“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathaniel asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. John 1:46
The glass door automatically shut behind us as the guide motioned us to enter the inner chamber. We waited, and as another door opened, the cool, dry air enveloped us; a contrast to the hot, July heat in Milan. The courtyard of St. Maria delle Grazie sparkled outside in the morning sun, and I wondered if Leonard da Vinci stood upon the same rocks that I saw here, 500 years later.
Because of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, I had received several inquiries to see if I could comment on the book and the movie, and my mind seemed to wander back to the same problem: “I have never seen Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’ in person…how could I comment on something that I have not seen?” Yes, I own a magnified version of the photograph of the painting (see plate B), represented in a magnificent book by The University of Chicago (440 pages of delight). And I have pondered the image as I have thought much about Andy Warhol’s series by the same title. Yes, I had seen a reproduction of Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’.
But I never had stood under it. So I came to Milan, Italy, to stand-under a painting.
“If you want to ‘understand’ something,” said my friend Bruce Herman, “you have to be willing to ‘stand under’ it.” Bruce, an art professor, went on to cite C.S. Lewis’ essay “Experiment in Criticism” in which Lewis, a medieval literature scholar at Oxford University, writes the following:
"We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way." An Experiment in Criticism, pg. 18, 19 (Cambridge University Press)
In the essay Lewis makes a distinction between “using” art and “receiving” art. He argues quite persuasively that: “‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.”
Why is it important to experience a work first hand?
If we base our conclusions on merely what an “expert” has said, or on our own limited assumptions, it merely remains hearsay. We never get to discover, and ultimately create, out of an authentic experience.
Here’s what I discovered standing under The Last Supper: the most important visual catalyst for the painting is not the effeminate John, or Judas, nor even Jesus Himself. In fact, the key figure in kick-starting the visual movement of the painting is Philip.
It is Philip’s outstretched, distressed body and his cinnabar robe that we see first in the painting’s visual theatre. The whole painting is first experienced via Philip’s body. Our eyes go first to him; afterward they traverse to Jesus, the center of the work. Jesus’ mouth is slightly opened (discovered to be so through recent restoration efforts) and his hands are making powerfully emotive gestures. Leonardo was capturing the moment of Jesus’ announcement: “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.” (Gospel of John 13:21)
Leonardo painted in a grand, dominating scale for a small space. Even standing in the far back of the refectory, it is difficult for the eye to decipher the whole painting all at once. He painted “The Last Supper” in such a way as to force the viewer to enter the painting, physically and emotionally, and to viscerally become part of the narrative.
Only when the viewer stands under the painting can it be seen for what was intended (see plate A). Leonardo had a specific visual message to those who stand under the painting. He had a visual sophistication to carry off what very few artists could even dream to do then and now: he painted the complex psychology of betrayal. It starts with Philip, and ends in a moneybag. Invited to walk into Leonardo’s funhouse of mirrors, we are all meant to be part of this narrative, forever refracting within our own dark journeys.
As an artist, I naturally try to identify the source of light in a painting, because I know that artists often use light to reveal what they want the viewer to see. In this painting, it would be easy to assume that the light is coming from behind from the windows, through which we see a Renaissance landscape. But the source of light in this painting actually is the face of Jesus reflecting on all of the disciples – all but Judas, who is under-painted with black, denied a brightened countenance.
The source of light points to what anchors the painting: the presence of Jesus. This is emphasized by the use of perspective, a Renaissance invention used to create an illusion of three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional space. The windows and other architectural elements create lines that end up in a single point, called the “vanishing point.” In “The Last Supper”, the vanishing point ends on the forehead of Jesus, the centerpiece of the painting. But if the painting were an equilibrium centered on Jesus, it would not create the psychological tension we feel from it. But the tension is there, and this is because Philip breaks up the visual stasis.
