Commissioned for the opening of The Upper Room Chapel in 1953, the woodcarving of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper sets the mood and theme of the chapel. Fifty craftspersons worked for fourteen months under the direction of sculptor Ernest Pellegrini to create the work. It was carved from linden (basswood) and walnut and is 17 ft. wide and 8 ft. high.
The focal point of the carving is the figure of Christ. It has been said that in the original painting, the artist painted the saddest face in all the world. The carving captures the mood at the moment when Jesus is saying to his disciples, "One of you will betray me."
Group one includes the apostles Bartholomew, James the Lesser and Andrew. The farther you move from Jesus at the center of the carving, the more obscure the disciples become. This group of three has two men who are little more than names in the Gospel accounts. We are not even sure of the name of the apostle represented by the figure at the end.
Bartholomew is comparatively unknown at the Lord's table. Tradition names him as the thinker of the group. Actually he is little more than a name in the chosen company.
The three Synoptic Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke--and Acts call him Bartholomew. The Gospel of John does not so name him but tells about Jesus calling a man named Nathanael to be his follower. This leads many to believe that Bartholomew and Nathanael were the same person. Perhaps Bartholomew was the man's family name and Nathanael his given name.
Regardless of what we call him, we meet here a man who has a mindset about religion. Leonardo shows him here after he had sprung to his feet, clutching the edge of the table and lurching forward. Now he stands stark still, stupefied. A betrayer? Who? Why? How? Bartholomew wants to know. Yet he is speechless.
James, the son of Alphaeus, or James the Less as he is known, is pictured behind Andrew. James reaches out his hand toward Simon Peter to get his attention. We know very little about this son of Alphaeus except that his mother was at the cross. He is not a speaker or actor in the passion drama. He is one of the relatively unknown among the apostles.
Yet the life of James the Less, by his size and obscurity, represents many unknown thousands of Christians: persons known only to God, who have served worthily without praise or applause.
Andrew was the first to exclaim: "We have found the Messiah." He sits at the end of the group beside James the Less. Andrew would be comparatively unknown, too, but for a paradoxical reason. He is a brother of a famous man. Every time we meet him he is introduced as Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He is overshadowed by the stature of his famous brother; yet in his own quiet way Andrew is a significant person.
The only glimpse we have of Andrew during the last week of Jesus' life is when Philip comes to him with the word that there are "outsiders" wanting to come in. Characteristically, Andrew does not hesitate. He goes at once to Jesus. He tells Jesus that there are people waiting with the request, "We wish to see Jesus." Andrew had the honor of being the first to invite others to come to Jesus.
Today many churches have St. Andrew Clubs, where small groups of Christians band themselves together in prayer and fellowship. Like Andrew, they also go out as evangelists, looking for those who are in need of Christ.
To our left of Jesus, in the place of honor, is John. Leaning over to speak to him is Peter. And between them, clutching the moneybag, is Judas.
Directly behind Judas is Peter. He is leaning over, trying to get John's attention. This is Peter, the big, rough fisherman with blunt manners and a runaway tongue. Hotheaded one moment and apologetic the next, he is above all a man of action. In any list of the disciples, his name is always first: "Simon, who is called Peter" and then the others.
Perhaps the reason for his prominence among the apostles is that he is always saying something, always doing something, always taking the lead. See him as he springs to action in this Upper Room scene.
Notice that in Leonardo's representation of Peter, in his excitement, has the hilt of his bread knife almost against Judas' back. This portrait of Peter is true to life.
We may well wonder why Jesus chose Peter to be one of the twelve, a man who can so quickly promise one thing and immediately do the opposite. And yet on this night of their Last Supper together, Jesus looks beyond Simon bar-Jona to the new Peter, the rock.
Leonardo leaves us with no doubt as to the identity of the betrayer at the supper table. His cunning face; his deep-set eyes; his swift movement as he instinctively recoils from the others--all betray the betrayer. The features of Judas betray fear and anger, excitement and resentment. Yet he is one of the twelve invited to the upper room to break bread at the Last Supper.
He clutches in his hand the moneybag, symbol of his undoing. In his agitation, Judas upsets the saltcellar with his elbow. The spilling of salt is an ominous sign of ill fortune.
