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The far-from-last Last Supper

by
06 December 2019

Five hundred years after the death of Leonardo da Vinci, Caroline Levisse looks at a celebrated and often parodied masterpiece

courtesy of Brigitte Niedermair

The Last Supper 2004, by Brigitte Niedemair

The Last Supper 2004, by Brigitte Niedemair

MASTERPIECES often lend themselves to parody, imitation, and appropriation. The best example is probably Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, giving rise to new creations including a rendering in Lego, and as a house-warming gift for Kim Kardashian — a tribute that featured her own face instead of that of the notoriously enigmatic sitter.

Leonardo’s The Last Supper is among the other works that have enjoyed a lively — tumultuous, even — afterlife. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code certainly did much to raise its profile. In the novel, published in 2003 and turned into a film in 2006, the androgynous appearance of John gives rise to a conspiracy theory. Is it, in fact, Mary Magdalene on Christ’s right hand? Were the two secretly married?

Long before this, and to this very day, The Last Supper has surfaced in commercials, political cartoons, films, and subsequent works of art.

 

DA VINCI painted The Last Supper in the 1490s for the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan. Placed in the refectory, the work was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. In the picture, Jesus and the disciples sit on the same side of the table for this meal that is deeply significant as the foundation for the eucharist, and when Jesus announces that one of them will betray him.

In resonance with the biblical text, da Vinci’s composition appears to show Jesus and Judas reaching for the same loaf of bread. Judas is also identified by the small bag he is holding in his right hand, probably a purse. Together with Peter and John, they form one of the four groups of three Apostles around which the composition is arranged. In the picture, we see the 12 men’s shocked reactions as they learn about the imminent betrayal. The variety of gestures and expressions is fascinating. The agitation is palpable, and contrasts with Christ’s calm and accepting attitude.

The painting has been extensively reproduced. Despite being badly damaged because of the artist’s technical choices and later unfortunate restorations, it is still highly visible in popular culture, and many people would readily recognise it.

Its ubiquity appealed to the master of Pop Art, Andy Warhol, who was a Roman Catholic and regularly attended mass. At the end of his career, he created a series, Last Supper (1986), of numer­ous repeti­tions of Leonardo’s original. Beyond his interest in an artistic icon in the age of mass reproduction, Warhol’s obsession with the image of Christ in the late 1980s also had to do with the dual theme of suffering and salvation. The AIDS epidemic had already claimed several of his friends, including his last com­panion, Jon Gould, who died in 1986 just as Warhol started to work on the Last Supper series.

ALAMYThe Last Supper (1494-98), Leonardo da Vinci

Other artists have reinterpreted Leonardo’s masterwork by shifting the context and characters. In 1999, the Israeli photographer Adi Nes recreated The Last Supper with young Israeli soldiers in a barrack. In Untitled (The Last Supper Before Going Out to Battle), bullet holes in the wall are a reminder that violence surrounds this group. But what dominates this picture is the feeling of camaraderie and kindness which unites these recruits Beyond the reference to a strong sense of com­munion, The Last Supper sug­gests an imminent tragic outcome. The vulnerability of these men is thus highlighted in a way that defies stereotypical representations of soldiers.

 

WHILE Nes reflects on gender from the point of view of masculinity, Mary Beth Edelson takes on a feminist viewpoint. In 1972, this American artist pasted the heads of prominent contemporary women artists on to those of the Apostles. Louise Nevelson, Yoko Ono, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lee Krasner replace James the Greater, Simon, James, and Peter. Jesus is given the face of Georgia O’Keeffe. Photos of more women artists are placed all around, gathering in total some 80 artists.

This collage, Some Living American Women Artists, was meant as a protest against a male-dominated art world, building in response a feminist community of artists. The fact that Edelson is using a canonical work of art — one made by a so-called “Old Master” — is significant, since women artists have long been excluded from this canon.

In a similar vein, the Australian artist Susan Dorothea White painted The First Supper in 1988, in which Jesus and the Apostles are replaced by women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. White placed in the centre an Aboriginal woman instead of Jesus, wearing a T-shirt adorned with the Aboriginal Land Rights flag.

ADI NESUntitled (The Last Supper Before Going Out to Battle), 1999

Other recreations include the Russian artist, Rauf Mamedov’s, Last Supper (1998), in which people who have Down’s syndrome re-enact the scene; and Renee Cox’s Yo Mama’s Last Supper (1996), featuring African-American men, a white Judas, and the artist herself at the very centre of the composition.