In any reproduction one sees in a book or a photograph (plate B), Philip’s body gets flattened. However, for a trained artist/viewer, the visual response to the actual piece is to see Philip’s body contorted, surrounded by negative spaces. The angle compresses his body and accentuates the movement of his reaction. Leonardo’s genius not only used the vanishing point to anchor the painting, but also to create waves of motion that shock us into shedding visual conventions.
If you are an artist working on a large commission, you know that looking up at a painting distorts what you paint, so you account for that by exaggerating the vertical. In other words, you make the figure taller than it needs to be. What I noticed looking up at the painting is that Leonardo did not make Philip’s body taller, but kept his body twisted, compressed and angular. That is why in reproductions of “The Last Supper” Philip’s body does not stand out.
If Leonardo did not elongate the figure, why does Philip stand out when you stand under the painting?
It took me the whole fifteen minutes I was allowed in St. Maria delle Grazie to understand what Leonardo did. And then the whole painting began to open up to me. In a true visual code, Leonardo reveals both his genius and the true message of the painting.
Philip stands out because he visually breaks the horizontal plane. The top of Philip’s head aligns itself with the perspective lines parallel to the windows. The eye attends to his head, magnetically drawn to the perspective line that juts out from the horizontal line. This only happens if you are standing below the painting . But there is another figure that breaks the horizontal line which is accentuated by the head of Jesus, and that other figure is Judas. “The Last Supper” is to be read from Philip to Judas, through the body of Christ, creating several visual “v’s” and “w’s”.
In the New Testament of the scriptures, Philip is one of the Seven, the closest disciple of Christ. It’s possible that he knew Jesus and his family, and may have grown up with Jesus. Philip is also noted in scriptures for having the ability to point others to Christ. He convinces Nathaniel to “come and see” Christ in the early chapters of the Gospels, and in the book of Acts (the historical document of the early church) he continues to draw many to Jesus, including the Ethiopian eunuch who was found reading the prophesy of Isaiah in Gaza.
It is clear to me that of all four of the Gospels, the Gospel of John is the one Leonardo relied on the most. The Gospel of Matthew reads more like a legal case to clearly convict Judas of betrayal. Both the Gospels of Luke and of Mark seem to focus on Peter, his betrayal compared to Judas, and eventual restoration to become the founder of the early church. But the Gospel of John records in detail what Leonardo depicted, from John’s reclining figure to Judas’ darkness, from Thomas’ infamous skepticism to Philip’s surprise at what Jesus’ mouth had just uttered.
Leonardo was interested in one thing: the psychological depiction of a night of betrayal. John 14:8 records Philip asking a question which reverberates throughout the painting:
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14: 8, 12)
Philip asks for evidence, a question that must have also filled Leonardo’s mind. Philip’s comment is one of near frustration, an insider’s exasperation, and therefore even the nature of his request assumes a close, trusting relationship. Jesus responds to the basis of Philip’s question by saying, “Don’t you know me, Philip?” In doing so, Jesus makes one of the most remarkable promises ever made to his followers (more on this later.)
It makes sense, then, that when Jesus reveals that he is to be betrayed by a close friend, Philip leaps out of his chair in disbelief. A pronouncement of a betrayal shocks the trusted the most. To this innocence Leonardo gives the most weight, initiating a shock wave that reverberates throughout the painting, and the corridors of time.
Betrayal has always defined our lives, and since ancient times artists have given ample attention to this common human experience, in forms like Greek tragedies and Shakespearian plays. But today, we live in the expectation of one betrayal after another, of relationships breaking up, or of another political or religious leader found in scandal. Tabloid accounts of celebrities’ comings and goings amuse us, as we simultaneously bemoan and are entertained by their depth of woes.
Our culture of betrayal goes way beyond individual failures: it is a culture that has lost the belief in the good, true and beautiful. Without the a priori conscience that believes in civilization’s own integrity – that wrong can be righted, and that creativity is a gift to society – no art, and no work of our hands, can be infused with a transcendent vision. The culture of betrayal denies the potential to hope, and is determined to quickly self-destruct.
