Painted Bronze (ale cans) (1960)
Artist: Jasper Johns
Artwork description & Analysis: In this bronze sculpture, Johns intentionally blurs the line between the actual object and its artistic recreation, wherein the handcrafted appearance of the Ballantine Ale cans is only apparent after close inspection. He fashioned the sculpture in response to Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning's boast about art dealer Leo Castelli, "you could give [him] two beer cans and he could sell them." Johns accepted the challenge implicit in De Kooning's statement, casting in bronze two cans of his beer of choice, Ballantine Ale, which Leo Castelli promptly sold. The original beer cans were a deep brass-colored metal, which was ideal for casting in bronze to achieve an effective trompe l'oeil effect. However, in contrast to the authentic appearance of the cast cans, he allowed his brushstrokes to remain visible in the painted labels, creating an imperfection visible only upon careful observation.
Johns cast each can and the base separately and imprinted his thumb in the base as the autographic mark of the artist's hand, ensuring that the work is handmade. Johns cast one can with an open top and painted the Ballantine insignia and the word Florida on its top. The other can is unopened, unmarked, and solidly impenetrable. Some critics read the contrast between the cans as a metaphor for the relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg - an illustration of the differences and the growing space between them. In this reading, the open can serves as a signifier for the gregarious and popular Rauschenberg who began spending much of his time in his Florida studio in 1959, while the closed one stands for Johns and his quiet, impenetrable public facade. Other critics read a narrative of everyday life into the difference between the two cans - that everyone lives their lives between the after, or what has already happened embodied by the opened can, and the before, or what has yet to transpire in the closed can. Despite some clues, like the thumbprint, Johns left the final interpretation of the sculpture open to the viewer's discretion. His foray into representing mass-produced goods within the realm of fine art paved the way for Pop art.
Oil on bronze - Museum Ludwig Koln
On the trail of the Last Supper
GUINEA PIGS, THE INQUISITION, NAKEDNESS AND OTHER ICONIC ASPECTS
The article covers early variations in the image in Catholic Italy, transformations of the image in Lutheran Germany, and its customisation in selected colonised communities in Latin America and the Pacific. It also examines attempts to influence the nature of the image by various cultural or social groups, such as church reformers or feminists, and the role of the image in modern western culture.
The Leonardo model
For many Western viewers, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1498) (Fig 1) is the standard by which all other versions are measured. These viewers have become so familiar with this drama-charged image , and so accustomed to the iconography of Christian art in general, that they would hardly regard it as a cross-cultural work at all. They might even need to be reminded that it is based on an event which involved Jewish people and which occurred in Palestine.
Even the rectangular shape of the table, and the placement of the sitters along one side, is an anachronism. This issue, prosaic as it may sound, tends to assume some significance in later Last Supper representations, so it is appropriate at this point to consider it in some detail. In virtually all depictions of the Last Supper before the 12th century, the table is round or D-shaped : see (Fig 2). This shape was seen as embodying a special element of fraternal fellowship . It also corresponded more closely with the Jewish practice of conducting Passover meals round low tables, or no tables at all, with diners semi-reclining on low lounges . In contrast, the long table shown by Leonardo was not commonly used for meals until the Middle Ages . Furthermore, even after it had been adopted, the practice of seating diners along only one side, with servants attending to their duties from the other side, was reserved for particularly wealthy households, hardly a likely scenario for Jesus and the apostles .
The gradual eclipse of the round table in traditional Last Supper representations may also have had a deeper significance. Starting in the Middle Ages, the position of the church altar table – which of course represented the table on which the Last Supper was conducted – began to become more withdrawn and physically remote from the laity. This move was associated with a greater clerical dominance in worship and less frequent communion . It may therefore be the case that the straight bench – more hierarchical and more remote than an inclusive round table – more closely fitted the Church’s emerging conception of how the Mass should be celebrated .
All these discrepancies underline the fact that Leonardo’s depiction cannot be considered as an accurate historical reconstruction. Rather, Leonardo’s intention was to make the occasion of the Last Supper relevant to the life and beliefs of its viewers. The painting therefore reflected the wishes and attitudes of the Christian culture in which Leonardo was working. Christians were understandably anxious to see the Last Supper in their own image, and to remove unwanted reminders of the foreign character of the actual event. It is therefore not surprising that the most stereotypical “Jewish” element that remains in the work is the purse-clutching, lerge nosed, low browed, dark skinned, stunted appearance of Judas, the betrayer . Although the Bible itself does not refer to Judas’s appearance at all , his physical and cultural identification with Jewish stereotypes goes back at least as far as the 5th century, with Pope Gelasius I’s assertion that Judas “inherited his name from the whole Jewish people” . This Judas/Jewish link would continue to be a common feature in Christian art .
The licence of poets and madmen
Within 20 years after Leonardo’s work was completed, the Church was shaken by open revolt. Launched by Martin Luther, the radical new beliefs of the Protestants rapidly spread throughout northern Germany, Switzerland, England and Scotland. The Church’s response to this threat, coordinated through the Council of Trent (1545-63), was to set out an exhaustive authoritative statement of orthodox faith, and to relaunch and reinvigorate the Inquisition, which had been languishing for some time.
The Inquisition was a Church tribunal that had originally been set up in the 13th century to conduct heresy trials. These frequently involved inventive forms of torture, and the penalties, originally limited to excommunication, were progressively extended to flogging, imprisonment and death by burning. The orthodoxy which the Inquisition was charged with enforcing extended to artworks, which the Church saw as a potent propaganda weapons for the ideological battle ahead . To this end, the Council of Trent decreed that “no image shall be set up which is suggestive of false doctrine or which may furnish an occasion of dangerous error to the uneducated”.