This last was a direct challenge to the permanence of a Eurocentric perspective in religious art. It caused controversy when it was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 2001. During a debate with the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, William Donohue, the Jamaican-American artist explained: “I have a right to interpret the Last Supper, just as da Vinci created The Last Supper with people who look like him.” She remembered how, as a child, she would look up at the images in her church and wonder why none looked like her.

When Jesus is represented as a woman, or as black, a controversy often follows. People have expressed their disapproval loudly or even violently. Recently, when she removed her Last Supper from St George’s, Nailsworth, where it had been since 2010, Lorna May Wadsworth noticed a hole. The artist was then told that an air rifle had probably been used to shoot at the black Jesus, leaving a mark on his side. This act of vandalism is shocking, especially considering that this paint­ing, a commission, has been generally well received (News, 15 November).

 

CELEBRATED as one of the greatest European works of art, Leonardo’s painting may be seen as an embodiment of the dominant values and norms on which our society has been built. This helps to explain why it has often been used in contem­porary art to reflect on issues of identity and social exclusion.

In advertising, it is our very familiarity with the work which is important. The creators trust that most people will get the reference, and that the values associated with the original work — greatness, originality, friendship — will be transferred to the product on sale.

These adverts have often attracted criticism from Christians. In France, in January 1998, Volkswagen launched a campaign using famous Christian images, including the Last Supper. At the bottom of the photo showing 13 men at a table, the text read: “My friends, let’s rejoice, a new Golf is born”. A Roman Catholic association immediately filed a complaint. Before the court could rule, Volkswagen agreed to remove all the posters and to donate money to an RC charity. Ten years later, in Ireland, a commercial for Paddy Power showing 13 men playing casino games at the table triggered a similar offended response.

ALAMYA man walks past The Last Supper (Camel/57)(1986) by Andy Warhol, at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt/Main, Germany

One case that reached the courts was the promotional campaign in Paris in 2005 by the clothing company Marithé + François Girbaud, to showcase its new collection. Brigitte Niedermair had realised a slick photo, in which 12 women modelled some of the brand’s clothes while loosely imitating Leonardo’s composition. In this image, a woman sits in the centre, and the 13th person is a shirtless man seen from behind.

Here again, some RC organisa­tions protested against the mercantile use of the image: one of them, linked to the French episcopal conference, filed a complaint. A court first banned the advert, judging that the offence to Catholics was “disproportionate” in regard to the expected profits, before revoking the decision on appeal in November 2006. The creators of this ad argued that they were using a picture that belonged to the cultural heritage of humanity, and that Catholics did not have exclusive rights to this painted image.

 

THERE is a common fault-line in these cases: does The Last Supper “belong” to one specific group more than another? Is it first and foremost a masterpiece of art, or a biblical image? Intended for a convent and illustrating a biblical subject, it was religious; but, at the same time, Sforza commissioned Leonardo to establish his city’s cultural influence and his own power.

This secular agenda is hardly comparable, however, to today’s advertising campaigns in which the commercial purpose is realised at the expense of the sacred content. Perhaps it would have been better to go for the aesthetic and iconography of Dirck Hals’s Merry Company (1635); yet we are so much less familiar with it than we are with The Last Supper, and thus it has little appeal from a marketing per­spective.

 The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence Some Living American Women Artists (1972) by Mary Beth Edelson

In our secularised world, one could argue that religious masterpieces have become mere cultural artefacts, whose significance is artistic and historic. But this is forgetting about all the Christians who, on seeing an image of the Last Supper, will recognise it as a key moment in the origins of Christianity. From this perspective, the picture possesses a deep religious significance, and what it stands for deserves to be respected.

 

FINALLY, what about the artist’s rights to this image? What would Leonardo have thought about the numerous reinterpretations of his work? Would he have condemned some and approved of others?

His sense of humour and irreverence may give us a clue. In a drawing known as the Monna Vanna, usually attributed to the master or his workshop, Mona Lisa has lost her clothes. In a way, he was the first one to parody his work. So he might be pleased to see his work so often reproduced and quoted, and his name remembered. He wrote to Sforza of wanting to create a “work of fame by which I should show to those who shall see it that I have been.” Five centuries after his death, it continues to inspire imitations.

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