Thursday, July 3, 2014

Man or Woman 6: St. John the Evangelist or Mary Magdalene? – The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper
Italian, 1498
Milan, Friary of Santa Maria delle Grazie
In my earlier essays on the question of how the figure of St. John the Evangelist has been portrayed in the history of western art since the Middle Ages we have seen that, although at times shown as an mature (or even old) bearded figure, St. John is most often shown as a youthful, beardless man.  So, we have finally come to the crux of the question “is the figure sitting at the right hand of Jesus in Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper a man or a woman?”   

Obviously we must begin to answer this question by reviewing how the figure of John was presented in earlier images of the Last Supper.  Is he shown as a mature man or as a young boy or man? 
Anonymous, Fresco of Meal
Early Christian, 346-355
Rome, Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter
First of all, we should look at what are believed to be the earliest representations of what may be the Last Supper, from the early Christian centuries.  These are paintings in the Roman catacombs, dating to the third and fourth centuries.  They show us images of a typical banquet in the ancient world, where the participants sit or recline around a table.  However, it is by no means clear that these are actually paintings of the Last Supper, they may be simply representations of the fraternal meal that often accompanied the early Christian liturgies. 
It is not until a few centuries later that we can definitely begin to say that the image we see is truly a representation of the Last Supper.  

Anonymous, Last Supper
Greek, 6th century
Rossano, Diocesan Museum
In the Rossano Gospels, dating from the sixth century, we can be certain that we are seeing Jesus, seated at a semi-circular table with His disciples, including Judas who is distinguished from the others by reaching into the dish.  But, we can say with some certainty that John is not the disciple seated next to Jesus.  This white haired, white bearded figure is probably Peter.  John may be the young, bearded man seated next to Peter, or he may even be one of the other young, beardless disciples.  We simply have no clues to help us identify him.
Anonymous, Last Supper and Betrayal
from Sacramentary of Drogo
Carolingian (Metz), ca. 850
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9428, fol.44v
Two hundred years farther on the image in the Drogo Sacramentary, produced in Carolingian France, is not more helpful.  All the disciples look alike, including Judas who is again shown reaching for the dish, and none of them sit immediately next to Jesus.



It isn’t till another two hundred years later that we begin to be able to identify John.  

Anonymous, Last Supper
Crete, 1001-1300
Monastery of Agia Triada








Around the year 1000, we begin to see images that include the figure of a youthful disciple who leans his head against Jesus.  The earliest seem to come from the Byzantine Empire and the lands influenced by it.  





Anonymous, Last Supper
from Gospel Book
Egyptian (Damietta), 1178-1180
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Copte 13, fol. 76v

















Anonymous Mosaicist, Entry into Jerusalem and Last Supper
Italian (Monreale), 1180s
Monreale, Cathedral (detail of west transept wall)


Anonymous, Last Supper
from Gospels of Matilda
Italian (Lombardy), 1080-1099
New York, Morgan Library
MS M492, fol. 100v

Anonymous, Last Supper
from Gospel Book
Austrian (Salzburg), 11th Century
New York, Morgan Library
MS G44, fol. 80r
The image passes into western art through the medium of mosaics and during the twelfth century becomes the standard image for representing the Last Supper.  


























Anonymous, Last Supper
German, 1245-1260
Naumberg, Detail of West Choir
Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul
Maitre Henri, Last Supper
from Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Belgian (Hainault), 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 30v




















By 1300 it is the established image. 
Duccio, Last Supper
Italian, 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo


















Pietro Lorenzetti, Last Supper
Italian, ca. 1320
Assisi, Lower Church of S. Francesco
Frequently, John is shown leaning against Jesus, as if asleep.  Sometimes he is shown as if asleep on the table.  Occasionally he is shown awake and alert.  
Andrea del Castagno, Last Supper
Italian, 1447
Florence, Sant' Apollonia

Andrea del Castagno, Last Supper (detail)
Pietro Perugino, Last Supper
Italian, 1483-1496
Foligno, Convent of the Tertiary Franciscans
But, from the eleventh century on he is almost always depicted as a young, beardless man.  His clothing, consisting of a long tunic and collarless cloak, just like the other Apostles and Jesus Himself, is definitely masculine.  In some pictures John’s hair is long, in others it is relatively short.