Our galleries and contemporary museums are full of such vacuous images (not to mention movie theatres and bookstores). But blaming artists is not helpful: no, rather it is more accurate to say that artists are simply reacting to, and honestly recording, the conditions of culture. They are, as Marshal McLuhan would have it, “a canary in the cultural mines.”
Artists smell the poisoned air and sing.
But Leonardo was born in a different time. He was given the legacy of Giotto and Fra Angelico. He had patronage that he could count on from the church and from powerful individuals who also assumed a certain world-view. He had geniuses as contemporaries, including Michelangelo and Botticelli, who also worked from a convention that assumed a direct connection between culture and beauty, goodness and truth.
In a sense, there was an innocence from which the artists of the time could work, but it was not naïveté. Leonardo certainly was not naïve, and he was certainly a religious skeptic. But this commission, only one of two wall commissions he had received, gave him an opportunity to work out of the meta-narrative (the Gospel story) with conviction and force. He could trust that his paintings were meant to last and speak to the generations to come. Because of corruption within the church, of which Leonardo was certainly aware and decried in his notes, and because of the loss of patronage about to ensue, this assumption saw its zenith in “The Last Supper”.
We may never recover that innocence again. In our current culture of betrayal we need evermore to see and stand-under The Last Supper. We need to seriously consider “receiving” the message, as C.S. Lewis suggests, and allowing the work to speak into our lives.
In The DaVinci Code, the character Robert Langdon, a professor of “symbology,” finds it significant that Jesus and the effeminate figure seated on his right form the letter “M.” Moreover, Langdon believes this second figure is not St. John, but Mary Magdalene, the “bride of Christ,” dressed as a man.
Yes, there is an “M” imbedded in the painting, but Dan Brown does not go far enough in tracing its mystery.
The real “M” or a series of “M”s starting from Philip’s stretched out hand, do not end with John, but with Judas. More specifically, the shock wave ends in Judas’ right hand, which holds the money-bag, symbolically depicting the very coins that Judas would receive to betray Jesus.
Is the figure of John effeminate? Yes. But every male figure that Leonardo painted bordered on androgyny. Leonardo’s depiction of the sexual genre has never been a secret, and even a critique of such in open forums would not have surprised Leonardo. What would be shocking to Leonardo would be if the viewer did not somehow recognize the greatest message imbedded in the painting – that Judas, the seed of betrayal, is in all of us.
Most of the paintings of The Last Supper from the painter’s era depict Judas leaving the room. Yet Leonardo made a radical decision to have Judas to be part of the “inner circle,” placing him, and, by association, us, at the Table. Judas is depicted explicitly as part of the inside circle of the disciples sitting directly in front of Peter, who Christ identified as the “rock” of the early church.
Like Philip, Leonardo, wanted to point to a deeper journey. And when we stand-under this genius work, we too take part in that journey.
The Code phenomenon is not about conspiracy theories, but is rather a symptom of our cultural ills, of how easily we accept distortion and betrayal as normative and necessary. We are trained to cheapen our dialogue to fit our darkened realities.
Today our moneybags are full of flashy, counterfeit sound bites.
Christians must understand that this can easily happen in our worship as well as in popular culture. We want God to be palatable and to fit our needs and realities, instead of practicing a daily discipline. I venture to say that what goes on inside our worship may have a greater impact even upon the larger cultural condition.
Could it be that the reason why we have such a divided nation, insistent on quick judgment, is because the Church does not fully know how to live and exercise grace? Could it be that the reason why we do not have a culture full of beauty is because our worship is not beautiful? Could it be that the cause of our shortened attention span in contemporary society is because the Church has not trained us to listen well?
In our culture of betrayal, we are quick to impose our own views on layers of established systems. Thus, even a work of art is to be distrusted. Rather than trying to “under-stand” the work, we stand over it and dismiss it as unreadable or worse yet, impose a critical ideology upon it without first allowing the work to affect us.
