunday School. Sometimes she would have to meet with the other women of the church for prayer each Sunday evening. The duration of the disciplinary would vary, but at the end she would meet again with the Session for a review and she would thank the elders for their guidance.

I think about my elders.

Alice was a Sunday School teacher as well as an elder. She was arrested for embezzelment of funds at her job.

Betty's son is now in the NBA. I'm sure you haven't heard of him unless you are a die-hard fan of that particular team. In high school, he played for a school even though he didn't live in that district. It was THE school to play for if you had hopes of a career in the NBA. The newspaper wrote articles on all the athelets playing for the school who were not living in the school's district. Betty's son wasn't the worst -- a couple of 20 year olds from the Dominican Republic were also on the team. But one night there was Betty on TV, standing on a front porch and insisting that she lived in that home, which was in the district. An hour later the news crew returned and knocked on the door. A man answered the door and admitted, "Betty don't live here. She was just some woman who gave me $500 if I let her stand on my porch for a while."

Betty was our Clerk of Session at the time.

Charlie was an elder in a church I served in the 1980s. He was arrested for sexually molesting residents at the nursing home he operated.

Don was a compulsive gambler.

Evelyn was very faithful in attending worship, even when as drunk as could be. She was a deacon.

The purpose of church discipline is reconciliation and restoration. It is not punitive.

Wouldn't we have been more helpful to Evelyn if we had admitted that she was ill? Instead we just acted like we knew nothing about it.

And what of Don? We might not have healed his addiction, but at least we would have been more helpful to him and his family.

And Betty? What did her actions, along with our inactions, teach our youth about honesty and integrity?

The governing body of a local Presbyterian Church is called a Session. It is composed of elders. This is not simply a Board of Trustees or a community club -- these elders are ordained, just as I am ordained. They are our spiritual leaders.

And yet, we have a elder who no longer attends worship. He angrily spreads rumors about our Associate Pastor and undermines her at every turn. He does not make motions during meetings of the Session, but then goes into the congregation to complain about what is wrong with our chruch. I have in my computer an email in which this elder said, "I want nothing more than to take a shotgun and blow the Associate Pastor away."

In our last Session meeting, we set up an Administrative Commission to be composed of three elders. In our denomination, a commission is more than a committee. A commission can be empowered to act on behalf of the governing body.

This Administrative Commission of the Session is empowered with the responsibilities...
  • to investigate and gather information,
  • to privately address individuals who may need to be exhorted in the proper conduct expected of an elder,
  • to work as its three main goals (1) the restoration of elders that they may be faithful in their vows to God, (2) the reconciliation of members of Christ's body who are in conflict and discord, and (3) the protection of the congregation's peace, unity and purity.
  • In order to accomplish its goals, this Commission is empowered to follow the guidance of the Book of Order's Rules of Discipline, including, if necessary, filing charges against any member of the congregation who is guilty of violating ordination vows.

I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Remember You Are Dust, And To Dust You Shall Return

One by one they came forward.

People of every race.

Young and old.

Gay and straight.

Rich and homeless.

Some were in tears when they came to me.

Time and again I dipped my finger into the bowl of ashes and placed a sign of the cross on the person's forhead. "Remember you are dust," I would say to each one, "and to dust you shall return."

Sometimes I would look at a much loved friend and parishioner and think, "He'll be dust soon. His cancer is getting the best of him. She won't be here much longer, her addiction is killing her."

I thought of myself. Ash Wednesday is a time to repent, prepare for Easter, and also to remember that we are mortal. We are all headed for the grave, and while there is a Resurrection, I realize so many of the things I think are important are not.

I should think of that all day long, every day.

I drive in a hurry down the turnpike -- "Remember you are dust, it's not that important to do all the things on your list of things to do."

I get angry at other drivers -- "Remember you are dust, it's not worth wasting what time is left with anger.

I work all day long, skip a day off, shorten my vacation -- "Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return."

As they say in Shawshank Redemption, "Get busy livin', or get busy diein'."