The timing of this proved to be particularly unfortunate for the painter Veronese. In 1573, he executed a commission to paint a massive Last Supper for the convent of S. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. In keeping with his customary bravura style, Veronese depicted the scene as a luxurious feast, set against a magnificent architectural backdrop, and populated it with a variety of unlikely characters including a dog, a servant with a nose-bleed, a jester with a parrot on his wrist, an apostle picking his teeth with a fork, buffoons, dwarfs and – perhaps most bizarre of all – German mercenaries holding halberds (Fig 3).
Veronese’s defence was based largely on artistic licence. “We painters use the same licence as poets and madmen”, he asserted boldly. Although he conceded that Christ and his apostles had been the only ones actually present, he said that whenever he had some space left over in a picture, he liked to adorn it with figures of his own invention, together with “all the considerations which are natural to my intelligence”. Not surprisingly, this defence, though eloquent, was completely unsuccessful and Veronese was ordered to correct his painting by removing the offending characters within three months. As it happened, Veronese did no such thing, but solved the problem by simply renaming the work as Feast in the House of Levi.
This Inquisitorial hearing presumably formed the basis of the 1980s Monty Python sketch in which a feisty Michelangelo is called to account by the Pope for an over-exuberant version of the Last Supper. The inclusion of 28 disciples (and a kangaroo) was not the only problem, as the following extract shows:
“Pope: Look!… A Last Supper I commissioned from you, and a Last Supper I want! With twelve disciples and one Christ!
Pope: Yes one! Now will you please tell me what in God’s name possessed you to paint this with three Christs in it?
Michelangelo: “It works, mate!”
Michelangelo's "solution" to the problem was also Veronese-inspired – he offered to retitle the work The Penultimate Supper.
The fact that Veronese was actually able to get away with his transparent ruse is almost as significant as the Church’s initial intervention. It shows that it was not the image in itself that caused so much offence to the Church. Rather, the problem lay in the image’s declared relevance to an article of faith . As Veronese’s inquisitor described it, the subject matter was “a thing of the Church”, something over which the Church considered it had proprietorial and moral rights. Once the nature of the subject matter was changed through retitling, the reason for the Church’s interest ceased to exist.
The episode, an unusual example of the Inquisition’s concern with art , is also an early illustration of the capacity of the Last Supper to act as a sort of battleground for competing ideologies. It is to another side in this battle that we now turn.
The infestation of heresy
The role of art had also come under even closer examination in the newly-Lutheran parts of Germany. Taking seriously the Biblical injunction against graven images, the Protestant iconoclasts, sometimes in mobs, physically stripped and defaced countless works of church art. By 1522, however, Luther’s attitude had changed, largely because of his realisation of the valuable educative and propaganda role that art could play. Under this new approach, religious art, particularly on narrative themes, became permissible “for the sake of better remembrance and better understanding” .
This emphasis on instruction was consistent with Luther’s doctrine that salvation came by personal faith alone, without saintly or clerical intercession. This approach – that all believers had an equal right to participate – was reflected in the replacement of the altar table by a simple table, around which the congregation gathered for its communion meal. As if to reinforce this, Cranach the Elder’s The Last Supper (1547) (Fig 4) abandoned Leonardo’s long bench, and replaced it with a round table where “no one sits better than the rest” . Jesus is not even placed at the centre, but appears on the far left, consistent with the Lutheran practice of distributing the bread and the wine from the side of the altar. The apostles have been joined or even replaced by “common” men, with Martin Luther himself, a supposedly representative ordinary believer , shown on the right, receiving the cup.
From Europe, we now turn to consider various versions of the Last Supper in colonised communities in Peru, Fiji and Australia. As we shall see, the methods of adaptation differ widely. In the work from Peru, the standard European style of image is maintained, but with a striking local adaptation. In Fiji, Leonardo’s image is adopted wholesale, but is re-interpreted so as to reinforce local customs and beliefs. And in Australia, the event is radically re-imagined, and presented in a distinctively local artistic style.
Adaptation of the Last Supper in Peru
After their initial conquest of Peru in the 1530-40s, the Spanish authorities made concerted efforts to establish Christianity there. Their aim was not just to spread the faith for its own sake, but also to use it as a means of reducing the power of the local Quechua religion, and of exerting control over the native inhabitants. To facilitate this, the Spanish encouraged the Peruvians to concentrate in towns in which the universal hub was a town square, dominated by a cathedral. The building of these new cathedrals generated a need for very substantial amounts of art – 400 works were needed for Lima Cathedral alone. As Spanish artists were generally not keen on this assignment, local artists were commissioned for the task. To maintain control over the process, the commissions were usually quite precise. It was common, for example, for patrons to specify that the work should be based on a particular print that was given to the artist .
The fact that these constraints did not reduce the role of local artists to mere copyists is illustrated by the work of Marcos Zapata (1710? –1773?). Based in the Peruvian cultural capital of Cuzco, of mixed Quechua and Spanish heritage, Zapata was one of the more prolific of the local painters. It is estimated that between 1748 and 1764 he and his apprentices painted at least 200 works, including fifty for Cuzco Cathedral .
Zapata’s best-known works include two contrasting versions of the Last Supper. The first (c1750), a rather sober traditional work for the Cuzco Cathedral, focuses on Jesus and the twelve seated at a long rectangular table (Fig 5). The second (1755), a more exuberant work done for the convent attached to Lima Cathedral, is notable for the multiplicity of characters lounging about a round table (Fig 6).