In doing so we miss out on experiencing what the work of art can offer, and consequently we do not journey into the power of genuine art. This lack of authentic encounters leads only to a vortex of distrust, fueled by the media, whose capital is fear. We are drowning in a deluge of despair, and our memories of the good, the true and the beautiful have nearly faded completely.
Sadly, today no one has Leonardo’s ability or skill to ask that complex and deeply layered question in his/her art, even with the advent of moving images. It may be argued that Leonardo was the last painter to have the ability to integrate history, theology, science and art with such mastery. Consider this: can we think of any other artist after Leonardo whose work would be a target for an intriguing conspiracy tale? No one has had the genius, the psychological complexity, nor the level of skill and patronage, not even Picasso, van Gogh or Warhol. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly notable contributors, such as Grunewald (a topic for future Refractions), Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Gorky and Kandinsky, but none of these artists has the enormous social influence, not just in the arts, but in all human endeavors, that Leonardo has had.
Our wresting against an established system demands that the system has strength enough to withstand the challenge, and at the very least serve as a dialectical opponent. The center must hold in order for the surface tension to break. Thus even in facile intrigue there is always substance underneath. Our critique of contemporary culture must begin with that assumption. And then we must not just engage and critique from that conviction, we must create out of that center.
To da Vinci, such a foundation was immediately accessible. For him to have painted as he did, he had to be convinced of a center that holds.
So who is at the center? Where does the “vanishing point” end?
It ends on the forehead of the Savior.
And that foundation will hold, no matter how full our moneybags get, nor how little it takes for us to engage in betrayal. To Leonardo, the triangular shape of Jesus literally holds the painting in its visual movement. To Leonardo, that foundation was never in question: the question to him was the question of “evidence.”
Jesus exhorted Phillip to “believe” on the basis of the evidence of miracles. Leonardo, of all people, wanted evidence. He looked for it in the stars and sketched it in the sinews of cadavers. He sought resolution in the core of his creativity, and asked deeply phenomenological and existential questions. In other words, Leonardo saw himself at the Table, too, and, like Philip, leaping up at the comment of Jesus. Leonardo, even as a skeptic, was at once in a deep creative engagement with the Savior, and approached God with intellectual rigor and dialogue.
In this remarkable passage of John 14, Jesus, the miracle worker, tells his disciples, in direct answer to Philip’s comments, that they shall do the “greater work.”
I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14: 8, 12)
What were the “greater things” to which Jesus referred? What could be greater than raising Lazarus from the dead, an event recorded in Chapter 11?
Leonardo framed the answer implicitly in The Last Supper with Philip’s earlier words:
“Come and see.”
The greater things were in telling the world to “come and see.” Come and see a masterpiece to consider these eternal questions. And that is what Leonardo determined to undertake in The Last Supper.
The Last Supper may even miraculously outlast celluloid (or even digital) and our 15-minutes-of-fame mindset, as the world deteriorates in front of our eyes. The Last Supper, in that sense, is a perfect complement, or even an antidote, for the twenty-first century cultural landscape, exposing us for who we truly are. Even in a mere fifteen-minute encounter, the work leaves us spell bound for a moment of wonderment.
This is why we all need to travel to Milan, just for a momentary decompression, to stand-under Christ who is about to reach for that bread of communion. Like Leonardo, we may even desire to participate in that evening, in the suffering of the one and only true Artist, and follow him to the vanishing point, the source of our bright countenance.
There, witnessing the earthy vermillion glow of the Milan rooftops, we may find ourselves deeply reflecting on the Gospel of John, Chapter 14, where the Savior’s still voice continues to expose the depth of our woes and the secrets of our depravity. In Christ’s outstretched arms, we may yet find our malaise lifted, our imaginations sparked to do “greater things.”
A special thanks to Dr. John E. Walford of Wheaton College and Dr. William A. Dyrness of Fuller Seminary for their insights to prepare for this Refractions.
Next month...a meeting with Yoko Ono in London!