Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper is an endlessly fascinating history of one of the world’s greatest artists and one of the most well-known works of art in history. You don’t have to be interested in art or especially religious to know “The Last Supper”. It’s been copied and referenced in thousands of places. There are Disney versions, one in which Homer Simpson occupies the place of Jesus, and even one with superheroes that includes The Incredible Hulk brooding off to the left side of the table. Dan Brown famously featured the Last Supper in his novel, The Da Vinci Code, weaving a fantastic fictional tale of murder and greed.
The true story of The Last Supper, however, is incredible in its own right. the wall featuring the fresco was almost destroyed many times. Leonardo attempted to deviate from the normal process of painting frescos by using a lead white primer base on top of the plaster. This would allow him to paint more slowly and to achieve more vibrant colors. The experiment did not work, however, and the painting was brittle and began to flake apart from the very beginning. The French army during one invasion housed soldiers in the humble monastery in Milan. The soldiers, exhausted from marching and frustrated from fighting, threw rocks at the painting and gouged out the eyes of the disciples. In World War 2 a bomb destroyed much of the monastery, but the fresco incredibly survived.
Beyond the chaotic history and it’s artistic renown, it’s the moment of history that Leonardo captures that is most powerful for me. The scene is an intersection of two events. Jesus has just revealed that someone at the dinner will betray him. In response, Thomas points an accusing finger and Peter has grabbed a knife. But this moment is happening within a larger moment. Jesus is instituting the observance of communion, a central practice and sacrament of the church still today. His arms are outstretched to encompass the bread and the wine.
Communion and betrayal.
My spiritual life could be summarized as communion and betrayal. It has been marked by times of closeness with God and also by other times of ignoring Him and turning away to do what I thought was best. The moments of communion and betrayal can even happen on the same day, within minutes of each other.
I often feel like that thin monastery wall in Milan. I bear the fingerprints and brushstrokes of a Master Artist. At the same time I’m fragile and in danger of crumbling under the weight of my own expectations. Maybe you’ve felt that way too.
In spite of our weaknesses and betrayals, we survive. It’s as if God won’t let His masterpiece be destroyed. Our fragility only highlights the master work that God has done. We may be responsible for the betrayal, but God is responsible for the communion, and he holds us close, refusing to let go.
May God bless your Maundy Thursday with his closeness and love.