01-06-2006 - Traces, n.6

The Da Vinci Code

The Truth
Around that Table

The best answer to all the falsities about The Last Supper is found in Leonardo’s notes on the fresco. Much more dramatic than union with Magdalene or slit throats…

by Giuseppe Frangi

John, Chapter 13, verse 21. This verse is like a freeze frame, the exact freeze frame of Leonardo’s Last Supper. The great artist’s fidelity to the dynamics of that instant is stunning. Leonardo was explicit in his intentions from his very first studies, as demonstrated in the extraordinary entries in the Forster II Codex, now conserved in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Let’s follow John’s telling. Jesus, seated at table, had just a moment before given an announcement that made the blood of His table companions run cold. “I tell you solemnly, one of you will betray Me.” These words fell like lead on the gathering, and explain the agitation overwhelming the Apostles. Many have sprung up from their seats. Incredulous glances, some tinged with suspicion, shoot around the table. “The disciples looked at one another, puzzled as to whom He could mean,” says John. Leonardo echoes this as if he were present, reporting on that instant, opening out the evangelist’s story with a running shot of the entire table. In his notes, Leonardo wrote, “One was drinking and left the goblet in its place and turns his head toward the speaker. One laces his fingers together and looks at his companion wide-eyed… Another speaks in the ear of another, and the latter listens, turning to him, leaning his ear to him, holding a knife in one hand…The other in turning…spills with that hand a goblet on his shoulder. The other puts his hands on the table and looks… The other blows air on his bite. The other bows in looking at the speaker…The other draws back behind the one bowing and sees the speaker between the wall and the bowing man.”

Peter and John
So Leonardo digs and explores to accompany and almost complete John’s telling of the event. “One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, reclined close to Him as they ate.” The evangelist remembered this detail well, because he was speaking of himself. Leonardo follows this trail, trying to imagine it. None of the Apostles knew how to approach Jesus to wring from Him the secret of those terrible words. Not Thomas, whose extended finger (the one he would use after the Resurrection to “touch” the body of the Lord) seemed to implore a bit of clarity. Not James, open-armed, as if paralyzed in his consternation. Not Philip, with his hands on his chest in an almost cowardly gesture, as if to say he had nothing to do with it. Only Peter, the most practical and expert, knew the only thing to do to emerge from that anguishing situation. He called John to himself, because he knew that John, the beloved disciple, was the only one of the Apostles who could know, who could search the Lord’s heart. Leonardo captures this instant exactly, with a stunning respect for the psychologies of the characters. Peter has called John over and whispers something in his ear. If the fresco were a film, the next sequence would show the famous scene of John leaning his head on Jesus’ chest.

A precise order
In Peter’s other hand, emerging from behind the figure of Judas, he already is holding a knife. This Peter is lucid and fiery, ready to do anything to defend Jesus, as he would demonstrate a few hours later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he used that knife to cut off the ear of Malchus, one of the servant of the High Priest who had come to capture the Lord. The earthquake Jesus has unleashed with His announcement has already produced a precise order, because in the chain of Apostles, Judas already appears cut out, implacably alone, grasping his accursed hoard of coins in his hand. He’s present, but it’s as if he’s already far away, irreparably extraneous, an enemy. This is Leonardo’s Last Supper. Anything else is imaginary.