This ritual association with local custom explains why Zapata presumably felt that it was entirely appropriate to include guinea pigs in holy paintings. But, at first blush, it makes it all the more interesting that it was tolerated by the Church, especially as the Inquisition was still active in Peru at this time. There are a number of factors that may account for this. Firstly, because of the demand, Zapata was working in a sellers’ market, and church authorities might have been reluctant to upset such a prolific, competent worker. Secondly, it appears that at the highest level there was some appreciation that an overly zealous approach could be counter-productive. For example, when Spanish priests had originally requested the Archbishop of Lima to order all guinea pigs to be exterminated, the Archbishop refused to do so for fear that the local population would rise up in a general rebellion . Thirdly, there was no doubt a growing realisation that “localising” the Last Supper could actually be a positive way of encouraging the local inhabitants to identify with the new religion.
The Last Supper as a symbol of continuity in Fiji
On the Fijian island of Gau, most households have a plaque bearing the message “Christ is the head of this household, he eats with us and overhears us” . This is typically accompanied by photographs of kin and of British royalty, and by a woven depiction of the Last Supper, based on the Leonardo model (Fig 7).
The inclusion of the Last Supper is a comparatively recent phenomenon, and came about in a curious, yet oddly fitting, way. In the late 1970s, Fijian soldiers served in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. They brought home a large number of tapestry reproductions of the Last Supper as gifts for the congregations of their home villages, with smaller versions for their parents or close kin .
In a traditional Fijian household, family meals are almost always ritualised. The meals are taken at a long rectangular table. Every person has their predetermined place at the table, dependent on seniority and gender. The most important place is reserved for the senior male (normally the father), the least important for the young girls. The women are also expected to serve the meals and to eat last.
Drinking, too, has been ritualised. Kava, the mildly intoxicating drink extracted from the roots of the kava plant, plays a central role in Fijian society. In the kava ceremony, the kava is drunk from a communal bowl that is passed round the members of the group (traditionally consisting of males only), in a predetermined order. Participants must never refuse their turn, and must not leave until the bowl is dry . By presiding over the ceremony, the chief is seen to refresh his power and his position, and the social identity of the group is confirmed.
Toren argues that for the Fijians participating in these ritualised activities, the Last Supper is highly evocative on a number of levels. At a basic level, the physical composition, with Jesus centralised and his apostles lined up at a long table, closely recalls the Fijian practice. The primacy (in fact, exclusivity) accorded to males in the Last Supper is also highly significant and consistent with Fijian tradition. The fact that the food and wine is presented by the father figure (Jesus or chief) reflects the structure of the meal and kava rituals, and the actual activity reflects the Fijian emphasis on eating together (to define the domestic group) and drinking together (to define kin and community). Even the medium is significant, as the tapestry echoes the traditional use of bark cloth in producing decorations and insignia of chiefly rank .
Deeper connections involving death and resurrection can also be discerned. Traditionally, the first kava plant is said to have sprung from the grave of a dead chief who appeared to his mourning kin and told them to replant it “to keep you in remembrance of me”. The parallel with Jesus’ injunction to the apostles to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of him is quite striking. Similarly, during the kava ceremony, participants go through a metaphorical death and rebirth, with the process of intoxication being described as “death from kava”, and recovery from intoxication as “life” (bula). The parallels with Jesus’ death and resurrection are again strong .
Toren argues that the Last Supper therefore performs an important social role by confirming the consistency of the Christian present with the traditional past. In this sense, both Christian belief and traditional custom can be seen as mutually reinforcing each other.
Re-imagining the Last Supper in Arnhem Land
The Australian indigenous artist Dianne Tchumut created her Last Supper in 1992 (Fig 7A). Tchumut was based in Daly river, an Arnhem Land community of only about 150 people. Fully one-third of this community were artists, and most of those were women, aged between 18 and 80.
In Arnhem Land, however, missionary presence has generally been less restrictive than in other parts of Australia. In Daly River, for example, the Catholic Mission did not arrive until as late as 1956 . This has evidently enabled Aboriginal people in this region to continue to live close to the land and maintain their belief systems while still incorporating elements of Christianity. It is said that the spirituality of the people is therefore often a mix of traditional rituals and ceremony and more recent Christian sacrament and story .
Tchumut’s work completely re-imagines the Last Supper by representing Christian subject matter in a distinctively Aboriginal artistic style . In the process, some striking contrasts emerge. For example, Tchumut’s long table, suggested by the horizontal line across the lower third of the work, reflects the Western model, but is of course foreign to traditional Aboriginal culture. At the same time, Christ and all the apostles are standing, which is consistent with common Aboriginal artistic practice for figures, but is foreign to the Western idea of how the Last Supper would have been conducted.
Unlike most Western models, the disciples are presented in a non-naturalistic style, which may represent beings reminiscent of spirit ancestors. Their facial features are absent , being replaced by a variety of head designs which, together with their auras, are presumably related to their spirituality . Christ is identified by his central position, by his extraordinary spiritual emanations, and by his hieratic size. Unlike most Western models, however, he appears simply to be praying – he does not have his arms spread in the typical consecratory gesture and, in any event, there does not appear to be any food or drink to consecrate. Judas (shown second from top right) is, however, consistent with the Western tradition by being shown in profile and lacking any aura or any head design at all.
The existence of these contrasts means that, depending on one’s outlook, the work can be perceived either as an uneasy syncretic compromise, or as an original and provocative creative fusion. The tension between these viewpoints tends to permeate assessments of overtly cross-cultural art.
We now turn to modern Western cultures, where the recognisability of Leonardo’s work has led to its being adopted – or used as a point of departure – for a range of social and commercial agendas. Some of these are, of course, simply intended as amusing parodies; an advertisement showing rats unsuspectingly enjoying their own last supper of rat bait is one of the more striking examples. Indeed, Leonardo’s version of the Last Supper has been described as one of the most copied, adapted, abused and lampooned artworks in history . However, there have also been more serious attempts to adapt the work so that it reflects some significant issues facing modern society. Typically, and perhaps predictably, these have involved issues with which some established Christian religions have had particular problems – authority, women and sex.