Less renowned artists have isolated Judas from the others--alone at the end of the table or in the act of leaving the table. But Leonardo isolates him psychologically rather than physically. His striking characterization of Judas is a masterful touch on the part of the artist.
The long-awaited hour is at hand. The guest room has been furnished with meticulous care. The meal has been prepared. The Passover wine and bread are ready. At last the apostles are alone in the upper room with their Lord.
We can hear Jesus as he says: "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God."
No one quite understands at first what Jesus is saying; but while they are eating, he makes it plain. He says: "Truly I say to you, one of you will betray me." This is the moment Leonardo da Vinci has captured-- forever.
These words come like a thunderbolt to Judas. He has been found out! He recoils from his Master, smitten by his guilty conscience. Yet he, too, echoes the exclamations of the other disciples who say: "Is it I?"
No one suspects Judas. No one is pointing his finger at him. Each one is wondering in his heart if he has inadvertently betrayed his Lord.
Artists portray John as a mystic, as very modest--the unnamed disciple identified in the Fourth Gospel as the one who leans upon Jesus' breast at the Last Supper.
This is the man Leonardo portrays: His face is kind and tender. He sits at the right hand of Jesus--at the place of honor. He is the only one at the table who feels himself above reproach. He is not protesting, "Lord, is it I?" He sits in brokenhearted silence. This is the John of tradition and art. He is quiet and unassuming. He wears no beard. He has a winsome face and an eager, youthful spirit.
There is a legend that John lived in Ephesus during the closing years of his life. When he addressed the congregation, always he pronounced this benediction: "Beloved, let us love one another." This is the John Leonardo portrays.
Leonardo placed Christ at the center of the picture. In the painting of The Last Supper, Leonardo put the Master in front of the large window so that he is flooded with light. All the lines of the picture converge on him. Christ's shocking statement to the disciples, "One of you will betray me," motivates each group's conversation and action.
Look more closely at Leonardo's picture of Jesus. We are deeply moved by Leonardo's face of the Savior, sometimes called the saddest face in all history. He seems sad, submissive, forgiving, as though he is hopeful that even yet Judas may repent in his heart before it is too late.
The head of Christ was the despair of Leonardo. He struggled mightily with his interpretation of Jesus' face and features. He searched for the radiant features of Christ among the youth of Milan. There is a tradition that Leonardo expressed to his friend Zenale his despair at not being able to find someone with the radiant features of Christ. The tradition says Zenale advised him: "The mistake you have made, Leonardo, is so great that only God can repair it. It is not in your power or that of anyone else to represent a higher measure of beauty and divinity than you have already given James the Greater and James the Less. Therefore, you ought to let well enough alone and leave the Christ incomplete."
Leonardo left his painting of Christ incomplete. He did not feel worthy to paint such wonderful things as the eyes of Christ; so they are downcast. His original design shows a beardless Christ with a warm, youthful face, frank and open. The saddest yet most sensitive face in all of art is pictured here.
Leonardo searched for hands to use as models for painting the hands of Christ, and he records in his notebook about finding them. Christ's right hand, palm downward, seems to say, "If it be possible, let this cup pass from me." His left hand, upturned, seems to suggest, "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." Christ's hands alone tell the story of the human and divine natures that meet in him.
These first three disciples at our right of Jesus are a study in contrasts. James, in front; Thomas, standing just behind him; and Philip, farther over.
Immediately behind James is Thomas, often called doubting Thomas. He stands at his place at the table and thrusts his way forward. He is waving a questioning finger in the face of Jesus as though to ask: "Lord, where are you going?" The inquisitive nature of this doubting disciple is magnificently interpreted by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Bible tells us very little about Thomas until he comes to the upper room. He cannot believe the truth of Jesus' words, even on the night of the Last Supper.
He hears his Lord saying, "Little children, yet a little while I am with you." As his Master is speaking, we see the tortured look on Thomas' face, reflecting the struggle within his soul as he seeks to understand more of what Jesus is saying. Before he can speak, another disciple, Peter, asks his question for him: "Lord, where are you going?"
Jesus answers: "I am going where you cannot follow me just now, but you will later follow me." But Thomas blurts out his doubts, saying, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?"
As we read the Gospels, we see that three of the disciples are closer to Jesus than the others--"Peter and James and John." James is the silent member of this triumvirate around Jesus.
