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The Last Supper

The Last Supper

Willem Adriaensz Key (1515-1568). Dordrechts Museum – Dordrecht. 1560.

The Last Supper

Gustave Van De Woestijne (1881-1947). Groeninge Museum – Bruges. 1927.

The day of Unleavened Bread came round, on which the Passover had to be sacrificed, and Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make the preparations for us to eat the Passover.” They asked him, “Where do you want us to prepare it?” He said to them, “Look, as you go into the city you will meet a man carrying a pitcher of water. Follow him into the house he enters and tell the owner of the house, “The Master says this to you: Where is the room for me to eat the Passover with my disciples?” The man will show you a large upper room furnished with couches. Make the preparations there.” They set off and found everything as he had said them and prepared the Passover G38 .

Thus starts the story of Luke of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. The story continues with the institution of the Eucharist.

When the time came he took his place at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have ardently longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; because I tell you, I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” G38

Then, taking a cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and share it among you, because from now on, I tell you, I shall never again drink wine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you: do this in remembrance of me.” He did the same with the cup after supper, and said, “The cup is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you.” G38

After this, Jesus foretold the treachery of Judas. We leave Luke here, for the story of John. John was probably the eyewitness; his story is always more detailed.

Having said this, Jesus was deeply disturbed and declared, “In all truth I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” The disciples looked at each other, wondering whom he meant. The disciple Jesus loved was reclining next to Jesus; Simon Peter signed to him and said, “Ask who it is he means”. So leaning back close to Jesus’ chest he said, “Who is it, lord?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give the piece of bread that I dip in the dish.” And when he had dipped the piece of bread he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. At that instant, after Judas had taken the bread, Satan entered him G38 .

After these words of John, we often find a disciple of Jesus close to his chest. The ‘disciple Jesus loved’ must have been John himself, too modest to quote his own name in the Gospel.

The Last Supper starts the drama of the Passion of Jesus Christ, his betrayal, his imprisonment, his torture and Crucifixion.

‘The Last Supper’ of Willem Adriaensz Key was painted around 1560 for the ‘Grote Kerk’, the main church of the Dutch sea town of Dordrecht. This small city had a tradition of painters born there and working in their hometown, of which the Cuyp family was among the sixteenth century’s best known masters. Willem Key was born in Breda around 1515. He worked in Antwerp however since 1542, so this painting was probably commissioned from Dordrecht to the workshop of Key in Antwerp. It is an indication of the love of the Dordrechters for pictures that they ordered paintings from out of other towns. ‘The Last Supper’ is still a Catholic picture. After the Reformation to Protestantism, the painting disappeared from the main church and moved to the City Hall of Dordrecht N3 .

Willem Key’s picture is a work made by a nicely skilled artist. The painting is typical of Antwerp art of the middle of the sixteenth century. Just as in the ‘Wedding at Cana’, paintings of the ‘Last Supper’ are always an occasion for artists to use horizontal strips of composition separated by the white linen of a long rectangular table. In the strip below the table surface you find jars and baskets. Willem Key has shown a basket of fruit that recalls the still lives of later periods of Dutch and Flemish painting. He also showed the traditional dogs under the table. Dogs were always the companions of meals, usually depicted as symbols of loyalty. They are very often associated with images of the Last Supper. The dog forms a painterly balance for the basket here. It is more an element of intimate genre style than a symbol.

Above the table area and in the middle, Jesus is shown. All the apostles on his side are leaning towards him to hear his famous words; “One among you will betray me”. John is sitting closely to Jesus, near Jesus’ hearth and lips, wanting to hear every whisper of Jesus, just as is told in the Gospels. He is here in the arms of his Lord. On each far side of the table other apostles are discussing Jesus’ words of betrayal. Who might he be, who will betray? Jesus told that the hand that would betray sat at the table with them.

The betrayer is Judas, sitting in front of the viewer. Judas is dressed in green, always a dubious colour, with a red cloak and since this is the cloak of the betrayer it will be the red of blood. No apostle looks at him. His neighbour to the left even turns his back to him. And the sign of God is upon Judas. Jesus’ hand is held exactly above Judas’ head. This is a double play of words and images for on the frame is written in Latin the phrase of Luke, “Look, the hand that will betray me is at this table and it will go with the Son of Men as ordained. But alas for the man who will betray him. And immediately they started to argue among them on who it would be.” It would be Judas ‘ hand and Jesus’ hand is held above Judas. Willem Key explicitly wanted to show this moment of the story of the Gospels. Judas also turns his back to the chalice and the salt, both symbols of Jesus and of eternal life in the love of God. The chalice is the symbol of Christ’s passion and of the Eucharist, whereas Jesus once told that he was the salt of the earth.

‘The Last Supper’ of Willem Key is a well-balanced painting, with various symmetries and colours. The setting of the painting is in a style of classic antiquity as had become the fashion in Antwerp and Holland of the sixteenth century. Willem Key’s picture shows a finely skilled work of art, clear and simple, in which some symbols are traditional and in which some new symbols such as the hand held above Jesus are nice ideas to discover.

Gustave Van De Woestijne

Quite a different picture is Gustave Van De Woestijne’s ‘Last Supper’. This painting was made in 1927. Van De Woestijne was a Flemish expressionist painter, also part of a mainstream of painters in Belgium in the early twentieth century. These artists came together at a village in Flanders called Sint Martens Latem. Van De Woestijne was part of this school of Sint Martens Latem and worked in the village. He was born in Gent in 1881, died just after World War II in 1947 in Brussels.

The spirituality and reflection of Willem Key has not disappeared with the centuries. On the contrary, the view of Jesus has deepened and become more tragic. The same horizontal composition as Willem key’s picture is of course used, but Van De Woestijne’s canvas is more high than long. All the figures thus had to hug around Jesus. No symbols like dogs or fruit basket with grapes of the wine of the Eucharist are present anymore. Iconography has been reduced to the essentials since only a glass of wine and a loaf of bread are on the table. The bread is not a delicate host, but a full loaf of workers. The apostles indeed could be miners or fishermen, having gathered a Saturday for a meal among friends. Their hair is pitch black and neatly combed in the 1920 style. The workmen have dressed up for the meal and sad solemnity is in their grave faces. Jesus’ passion happens every day again.

Jesus’ hair and beard is red as his wine and so is the hair of the figure on the lower left, who then is probably Judas. Jesus looks in that direction, where a particularly rough and sad Judas is sitting and showing his tough, large worker’s hands on the table. Look at the difference in hands between Key and Van De Woestijne. As in Willem Key’s picture, Jesus’ bare feet protrude from under the table. Jesus indeed in Van De Woestijne’s picture is crucified already; Jesus is drawn in the same elongated vertical pose as in a Crucifixion.

Whereas Willem Key’s picture was still made to please, Van De Woestijne composed his ‘Last Supper’ around the concept alone. Table and figures are only the symbols that are absolutely necessary to render the idea of the Last Supper. They are the expression of a mind concept. This was one of the characteristics of Expressionist art. Van De Woestijne’s painting was made in the twentieth century. Remark how this painting linked with the Flemish tradition of situating images from the New Testament among common people. Art of Flanders and of the Netherlands has kept this feature throughout the centuries. In Flanders devotion was still very much lived in the flesh and the hearth and the stories of Jesus’ Passion were still acutely felt in the 1920s.

‘Last Supper’ paintings are among the most magnificent pictures of the life of Jesus. Leonardo da Vinci made the most famous one in Milan. But also in lesser well-known artists such as Willem Key and Gustave Van De Woestijne do we find true devotion and full understanding of the theme.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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