Authority and inclusiveness
The Last Supper is central to Christianity because it led to the development of the Eucharist, one of the basic sacraments of Christian life. The accounts in the Bible, and the way in which artists, typified by Leonardo, have traditionally depicted the event, have created or confirmed the belief that only men were present. The exclusion of women has therefore often been taken as explicit justification for Church policies that only men should serve in the role of priest or ordained minister. It has also led to the perception by many women that they are not treated by their religions as equals in the community of believers.
One response to this situation, by a Uniting Church group in Australia , was to commission a new, more inclusive, image of the event. The group argued that this response was justified on theological grounds because of Jesus’ practice of table sharing, coupled with the view that Biblical versions, properly interpreted, at least allow for the possibility that women may have in fact been present at the event . Perhaps ironically for a Protestant project , it also relies on the perceived power of an image to shape views – its claim is that “we need a more inclusive image, a truer image, become we come to believe what we see”.
The “non-Leonardo” Last Supper that emerged, a work by Margaret Ackland, includes women and children (including a breastfeeding mother), dramatic lighting, and an unusual perspective from behind Jesus (Fig 8). Interestingly, and rather unusually for Last Supper representations, the Jewish origin is explicitly acknowledged in the form of the seven-branched menorah in the centre of the table. Again rather exceptionally, the figure of Judas, a profiled outline on the left edge of the work, is shown with a degree of compassion. And by now we should perhaps not be surprised that the table is not a rectangular bench – its squared shape enables the diners to engage in a lively social interaction, highlighting the inclusiveness of the scene [52A].
Yet another type of challenge to the Church’s traditional attitude, particularly in relation to women, is provided by a group of popular conspiracy theories that have been developed in recent years. While these differ widely in plausibility and in academic respectability, they commonly attach great importance to the enigmatic figure of Mary Magdalene, and the perceived suppression of her role by Church authorities. So, for example, it has been suggested that the Magdalene actually married Jesus, with their union producing a female child, and ultimately the Merovingian line of the kings of France . Alternatively, the Magdalene has come to be interpreted as an embodiment of the “Sacred Feminine”, representing the spirit of the “Mother Goddess” .
As might be expected, Leonardo’s Last Supper proves to be fertile ground for such theories. Picknett and Prince, for example, argue that the androgynous figure shown on the right of Jesus is not John, but the Magdalene herself, and that Peter, jealous of her intimacy with Jesus, is making a cutting gesture against her neck with one hand and holding a knife in the other . Even more imaginatively, it is argued that if a photographic transparency of Leonardo’s Last Supper is reversed, and then superimposed on a transparency of the original, plausible new figures mysteriously emerge, including one holding – gasp! – a baby . The point of all this, of course, is not whether these theories have any validity . Rather, the point is that they have been so phenomenally popular. Even allowing for the fact that any conspiracy theory perceived to be anti-authoritarian or anti-Vatican will always attract support from certain groups, the degree to which these theories have taken hold in the popular imagination is quite extraordinary, suggesting that at some level they may be reflecting dissatisfaction with the traditionally accepted model.
A full frontal assault
Jamaican photographer Renee Cox is also critical of the position women have held in the church – which, she says, amounts to “ not holding any position” – but this is not her sole concern.
Her five metre long Yo Mama’s Last Supper consists of a montage of five colour photographs. The central panel shows a naked black woman (Cox herself) in Christ’s traditional place at the centre of a long rectangular table. Cox is standing facing the viewer with arms outstretched, with the two photographs on either side of her showing twelve male “apostles” in various stages of inattention, one dressed as a nun, and a Judas distinguished by his white skin.
The exhibition of this work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2001 – or rather the reaction to its exhibition – was front page news in the New York Times . New York’s Cardinal-Archbishop Egan was reported as describing Cox as “pathetic”. The Catholic Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, called Cox’s work “disgusting”, and said he was outraged that “anti-Catholicism” was being allowed to flourish . He also vowed to set up a “decency panel” to monitor publicly funded artwork in the city .
In an interview, Cox stated that her work deals with issues of race, gender and stereotypes, and it intended to operate on a number of levels . First, Cox says, it can act to empower women in general (“I’m saying you can play the Christ figure, girls, and sit at the head of the table and preside”) . Second, it is intended as a protest against the “invisibility” of African-Americans in art (“Christianity is big in the African-American community, but there are no representations of us. I took it upon myself to include people of colour in these classic scenarios”). Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, it is intended to foster feelings of cultural and racial self-worth among persons of colour. Cox considered it was “uplifting” for her to replace the traditional depiction of Jesus with a nude image of herself “just as Leonardo da Vinci found it uplifting for him to represent the Last Supper with people who looked like him”.
Cox’s position is not, of course, that Jesus was black or female (or dined in the nude). Rather, she considers that people should be able to represent Jesus as if he were in their own image. As we have seen, this is what artists have been doing for centuries. Cox’s point possibly has even more force if it is accepted that Jesus particularly identified with marginalised communities .
It is difficult to avoid the feeling that much of the furore over this work arose not because of Cox’s gender or race, but because of her depicted nudity, especially as she is shown in the presence of men, albeit in a separate photograph. Despite her assertion that it is not a sexual image , the depiction of full-frontal, female pubic hair is always likely to create considerable difficulties for any older-male-dominated religion whose central beliefs include the challenging concepts of the virgin birth, original sin and priestly celibacy. The following exchange between Cox and William Donahue, the head of the Catholic League for Legal and Civil Rights, is particularly revealing for the tone of reproach evident in Donahue's interruption:
“Cox: Somehow I feel that as an African American woman, maybe that is perhaps the biggest affront to people, that I should have the nerve and audacity to depict …
Donohue (interrupting): If you had managed to keep your clothes on.…” .