Perhaps that is why Leonardo has placed James, the brother of John, here next to Jesus, to his left. "Sons of Thunder," Jesus called these brothers. And you can see why. Here in this picture James is exploding in a double gesture of horror. He flings out his arms impulsively and asks the Master: "Is it I, Lord?"
Yet, of these three, James is usually the silent partner. Peter--the born leader. John--a man of warmth and depth, sure to make an impression. But James is a stalwart man of silence.
Though he says little, he is always there when he is needed most. Now he is stirred to action and speech by the announcement about the betrayer. He is saying, "Is it I, Lord?"
Philip has risen to his feet. He breaks into the conversation between Thomas and his Lord. What a strange thing Jesus is saying: "If you had known me, you would have known my Father also." This is too much for Philip. "Lord, show us the Father."
The Philip we meet in the gospel story is a steady, hard-working, matter-of-fact type of person. He seems to be just a little slow to catch on to a big idea.
We see the anxious, inquiring face of Philip as he ponders Jesus' words. Leonardo's portraiture of Philip emphasizes the bewilderment in the gestures and face of the man. The Master talks as if he were going to be separated from them. Surely this cannot be. Philip's face shows how puzzled and confused he is.
Far to the right of Jesus is a fourth group of disciples, Matthew, Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot. They are trembling with excitement. Every line of the picture converges on the face of Christ. The gestures of the apostles lead us back to him. Matthew is boldly pointing in his direction. Thaddaeus jerks his thumb toward the center of the table. Simon the Zealot, at the end of the table, is facing his Lord.
Here is a man few people love. Citizens passing by his gate look on him with bitter grudging. Religious people watching him at work can only see him as a renegade servant of the government. The government looks upon him as a necessary evil. But one day a stranger comes who looks upon him as a person. Matthew feels a tap on his shoulder. He hears the sound of a voice, "Follow me." He sees a face, and straightway he rises. He is a new person from this day forward. This tax collector turned saint is chosen as one of the guests of honor, invited to the upper room to break bread at the Last Supper with Jesus, the Christ.
In this magnificent portrait of The Last Supper, we are looking into the face of the new Matthew. Matthew invited his old friends in, and he introduced them to his new Master. To sit down and break bread with a friend is an act of sacred covenant, so sacred that it constitutes an unwritten law--the law of hospitality. Break bread with another and you are pledged with your life, with bonds of love and loyalty.
This is why Matthew shows such astonishment. He seems to be whispering to Thaddeus and Simon: "Did you hear what he is saying? One of us has broken the sacred covenant! One of us has betrayed him unto death!"
Another of those personalities among Jesus' followers of whom we know little is Thaddaeus. He moves in the shadows at the edge of the group. Judas Thaddaeus, they call him.
Thaddaeus had been greatly impressed by the public ovation that began outside Bethany and burst into a triumphal entry into the Holy City. This was Sunday, just a few days ago. Thaddeus and the others were so sure then that Jesus' hour had fully come. They thought this turn of events would climax with Jesus ascending to the throne of David and becoming King of Israel.
But Judas Thaddaeus is shocked when he hears Jesus say: "Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also."
Thaddaeus can stand the suspense no longer. He blurts out his question, breaking into the Last Supper discourse, "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?"
His question is answered by Jesus. This one view we have of Thaddaeus at the table stands out in bold relief.
One of the last people we would expect to find in the upper room is Simon the Zealot. He is the last man at the end of the table. Simon the Zealot's name betrays the fact that he has belonged to the patriotic party that fears and hates Rome. His name, Zealot, tells us that he is one of these fanatic patriots who believes that the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of God are the same.
Somewhere along the way Simon the Zealot began to discover Jesus was not working for the kind of kingdom he hoped for. Perhaps it was on the road to Jerusalem that Simon finally saw his hopes dashed to earth. Jesus made it clear that he was not going to take the city by force.
The covenant Jesus makes with his disciples reveals to Simon the role Jesus is choosing to play. Jesus deliberately chooses to take the full consequences for being the suffering servant. He is to be, "Mocked and scourged and crucified."
Reprinted from The Last Supper by Howard Ellis, copyright © 2004 by The Upper Room. All Rights Reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.