Imagining the Last Supper

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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 Easter.

"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 Italy.

"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 and Blood?

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 Christ.

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.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016