A fully clothed Cox may just have got away with being “respectful” enough for the Church or Giuliani to consider that her work was more acceptable to them. On the other hand, it also would have ensured that Cox would not have received such wide publicity for her views [65A].
Putting specific social agendas aside, we can now consider some of the ways that depictions of the Last Supper may reflect more general cultural trends in today’s society.
Modern culture is almost saturated with images, to a degree previously undreamt of. Just a hundred years ago, popular western culture was still largely word-based. Moving film, digital images, television, the Internet, computer games, mass marketing, global product designs and mass media were all either non-existent or still in their public infancy .
One aspect of this phenomenon is that the commodification of art has increased. In China, for example, the single township of Dafen is now responsible for the production of tens of thousands of “assembly line masterpieces” of old or modern masters each year. On one of many similar Internet sites , you can buy an “original reproduction” of Leonardo’s Last Supper, executed by the “studio team”, for prices ranging from $11 for a “high quality” small version, to $385 for a “topest (sic) quality” large version. For that matter, you can also get the Last Suppers of Bouts, de Buoninsegna, de Champaigne, Huguet, del Sarto, Bassano, Crespi, Sassetta, de Boulogne, van Veen, Vouet or van der Goes .
Working from his own studio, significantly called “The Factory”, the artist Andy Warhol has also added to the production line of Last Supper images, though in strikingly different ways. One of his approaches is exemplified by his Sixty Last Suppers (1986). This silkscreen print consists of 60 print reproductions of Leonardo’s work, joined together and arranged in a grid pattern. The impression of endless production recalls Warhol’s famous works involving multiple reproductions of soup cans, green stamps and other consumables .
In sharp contrast to this emphasis on smaller-scale reproduction, Warhol also produced dozens of drawings and paintings, including at least 30 on massive canvases, containing fragments of Leonardo’s original, often in unlikely settings. For example, in the ten metre long Last Supper (The Big C), various crudely drawn versions of Leonardo's Last Supper representation of Christ, along with other extracts from his painting, are juxtaposed with images of motor bikes, price tags and other commercial symbols (Fig 9) .
A culture obsessed with celebrity
Warhol’s evident obsession with reinventing Leonardo’s Last Supper is rather intriguing. The short explanation, and the one that Warhol himself gave, was quite simple – he was paid to do these works. But this does not explain the dozens of Last Supper variations that he created outside the terms of any commission . Perhaps, then, the explanation lies more in the posthumous discovery that Warhol had in fact been a devout Catholic, attended Mass several times a week, had Leonardo’s Last Supper on the wall of his childhood kitchen, prayed daily with his devout mother (with whom he lived for much of his life), and regularly helped out at soup kitchens (serving Campbell’s soup, one assumes) . This association of religion, the Mass and food easily translates -- perhaps too easily – into explaining his interest in the Last Supper.
There may, however, be another even more fundamental explanation. The key to this lies in the relationship of the Last Supper image with popular culture’s apparent obsession with the cult of celebrity, and Warhol’s own role in reflecting and reinforcing that obsession.
The types of celebrity that Warhol often depicts – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy – have taken on a significance that seems disproportionate to their apparent “worth”, however that may be judged. In common parlance, these celebrities have evolved into modern “icons”, “oscillating between human and quasi-divine status” . Warhol makes the point almost explicit in his Gold Marilyn (1967), featuring a photograph of the actress/celebrity surrounded by a vast field of gold that is strongly reminiscent of a medieval icon . His Last Supper cycle suggests that evolution can also work in the opposite direction – the inclusion of Leonardo’s motifs in Warhol’s popular pantheon suggests that a work that already had genuinely iconic status in the first place has now evolved into a work of celebrity. Thus, either way you look at it, Warhol seems to be suggesting that in modern culture the concepts of icon and celebrity are becoming interchangeable .
This link is reinforced, at least in Warhol’s eyes, by his perception that modern celebrity is associated with death. Death, particularly at a young age, is linked with many of “his” celebrities. It also appears repeatedly in his works – car crashes, disasters, gangster funerals, cans of poisoned tuna, skulls and the electric chair are just a few of his death-related images . Seen in this context, the image of a charismatic young man the night before his execution, the ostensible subject of the Last Supper, fits perfectly into Warhol’s modern celebrity mould.
The parallels may go even further. Christ overcomes death by achieving eternal life through his Resurrection. The outwardly-ephemeral subjects of Warhol’s dispassionate, frozen images also have a form of everlasting life bestowed upon them. In a form of self-fulfilling prophecy, celebrities associated with death attract Warhol’s attention, and their consequent “enshrinement” in his art becomes a sort of guarantee of immortality through lasting fame .
Despite these parallels, there is of course a crucial difference. Jesus actually had something significant to say, whereas it is arguable that Warhol’s other modern celebrities probably did not. The modern tendency for fame to be independent of worth is reflected in Warhol’s prediction that “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” and, even more so, in his later version that “in fifteen minutes, everybody will be famous”. Given Warhol’s deeply Catholic background, it might even be that this is just the point he was trying to make – that Christ’s message, his real defining value, is in danger of being lost once he joins the modern pantheon of celebrities.
This topic is vast, and in this necessarily-selective artistic Cook’s tour I have been able to touch on only some of the aspects or works that I found interesting. Within those significant limits, though, some general conclusions seem to emerge.
The first is that depictions of the Last Supper have been, and continue to be, a sort of battleground for competing religious dogmas or approaches. The continuing tension between authority and inclusiveness, which so often finds expression in the configuration of the table/altar, seem likely to ensure that this will remain a live issue for some time.
