Carlo Crivelli, an artist of the Italian Renaissance who
worked on the eastern coast of the peninsula in the late 15th
and early 16th century, had his own insightful ways of
depicting familiar scenes from the Gospel. Two of his
interpretations stand out in the exhibit currently on view at
the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, since they capture
important moments in the liturgical season of Holy Week and
"A Renaissance Original: Carlo Crivelli," on view through May
22, is installed in the Walters next to works from the
museum's own collection that came from the same part of
"The Last Supper" loaned by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
is especially surprising. Leonardo da Vinci's dramatic mural
has come to define our mental image of the Last Supper. But
before da Vinci, European artists usually chose a single
moment from the four richly diverse Gospel accounts of Our
Lord's Passover meal with His followers - in many cases, the
betrayal of Judas. Especially on the western side of the
Italian peninsula (Florence) the standard approach was
static: The apostles sit in silence around a long table, with
Judas singled out sitting on the opposite side.
And yet, 10 years before da Vinci, Crivelli gave a lively
interpretation to the scene that is unique in the history of
art. He paints the apostles as ordinary folks busy at their
meal. Some are drinking - one could almost say guzzling -
others slicing their meat and several pass around cucumbers
(a detail as yet unexplained).
Anticipating da Vinci's famous composition, Crivelli paints
the apostles reacting to the words of Jesus, musing, arguing
with some rising from their seats. Only the lack of a halo
makes Judas different from the others. Are they asking "Is it
I?" or "Who is the greatest?" or are they dumbfounded at
Christ's announcement that the bread and wine are His Body
While this is going on, Jesus raises His right hand in
blessing-perhaps the institution of the Eucharist, although
He does not seem to be pointing to the bread and wine.
Perhaps it is meant to get the attention of His followers for
the homilies Our Lord delivers in the Gospels of Luke and
John. Intended to equip them for their future after He leaves
this world, these words may not fully be understood by their
hearers. The intensity of this drama, and its inherit irony,
are also conveyed by the cramped dimensions of the Upper
Room, which has been described as a "crawl space."
Altarpieces used to explain the Eucharistic miracle
"The Last Supper" once formed part of a polyptych, or
multi-paneled altarpiece, commissioned from Carlo Crivelli in
1482 for the high altar of the Dominican church in Camerino,
a town in Italy's Marche province.
Greatly admired for centuries, the altarpiece was still in
place in 1799 when an earthquake ravaged the church. Soon
after, Napoleon's troops dismembered it and sent it to Paris
along with so many of Italy's artistic treasures. The central
panel ended up in the Brera Museum of Milan. The side panels
of saints and the predella, or base section, were disbursed
to other museums. Only recently was it realized that "The
Last Supper" belonged to this ensemble.
Looking at the altarpiece while the celebrant (with his back
to the congregation) raised the Host, the faithful would see
multiple images to remind them of the Body of Christ made
present by the miracle of transubstantiation.
At the bottom, Jesus presides over the Last Supper. In the
main panel, the enthroned Virgin Mary holds the Christ Child
who grasps a bird in His hand, perhaps the dove of the Holy
Spirit. At the top is the resurrected and glorified Body of
Crivelli's "The Annunciation" in Frankfurt also came from the
Camerino altarpiece. It was not unusual to divide a depiction
of the Annunciation into two separate scenes, but Crivelli's
interpretation is particularly masterful. These two six-sided
panels once flanked the Resurrection at the pinnacle of the
polyptych. The angel in the left panel lands on a ledge
before a building rendered in perfect mathematical
perspective. Da Vinci himself might envy the flying draperies
and Gabriel's open mouth, as well as his spirally posed body.
In the corresponding right panel, Mary kneels before an open
Bible, as calm as Gabriel is agitated. The scene is
nocturnal, so that the golden rays from God penetrate into
the darkened room. Crivelli invites us to enjoy the oriental
carpet and earthenware jug on the windowsill above her. Each
detail contributes to a sense of order and well-being and
invites us to feel quiet joy in this most important moment of
the very Incarnation of God as a human being - which in 2016,
coincides with Good Friday.
Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.