Monday, December 16, 2019

The Possibly Dubious Liturgical Legacy of Leonardo’s Last Supper

While I was kneeling in a church recently, I started to look more closely at its Gothic high altar, and noticed that the bas relief scene on the front of the altar just below the mensa reproduced, with a high degree of exactitude, the famous, possibly too famous, Last Supper painting by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), the 500th anniversary of whose death has been celebrated throughout 2019.

Leonardo’s Last Supper and many others paintings like it — Ghirlandaio’s at San Marco and Andrea del Castagno’s at the convent of St Apollonia, both in Florence; Giovan Pietro da Cemmo’s in the convent of St Augustine in Crema, etc. — were painted for the refectories of religious houses; they were not intended as images for churches, much less for sanctuaries of churches. The open, longitudinal arrangement was designed to place Christ at the center, to make the action at the table clearly visible, and to separate Judas more evidently from the rest of the Apostles. The spiritual lesson of such refectory paintings was manifold: that one should see the figure of Christ in one’s religious superior at the head table; that one should decide to be among the good apostles by being a good and obedient religious, and not faithless like Judas; that one should remember how every meal shared with the brethren bears a likeness to this banquet of supreme charity, which explains why the refectory service is a little liturgy in its own right.

Regarding the Rule of St. Benedict, Dom Mark Kirby, OSB, comments:
The liturgy of the refectory is sacred; the rubrics that govern it safeguard its Eucharistic character so that the words of the Apostle may be rightly fulfilled in the monastery day after day: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). All are to come to refectory without delay and in time for the verse and the prayer, and all, says Saint Benedict, are to sit down together at table. A Benedictine monk never “grabs a bite” or eats in an individualistic manner. He enters into the liturgical order of the refectory, before, during, and after the meal, taking care to conform to the corporate actions of the whole community. One who despises the liturgy of the common table will be separated from it and even deprived of his portion of wine — a terrible punishment for the Mediterranean man — in order to be brought to his senses.
Benedictines honour the liturgy of eating and drinking in the refectory, and see the refectory as a kind of mirror of the Oratory. Even the disposition is same as in the choir: the tables facing each other; the Prior’s table with the crucifix behind it; the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and the reader’s desk. Twice daily the refectory resounds with the chanting of psalms and prayers. Like the Oratory, the refectory is a place of silence. It is also a place of joy, according to what Saint Luke writes in the Book of Acts: “They took their share of food with gladness and simplicity of heart” (Acts 2:46).
Because Leonardo’s Last Supper was in a refectory, it was not really intended for “public consumption.” Therefore, the hypothesis I will float concerns not so much this great artist’s intentions for his piece as it does deleterious consequences of an overuse of replications of it in modern churches.

Returning now to the altar sculpture: the figure of Christ dominated in the center, looking squarely out at me, with His disciples gathered round. Although I have seen this image a thousand times, I was suddenly struck by the impression that, placed front and center at the altar, this might look somewhat like a priest celebrating Mass versus populum:

In his superb overview of the history, form, and theology of the classical Roman rite (due to appear soon from Angelico Press), Michael Fiedrowicz offers a gentle critique of Leonardo:
Luther had already invoked the Last Supper practice of Jesus for his corresponding demand [that the Eucharist should be celebrated versus populum]. A new type of visual representation that began to be implemented during the thirteenth century must have been formative for his notion of the events of that time. This representation is familiar in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper: Jesus sitting on the rear side of a table in the middle of the Apostles, turned toward the observer of the scene. If Mass were made to correspond to this artistic presentation, the priest should stand at the altar across from the people and turn his gaze on them. This argument, however, is based on a misapprehension of ancient table manners as they would have been practiced at the Last Supper. There was at that time either a round or a semicircular table at whose open front side the food would be brought, while those partaking of the meal sat or reclined at the rear semicircle of the table. The place of honor was not in the middle, but rather on the right side. The one presiding over a meal never had another partaker across from his place. These original arrangements are shown in the oldest representations of the Last Supper until the Middle Ages. If this finding alone prevents the derivation of celebrating versus populum from Jesus’ practice at the Last Supper, a look at the historical beginnings of the Eucharistic celebration demonstrates yet more that the primitive Church’s congregation in no way repeated the Last Supper as such and did not consider the meal as the ritual original form of the Eucharist.
It is more than a little chilling to read the following words of Martin Luther and to reflect on the current situation of Roman Catholic worship: “But in the true Mass among genuine Christians, the altar would not have to remain so [sc. facing east], and the priest would always turn to the people, as without doubt Christ did at the Lord’s Supper. Well, that will be so in good time” (Deutsche Messe und Ordnung des Gottesdienstes, 1526 [WA 19, 80]).