Second, the way in which images of the Last Supper have been adapted in indigenous cultures varies enormously. The extent and nature of the adaptation appears to be affected by the degree to which the indigenous culture has physically and socially survived colonisation, the extent to which the values of the colonisers can be reconciled with traditional values (as in Fiji), and the emphasis placed by the indigenous society on its own distinctive artistic culture (as in Arnhem Land).
It also seems that modern trends have made it increasingly difficult for some Christian churches, in particular the Catholic Church, to exercise any sort of “ownership” or veto over how the event can be portrayed in secular contexts. Depictions of the Last Supper, particularly the very recognisable Leonardo version, are apt to be hijacked, sometimes in radical ways, for the purpose of pursuing social agendas, commercial objectives, or even just irreverent amusement. These are likely to be quite different from the assumptions that originally underlay Leonardo’s work.
Finally, it is a tribute to the extraordinary power of the image that it has continued to have an influence on so many fundamental issues – the nature of authority, issues of race and gender, and the nature of popular modern culture itself.□
© Philip McCouat 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016
How to cite this article
This article may be cited as:
Philip McCouat, "On the trail of the Last Supper", Journal of Art in Society, www.artinsociety.com
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The emergence of the winter landscape: Bruegel and his predecessors
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1. The “Passover” commemorated the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It is celebrated as a festival of freedom.
2. The Last Supper – also known as the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper – is the origin of the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion. The primary accounts are given in the Holy Bible, New Testament, 1 Corinthians 11:23-25; Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:13-20.These accounts vary in certain respects.
3. The depiction of the dramatic revelation of betrayal was a relatively novel aspect of the painting. There has been a continuing dispute over whether Leonardo’s work is primarily concerned with the Eucharist or the betrayal. The balance of modern views appears to be that it is a bit of both. For a detailed account, see Steinberg, Leo, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, Zone Books, New York, 2001 at 31 ff. For the dominance of the Eucharistic element in later, Counter-Reformation paintings, see note 13. For a recent review of the issue, see King, R, Leonardo and the Last Supper, Bond Street Books, 2012, p 210 ff.
4. McMullen, Roy, Mona Lisa: the Picture and the Myth, Macmillan, London 1976 at 56.
5. The identification of the food as grilled eels has become possible as a result of the 1990s restoration: see Varriano, John, “At Supper with Leonardo”, Gastronomica, Winter 2008, v 8, no 1, 75-79. Lamb has featured in only 14% of the best-known depictions of the Last Supper over the last millennium. Interestingly, too, the portion size over the same period has increased dramatically in size: Wansink, B and CS, “The Largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium”, International Journal of Obesity advance online publication 23 March 2010. See also King, op cit (note 3), ch 13; and Anthony Grafton, "Table Manner", Cabinet, Iss 38 Summer 2010.:
6. Loomis, Laura Hibbard, “Arthur’s Round Table”, PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association of America) v 41 (no 4) (Dec 1926) 771. See also Godfrey, F M, Christ and the Apostles: The Changing Forms of Religious Imagery, The Studio Publications, London 1957 at 40; and Male, Emile, (trans. Mathews, M), Religious Art in France: the 12th Century, Princeton University Press, NJ, 1978, at 116, 420ff.
7. Loomis, op cit, argued that that the special characteristic of fraternal fellowship which was embodied in early Last Supper round tables was the reason for their adoption in the Arthur’s Round Table stories, where the round shape was seen as appropriate to prevent jealousy on the ground of precedence. See also Loomis’ article “The Round Table Again”, reproduced in Adventures in the Middle Ages, Burt Franklin, New York, 1962 at 86 ff.
8. Actually, the Passover meal was originally celebrated standing up. However, from Roman times, a recumbent posture at meals had been regarded as the mark of a freeman, and it was therefore adopted as being appropriate for a festival which celebrated freedom: Hall, James, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, 2 edn, Westview Press, Boulder, 2008 (entry for “Last Supper”). Increased Christian interest in the Jewish origins of the Last Supper scene led to a revival of the depictions of recumbent postures in the 16th century: see, for example, the Flemish artist Hieronymus Wierix's Last Supper at http://art.famsf.org/hieronymus-wierix/last-supper-19633011138; and Grafton, op cit.
9. Campbell, Gordon, The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003 (entry for “Tables”). Such tables, usually based on boards placed on trestles, were usually called “boards” in early modern English, a terminology that survives in phrases such as “bed and board” and “board of directors”. For an example of the extreme long table style, complete with medieval cats, see Stefano di Antonio Vanni's Last Supper (c1450): Frugoni, C, Inventions of the Middle Ages, Folio Society, London, 2007, at 30-32.
10. When long tables were used by workers or peasants, diners normally sat on both sides, as in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Peasant Wedding (c 1568).
11. Loomis, op cit at 778 suggests that painters may have borrowed this idea from sculptors, whose art had recently revived after being lost since Roman times. The compositional difficulty of representing a round table in sculptural terms had rapidly led to the straight table representation becoming the sculptural standard.
12. Wainwright, Geoffrey and Westerfield Tucker, Karen, Oxford History of Christian Worship, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006 at 807.
13. It is interesting too that in Counter-Reformation paintings of the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist apparently took precedence over the announcement of the betrayal. It is claimed that in many of these paintings the Last Supper appears “like a Mass celebrated by Christ”: Godfrey, op cit, at 15.
14. According to Poliakov, Leon, (trans. Howard, R), A History of Anti-Semitism, The Vanguard Press Inc, New York 1965 at 123ff, anti-Semitism in its classic form crystallised from about the second half of the 14th century, and the stereotypical physical appearance of Jews crystallised in the second half of the 15th century. See also Frojmovic, Eva (ed), Imagining the Self, Imagining the Other – Visual Representations and Jewish-Christian Dynamics in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, Brill, Boston, 2002.
