Arguably the most famous meal in history, the Last Supper marks the final meal Jesus had on Earth. For centuries, this highly consequential event, during which Christ gathered the 12 Apostles, instituted the Eucharist, predicted Peter’s triple denial of Him, and called out Judas as his soon-to-be-betrayer, has been a favorite subject of artists who employ a vast array of media to depict it—marble, wood, stained glass, oil paint, and so on. Leonardo da Vinci’s version of it is widely regarded as the best known, but I haven’t seen that one in person, yet. Instead, I’ve been impressed by so many other artists’ versions of it. Although Jesus is easily identified as the central figure, his dozen followers are often hard to tag, as they don’t appear in the same positions from one interpretation to the next. The only one who I’ve found to almost always stand out is Judas, and it’s often his treatment that really captures my attention. These are my favorites.
#1 The Last Supper, Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore (Venice, Italy)
Tintoretto’s The Last Supper, in the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, one of the most beautiful churches in Venice, Italy, is on a different plane altogether from other artworks depicting this famous New Testament scene. It’s dramatic, mystical, bordering on chaotic. This oil painting, completed in 1594, positions the table diagonally, and for a specific reason—it was to be installed to the right of the basilica’s high altar, and the angle the table takes was meant to be perceived as an extension of the altar, which, in itself, recreates the table where priests prepare the Eucharist. Jesus and 11 of the 12 Apostles are all standing or seated along the left side of the table; only Judas, isolated and without a halo, sits on the right side. The setting itself looks more like a Venetian inn than a room in Jerusalem, with an abundance of wine jugs, glasses, and decanters. More often than not, the Last Supper contains 13 figures: Jesus and the Apostles. They’re often somber, sometimes agitated by Christ’s news, sometimes a combination of both. Here, the scene is filled with extra characters who bear as much importance as anyone else in what suggests a rambunctious bacchanal. Men prepare food on the right, servants bustle food and drink to and from the table, a woman pulls plates from in a tub that a cat finds curious (unaware of the dog behind it). The deep chiaroscuro mixes rich darkness with two light sources, one coming from Jesus’ aureola. The other source is a lantern hanging from the ceiling, from which smoke from the flames morphs into a host of ethereal angels swirling around the ceiling—none of which seems to be noticed by anyone present at this particularly rowdy gathering.
#2 Last Supper, Chiesa di Santa Maria Formosa (Venice, Italy)
Another gorgeous Venice church contains another striking Last Supper scene. Completed around 1578 by Leandro Bassano, Last Supper is darker and more austere than Tintoretto’s version. Bassano’s painting features multiple sources of light—four candles on the table, and what could pass for a very contemporary glass chandelier. The horizontal table, laden with some very fine foods, is set before almost imperceptible columns in the dark background. Here, like Tintoretto’s piece, other figures occupy some space on the canvas—a trio of male servants, a cat, and a dog. Unlike Tintoretto’s work, none of the Apostles bear halos. But, similar to his piece, Bassano’s Judas is the outlier. While the other Apostles are engaged with one another or with Jesus in twos or threes, Judas is engaged with no one. He’s at the edge of his seat, almost as if he’s in a hurry to scram, clutching his bag of 30 pieces of silver. The only one paying any attention to him is the dog.
#3 Sculpture, Freiburg Münster (Freiburg, Germany)
Freiburg was one of the cities I was visiting when I was ricocheting around Germany and visiting the country’s fantastic Christmas markets. I wisely made a stop at the city’s cathedral, a gorgeous Gothic structure that took more than three centuries to build—and built so well that it survived the bombings of World War II. Inside, tucked into a side chapel, I came upon a striking depiction of the Last Supper. Thirteen dark polychromed carved wooden figures gather around three sides of a spartan table, dressed with nothing more than a simple cloth with lace trim and a single chalice. It captures the moment after Jesus made his predictions of a betrayer and a denier. The 12 Apostles are thrown into a state of despair, and their individual reactions range from shock to dismay to sorrow to a struggle to comprehend His pronouncements—except for Judas, who, clutching his satchel of blood money, looks directly at Jesus with scorn and contempt. I was impressed by the artistry of the sculpting: the veins in their hands, the waves in their hair and beards, the folds in their robes. The drama of this event is supplemented by four stained-glass windows behind the sculpture depicting what followed this final meal: the Crucifixion, the Deposition of Christ, the Entombment of Christ, and the Resurrection.
#4 Stained-Glass Window, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church (Washington, D.C.)
One of the most beautiful churches in Washington, D.C., St. Patrick’s Catholic Church possesses a fantastic Last Supper scene. One of many striking stained-glass windows, created in Bavaria and installed between 1909 and 1959, this one portrays the famous dinner in rich colors. All the figures are crammed into a pair of lancet windows. The Apostles’ robes are rich in color and materials, as are the tablecloth and the curtain hanging behind them. There is no feast on this table. Jesus simply holds a chalice, before a plate of bread, offering the blessing, while John rests his head on His shoulder. Unlike in the previous three Last Supper depictions, here all the Apostles look at Jesus directly—except Judas. He’s in the upper-left part of the left window, his back toward everyone as he dourly walks away, without a halo. Of special note is his dark auburn hair, deliberately chosen to harken back to when redheads were considered to be moral degenerates, violent, lascivious, and just downright evil.
#5 St. Lawrence Church (Nuremberg, Germany)
Originally completed in 1477 and almost completely destroyed during World War II, Lorenzkirche was rebuilt nearly entirely from scratch and today stands as one of the most beautiful buildings in Nuremberg, Germany. Fortunately, many of the church’s treasures had been removed and safely stored in art bunkers before the devastation began. One of those treasures is a fantastic Last Supper scene that I almost passed by. Overshadowed by the over-the-top 61’-tall tabernacle next to it, it’s easy to miss. The little unassuming side altar is from the 1500s, and inserted into the wood reredos atop the stone altar I found an even older Last Supper, from around 1420. Thirteen polychrome wooden figures sit around all four sides of the table—an unusual seating arrangement, artistically. Four of them have their backs toward the viewer. John rests his head on the table in front of Jesus. Judas is unmistakable—he’s on the right, holding his money bag and doing a bit of gymnastic squirming to get away from the scene, looking anywhere but at Jesus and his fellow Apostles.
- Polyptych painting (c. 1515), National Museum (Warsaw, Poland)
- Stained-glass window (2014), Episcopal Church of the Resurrection (New York, New York)
- The Last Supper, by Luca Giordano (c. 1690), Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma (Norman, Oklahoma)
- Altarpiece (1699), Domkirke (Oslo, Norway)
- Stained-glass window (c. 1930), St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (Atlanta, Georgia)
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