 Finally, we come to the picture that has inspired so much speculation, the Last Supper by Leonardo DaVinci.  It was painted by Leonardo for the refectory (dining room) of the monastery of Santa Marie delle Grazie in Milan in the last years of the fifteenth century.  This painting, like the Mona Lisa, is one of the most famous ever painted.  Like other Leonardo paintings it became the new paradigm against which the work of other artists was measured and from which others took their own inspiration.  It is also another in the long list of Leonardo’s lost or ruined experiments in painting.
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper
Italian, 1498
Milan, Friary of Santa Maria delle Grazie
Leonardo was many things and one of them was an inventor of experimental techniques.  For this important commission he chose, not the safe and tested medium of fresco for a wall of this size, but an experimental technique of his own, using a wax medium on dry wall.  This was a technique that had some historical basis but which had not been tried for centuries.  He decided to try to revive it.  His experiment was not successful.  Within a few years of completion, the work began to peel off the wall.  It has been repainted and restored multiple times in its long life.  Consequently, we can really say very little about the surface of the work, we can really only speak of its composition and of the effects it had on those who came after Leonardo.
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper
Detail showing the group of Peter, John and Judas and the ruinous state of the painting surface.
It is in its composition as well as in its technique that Leonardo’s Last Supper was revolutionary.  And it is in its composition that it is most successful and had the greatest impact.  Other artists had tried to enliven the sense of a row of nearly identical faces by showing interactions between them.  Leonardo created a grand masterpiece of drama in the way in which his cast of Apostles interact.   Arranged in four groups of three figures each, they argue, they call the attention of others to the actions of Jesus, who has just said that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood.  They react with surprise and astonishment.  Their actions reveal things about their personalities and about their place among the entire group of disciples.  Some of these personality traits were determined by the traditions related to each of the figures.  For example, Peter was long recognized as having the kind of personality that reacts in extremes.  He is the first to vehemently assure Jesus of his faithfulness, the first to react violently to Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane and the first to vehemently deny even knowing him a few hours later!  Thus is easy to identify the figure of Peter among the disciples.  He is the white-haired man (a traditional attribute) who lunges forward to tap John the Evangelist on the shoulder. 
Likewise, Judas can readily be identified.  He is the one just in front of Peter, who seems to recoil as he clutches a small bag, possibly containing the thirty pieces of silver for which he betrayed Jesus.
And what of John?  As we have seen, he is traditionally seen as the young beardless man seated next to Jesus who is passive enough to be asleep, either slumped on the table or leaning against Jesus.  In Leonardo’s image he becomes the beardless young man seated next to Jesus who seems to pull back quietly from the table as he listens to the words of Peter who has tapped him on the shoulder.   But, the argument goes, this figure looks like a woman.  How can you be so sure it is John?
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper
Detail of head of St. John
Well, there are some clues.  While it is difficult to see the figure in the painting in its current near ruined (though recently restored) state, one can examine it to some extent.  There are close ups of the figures.  There are studies for it.  And there is Leonardo’s own style in dealing with images of young men to be considered.
 












No artist paints such a monumental work without planning and preparation.  Studies of the figures and for the composition itself exist.  Some of the compositional drawings suggest that the original idea was a much more traditional depiction, with a sleeping John and with Judas on the other side of the table.  

Leonardo da Vinci, Study for the Last Supper
Italian, ca. 1494-1495
Venice, Galleria dell'Accademia















Other drawings are studies for the heads of the Apostles and one of them is of the head of John.  One can see more clearly from this study that the figure is male.  His clothing is that of a man, not a woman, and there is a certain masculinity about his features.  
Leonardo da Vinci, Study for Head of John the Evangelist













Further, a look at some of Leonardo’s other paintings of young male figures, such as John the Baptist, reveal that Leonardo tended to make them more effeminate in character than when he painted older males.  This is a recognizable and well known feature of Leonardo’s work that was manifested throughout his career.
Leonardo da Vinci, Annunication
Detail of Angel Gabriel
Italian, 1478-1482
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Leonardo da Vinci, St. John the Baptist
Italian, 1513-1516
Paris, Muse du Louvre




















Therefore, it is safe to say that the figure seated to the right of Jesus in the Last Supper is not Mary Magdalene, but John the Evangelist.  Indeed, this identity has never been in doubt until the last few years and the ill informed speculations of some authors with little knowledge of iconographic tradition or the work of Leonardo as a whole.

© M. Duffy, 2014

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