15. It is also not possible to determine precisely what Judas looked like in Leonardo’s original, as the 1990s re-cleaning has revealed that virtually no trace of this part of the original still remains. A preparatory sketch exists, and there are a number of copies which seem to indicate a progressively negative exaggeration of Judas’s physical characteristics: see Steinberg, op cit, at 90-3.
16. Koerner, Joseph Leo, The Reformation of the Image, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004, at 371; Steinberg, op cit at 93. “Judas”, meaning Jew, was apparently a common name at the time: Losch, Richard R, All the People in the Bible, Wm B Eerdmans Publ Co, Michigan/Cambridge, 2008 at 244.
17. Steinberg, op cit at 93.
18. In the early days of the Christian Church, the faith was communicated orally. Even by the time of the Middle Ages, most ordinary people could not understand the Latin liturgy, or were not able to read at all. Books were in any event rare. Special permission to read the Bible had to be obtained from a priest. This lack of accessible written explanation meant that images started to become very important in an educative role as the “poor man’s Bible”. See generally Wansbrough, Henry, The Story of the Bible, Darton-Longman and Todd, London, 2006.
19. Priever, Andreas, Paolo Caliari, called Veronese, Konemann, Cologne, 2000 at 105.
20. Chambers, David and Pullen, Brian (eds), Venice: A Documentary History 1450-1630, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2001, p 232.
21. The Church’s attitude might therefore be seen as a very early form of product branding, an assertion of sort of quasi-copyright over the subject matter.
22. Veronese’s case was apparently the only Inquisition hearing involving art in Venice: Priever, op cit at 110.
23. Koerner, op cit, at 153.
24. Koerner, op cit, at 374.
25. This tendency reaches an extreme in Cranach the Younger’s so-called Dessau Last Supper (1573) in which all the supper participants other than Jesus and Judas are recognisably portraits of Lutheran luminaries. The painting is more formally titled Memorial for Joachim of Anhalt.
26. Mellinkoff, Ruth, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993 at 154. See also Paffenroth, Kim, Judas: Images of the Lost Disciple, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2001; and Shreckenberg, Heinz, The Jews in Christian Art, Continuum, New York, 1996. The foxy-haired Jew is a remarkable resilient concept. Mellinkoff notes that in Charles Dickens' Sketches by Boz (1836), there is an unsavoury reference to “the red bearded and red whiskered Jews who forcibly haul you into their squalid homes”.
27. In 15th century Florence, for example, Jews were periodically forced to wear a yellow badge (King, op cit at 237). Jews were also identified by a yellow star on identification armbands issued to occupants of Nazi concentration camps.
28. Dean, Carolyn S, “Copied Carts: Spanish Prints and Colonial Peruvian Paintings”, The Art Bulletin, Vol 78 No 1 (March 1996) 98.
29. Grove Art Online, entry for Marcos Zapata [www.oxfordartonline.com], accessed September 2008.
30. More accurately, viscacha, a type of rabbit-like rodent closely related to the chinchilla.The wine appears to be the local chicha (corn drink). The Cuzco Cathedral work also appears to include tropical fruit.
31. Sandweiss, Daniel H, and Wing, Elizabeth S, “Ritual Rodents: the Guinea Pigs of Chincha, Peru” Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol 24 No 1, 47.
32. Sandweiss, op cit at 50. See also Gade, Daniel W, “The Guinea Pig in Andean Folk Culture”, The Geographical Review Vol 57, No 2 April 1967, 213-224.
33. The information about Fijian custom is drawn from Toren, Christina, “Making the Present, Revealing the Past: the Mutability and Continuity of Tradition as a Process”, Man Vol 23 (New series) No 4 (Dec 1988) p 696-717.
34. The geographical origin of these works is therefore closer to the original source of events than any other works mentioned in this article.
35. Fiji is a largely Christian country as a result of vigorous missionary activity following its colonisation in the early 19th century: see Toren, op cit.
36. Toren, op cit.
37. The term for “drinking kava by oneself” is Fijian idiom for “witchcraft”: Toren, op cit, at 704.
38. Traditional chiefs were often referred to as “the cloths” and a piece of the paper mulberry that is the source of the paperbark was tied to a chief’s arm during installation. The chief’s “train” was also traditionally made of a bark cloth: Toren, op cit, at 711.
39. More darkly, the Eucharistic concept of food and drink being flesh and blood could even echo earlier Fijian practices of ritual cannibalism.
40. Though Christian Aboriginal culture is presumably as valid as any other Aboriginal culture.
41. McCulloch, Susan, Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1999 at 15.
42. Crumlin, Rosemary and Knight, Anthony, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, Dove, Melbourne, 1991 at 42.
43. McCulloch, op cit, at 16.
44. Crumlin, op cit, at 42.
45. Tchumut also used a similar style in depicting a Christian concept in coloured sand, in Come Let us Adore Him (date unknown). This was featured in Great Britain’s 2005 series of Christmas stamps.
46. This is in contrast to, say, the Wandjina creation ancestors of the Western Australian Kimberley region.
47. One practical result is that it is difficult for the viewer to determine the correct disposition of the figures in the lower part of the work. While at first glance it appears that they are facing the viewer, logic suggests that they are more likely to be facing Jesus across the table.
48. Steinberg, op cit, at 12.
49. The Last Supper Project, formed as a result of the First National Conference on Women in the Uniting Church in Australia, 1990. See generally Fisher, Judi, and Wood, Janet (eds), A Place at the Table: Women at the Last Supper, Joint Board of Christian Education, Melbourne, 1993.