In his book No Trifling Matter: On the Inviolability of the Sacraments (Angelico, 2018), Msgr. Nicola Bux makes a similar point:
Not a few people hold that it was only in late antiquity or the early Middle Ages that the Churches of the East and the West began to prefer administering it directly in the mouth. But did Jesus give communion to the apostles on the hand or asking them to take it with their own hands? Visiting an exhibition of Tintoretto in Rome, I observed some “Last Suppers” in which Jesus gives communion to the apostles in the mouth. One could think that this has to do with an interpretation by the painter after the fact, a little like the posture of Jesus and the apostles at table, in the cenacle of Leonardo, which “updates” in the Western manner the Jewish custom, which was, instead, to be reclining at table. Reflecting further on this, the custom of giving communion to the faithful directly in the mouth can be considered not only as a Jewish tradition, and therefore apostolic, but also as going back to the Lord Jesus. The Jews and the peoples of the East in general had and today still have the custom of taking food with one’s hands and placing it directly in the mouth of the lover or the friend. In the West this is done between couples in love and by the mother toward her little one, who is still inexperienced. The text of John is understood in this way: “Jesus then answered him [John]: ‘It is he to whom I shall give a morsel of dipped bread.’ Then, having dipped a morsel of bread, he gave it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. And as soon as he had taken the mouthful Satan entered into him” (13:26–27). But what should be said about the invitation of Jesus: “Take and eat. . . . Take and drink”? Take (in Greek, labete; in Latin, accipite) also means receive. If the mouthful is dipped, it cannot be taken with the hands; rather it is received directly into the mouth. It is true that Jesus consecrated bread and wine separately. But if during the “mystic supper” (as the East calls it) or Last Supper, the two consecrating gestures happened, so it seems, in different phases of the Paschal supper, nevertheless after Pentecost the apostles, aided by Jewish priests who had converted (cf. Acts 6:7), and who were, as we would say, experts in religious worship, united the gestures within the great Eucharistic prayer. (94–95)
My experience has been that a lot of Catholic church altars — especially the less expensive ones in the United States that were trying to look “traditional,” from the late 19th century up to the middle of the 20th — feature exactly this image of Leonardo’s Last Supper carved into the front, where the priest and people would see it day after day after day. (Note, however, that according to older rubrics, such art should be visible only between the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday and the Easter Vigil; for the remaining 362/3 days of the year, it would be masked by the antependium. Alas, antependia tended to go the way of all flesh and are making a slow return at best.) Here is another example:

I wonder . . . Might this have something to do with slowly disposing everyone to reimagine the Mass as an imitation of the Last Supper, and not even as a Jewish meal, but as a banquet fictitiously depicted by Leonardo? Perhaps the near-ubiquity of the faux supper made it easier, when the time came, to justify the dismantling of a high altar that bore upon itself an image seemingly in contradiction with it, while at the same time installing a free-standing table that permitted the “presider” to imitate Leonardo’s Christ, and perhaps the concelebrating clergy to imitate Leonard’s apostles circled round the table.

Now, if we look at churches with much older altars, or Liturgical Movement altars, we will see a far greater variety of iconographical images carved into the fronts of altars: the Lamb, especially; wreaths, palms, and other arborial designs; angels; cosmatesque patterns; etc. It seems much more appropriate for an altar to have such symbolic designs or to be dressed in cloth altar frontals in liturgical colors than to bear the by-now overdone Leonardo spin-off. It just goes to show how a work of artistic but ahistorical genius can intersect with commercial demand to flood the market with well-intentioned but conceptually harmful kitsch.

I am not an art historian but simply someone keenly interested in the fine arts and in ecclesiastical art in particular. I would therefore be grateful if any readers have more thoughts or information pertinent to this theory of a possible relationship between the introduction of versus populum and the emblazoning of modern church altars with decontextualized Last Suppers.

One can find images of Christ standing at the other side of the altar (over against the viewer) in Byzantine iconography as well, but this depiction does not, to my eye, suggest versus populum as a manner of celebrating, if only because the cross and book seem set up for ad orientem worship; certainly the iconographic style makes it easier to see such an image rather as the expression of a mysterious present reality, the Lord coming into our midst through the liturgy we offer to Him and He offers through us, than of an historical event, a Jewish Passover meal, in dramatic reenactment, as the Leonardo so strongly (but misleadingly) conveys.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s website for articles, sacred music, and classics reprinted by Os Justi Press (e.g., Newman, Benson, Scheeben, Parsch, Guardini, Chaignon, Leen, Roguet, Croegaert), his SoundCloud page for lectures and interviews, and his YouTube channel for talks and sacred music.

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