50. Lee, Dorothy, “Women Disciples at the Last Supper” in Fisher and Wood, op cit at 73ff.
51. It was Calvin who claimed that “whatever men learn of God from images is futile, indeed false”: cited in Giles, Richard, Creating Uncommon Worship: Transforming the Liturgy of the Eucharist, SCM-Canterbury Press 2004 at 273.
52. Lee, op cit, at 32.
52A. Interestingly, one of the rare Renaissance paintings of the Last Supper by a woman (Mechtelt toe Boecop, c 1574) also rejects the rectangular bench, in this case in favour of a round table.
53. Baigent, M, Leigh, R and Lincoln H, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Arrow, London, 1996. This book was a principal inspiration for the bestselling novel The da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown.
54. For a detailed bibliography for this concept, see Cox, Simon, Cracking the da Vinci Code, HarperCollins, London, 2004 at 156.
55. Picknett, Lyn and Prince, Clive, The Templar Revolution: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ, Corgi Books, London, 1998. The androgynous figure is actually remarkably similar to the Madonna in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6).
56. Websites such as http://www.leonardo2007.com containing the composite image initially crashed after receiving an alleged rush of 15 million hits in one day.
57. And before getting too uppity about these theories, it is worth remembering that the traditionally-accepted version of Christ’s birth and resurrection itself admittedly involves some miraculous leaps of faith.
58. The work appeared in the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s 2001 exhibition “Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers”. You may (or may not) be interested to know that the work was purchased by “hip-hop mogul” Russell Simmons, who hung it in his dining room.
59. Giuliani’s description of the work as “anti-Catholic” – as distinct from “anti-Christian” – suggests a belief that the Catholic Church had some sort of superior rights over the image.
60. Brent-Plate, S (ed), Religion, Art and Visual Culture: A Cross Cultural Reader, Palgrave, New York, 2002 at 53. This was not something new for Giuliani. In 1999 he had precipitated a major cultural, financial and political crisis by threatening to withdraw the entire annual budget from the Brooklyn Museum of Art and evict it from its city-owned building: Heller, Nancy G, Why a Painting is Like a Pizza, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2002 at 102. He did this ostensibly because of his disgust with an exhibited work The Holy Virgin Mary, by Nigerian-born Chris Ofili, which included a black Mary, with cut out close-ups of female genitalia and some pieces of dried elephant dung. Giuliani’s threat led to a lawsuit which he ultimately lost.
61. Interview with Karen Croft at Salon.com, 22 February 2001, accessed at [http://archive.salon.com/sex/feature/2001/02/22/renee_cox/]. Quotations are drawn from this interview.
62. It is this emphasis on assuming authority, not just seeking inclusion, which made it essential for Cox to place her scene in the instantly-recognisable, traditional Leonardo setting. The entire point may have been lost if she had set the scene at a round table.
63. De la Torre, Miguel, Reading the Bible from the Margins, Orbis Books, New York, 2002 at 107, 133.
64. On this point, Cox is quoted as saying: “I read that little passage in the Bible that says we’re all created in the likeness of God, and to present myself like that is the reason I am nude. I have nothing to hide… It’s about the body and the form. … I say you should refer back to Greek antiquities. The Met is full of naked Greek statues and no one is upset about that”: Karen Croft interview, op cit.
65. Article titled “Catholic League President calls controversial Christ photo ‘morally objectionable’” (accessed at http://www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=13153). I am reminded that when the Anglican Church in England finally voted to ordain women to its priesthood in 1992, the London Sun newspaper’s headline was Church says yes to vicars in knickers. Following Cox’s lead, perhaps even the knickers could be regarded as optional
65A. Definitely worth noting also is Greg Semu's extraordinary photograph Auto Portrait with 12 Disciples (2010), from the series "The Last Cannibal Supper.. cause tomorrow we become Christians". This portrays a staged re-enactment of the Leonardo version of the Last Supper with barely-clad Pacific Kanak tribespeople as the disciples, and a decidedly local flavour to the main course. See http://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/exhibitions/coming_soon/apt7_asia_pacific_triennial_of_contemporary_art/artists
66. It is remarkable to realise that until 1966 The Times of London still ran only classified advertisements on its front page.
67. Website of China Oil Painting Direct, at http://www.chinaoilpainting.com, accessed September 2008.
68. For background news stories from Der Spiegel and the Chicago Tribune, see http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,433134,00.html; http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-071220dafen-story,0,2042223.story. While this process is obviously commercially driven, it is interesting that it also comes from an art tradition in which the copying of (Chinese) old masters has long been regarded as a desirable and even essential part.
69. The illusion of depth originally achieved by Leonardo, combined with the repetition of the image, contributes to the impression that a wall has been removed from a giant apartment block, revealing life going on in the newly-exposed rooms. The repetition of the image has also been interpreted as the visual equivalent of a religious chant, or as reminiscent of the multiple images on an iconostasis, or screen, in front of the altar in a Byzantine church. Just such an iconostasis exists in St John’s Byzantine Church, which Warhol attended for many years. See Dillinger, Jane Daggett, The Religious Art of Andy Warhol, Continuum, New York, 1998.
70. This fracturing of the image unintentionally echoes the results of the modern recleaning of Leonardo’s work, which left only fragments of the original remaining.
71. The traditional distinction has probably been in trouble at least since Duchamp’s Fountain (1917).
72. Cited in Richard Giles at 281.
73. Dillinger, op cit.
74. Giles, Paul, American Catholic Art and Fictions – Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992 at 280.
According to Christian belief, on the evening before Jesus died, he gathered his Apostles around him for a last supper together. At the meal, which occurred during the traditional time for celebrating the Jewish feast of the Passover , he gave them the dramatic news that one of them would betray him. He also explained to them that, by breaking bread and drinking wine that he had blessed, they would be partaking of his own body and blood, and urged them to do this in remembrance of him 
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