What a marvelous photograph! – The artist Alistair Morrison taking seven months to capture all these icons of the British Theatre in order to create an image that is on first sight seems a cross between Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio but on closer inspection an acting tour de force by everyone involved.
I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London to view all these lovies photographed in one 3 metre long montage – with all the essential symbols of Christ’s Passion laid out on the table for the Actors portrayal of the Disciples final meal together.
Items on the black tablecloth include pomegranates, citrus fruits, bread, red wine and fish aka ichthys – the Greek acronym of Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter , which translates to Jesus Christ Savior Son of God – making a crude drawing of a fish as an image of Christ himself the first test of recognition between early Christians.
Items not usually found in traditional Last Supper paintings include parsley, to take away the bitterness, and thyme, a symbol of courage, red hot chili peppers, evidently the band logo could represent a star of Infinity (or eternity like the non-rotting flesh of the peacock?), and playing cards, the full pack has religious significance. (For those readers not old enough to remember A Deck of Cards click here)
Items included in this which are nearly always found on Renaissance supper tables are Citrus fruits – particularly lemons, which were associated with the Virgin Mary because it flowers and fruits at the same time, Oranges which are associated with Original Sin but are also the path to man’s Redemption after the Passion of Christ, Pomegranates, the seeds of which have also been used as a symbol of the Passion and of Resurrection, Cherries, alluding to the blood of Christ on the Cross, and Figs which have many connotations including fertility but in this scenario is usually used to remind the congregation that Judas hung himself upon a fig tree.
Touchingly, there are also photographs of the dear departed members of the British Acting fraternity such as Oliver Reed, Sir Peter Ustinov, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Lawrence Olivier now unavailable to include in the montage.
The key difference from this and many Renaissance paintings of the subject is that Morrison has made it perfectly clear that “the disciple that Jesus loved”, aka John, is a woman – in this case Julie Walters.
Mary Magdalene is looking sorrowfully at Judas – and far from lying in Christ’s lap as young John was supposed to have been she is leaning away from Christ, thus creating the V referenced by Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code – a message which is reinforced by her deep V -necked sweater.
The challenge with all Last Suppers for modern audiences is that it is difficult for most people to even name all twelve disciples – let alone recognise them at the table and Morrison hasn’t made this any easier by not using their usual attributes to aid our understanding.
He has, I think, asked each of these actors to interpret their Disciple by what is known of their character and in the case of Tom Conti as Thomas he certainly portrays his doubt, and also raised the index finger with which he will later probe the wound in Christ’s side in his incredulity that the Saviour has risen before him. Anthony Andrews as Simon the Zealot also looks significantly zealous with his furious face and fist ready to punch whosoever is the traitor amongst the group.
Working from the left – John Alderton as Bartholomew is faced with the photos of dead actors and what look like Tarot Card images of the Passion in front of him , and he most definitely doesn’t want to think about the fate of being flayed to death that is to be his fate as a result of continuing to preach the Gospel of Christ. In contradiction, his neighbour Sir Richard Eyre, as James the younger, seems quite keen to get on with the next part of the job!
My biggest challenge comes with Andrew – third from the left – sitting in his traditional place on the right-hand side of his elder brother Peter. Actor Steven Berkoff is wearing typical fisherman’s clothing, including a black woollen cap, which when I first saw it I thought was an idea of genius until I realised that his character wasn’t the villain of the peace, Judas Iscariot.
My reason for saying this is that in some Renaissance paintings of the Last Supper Judas has not only lost his halo but it has turned an evil black – to make it clear which of the apostles had turned to the dark side. I use as an example below Fra Angelico‘s Last Supper in the Museo di San Marco in Florence where a dark Judas with a black halo is kneeling on the floor to the right of the painting.
Next to Andrew , seemingly flying to Jesus’s side, is Tim Piggott-Smith as Simon, known as Peter, bearded as Peter is always shown, but without the knife that he traditionally carries in Last Supper paintings to remind people that according to John 18.10 at Jesus’s arrest an enraged Peter cuts off the ear of one of the high priest’s slaves.
One of the many discussions about Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is exactly what position Peter’s arm is in to enable him to clasp the knife shown ringed above – but for sure it is there to identify Peter!
Below Peter is Sir Anthony Sher as Judas, looking troubled and perhaps showing his distress by wringing his hands but otherwise unidentifiable as the traitor of the group – in Renaissance paintings he would have worn yellow as a symbol of danger, like a poison bottle, clutched his bag of thirty pieces of silver and in Northern Europe even had red hair – ginger hair also being seen as a dangerous sign.
Mary Magdalene ( or John) is not the first image of someone on Christ’s right-hand side to look like a woman – in many Last Supper paintings – particularly the much-discussed Leonardo in Milan painted c1495 – the young beardless John looks very much like a young woman. Even in much earlier paintings than Da Vincis such as Stefano di Antonio Vanni Last Supper painted in Florence in 1434
or this Ghirlandaio in St Mark’s Museum – also in Florence -painted in 1482 which is said to have been an influence on Da Vinci’s masterpiece?
In the centre we have Robert Powell as Jesus – looking pensive as he twirls his red wine glass – but somewhat like a benign host hoping that the party is going to turn out rather better than it seems to be going at this moment in time – as he pointed towards an opened pomegranate – one of the most commonly used symbols of The Passion !
Next to Jesus, we have Colin Firth as St James the Greater or the Just who, as a family member, is often portrayed in similar clothing to Jesus and bearing a club as the symbol of his death. Without his attribute, Colin Firth is expressing his disquiet with his very expressive hands and face.
In front of Jesus and James are 5 smallish fishes, presumably a reference to the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 as well as a symbol of Christ. Sometimes Jesus is simply shown breaking bread in Last Supper paintings – other regularly used symbols include the Lamb of the Passover. Very often Judas is shown with his hand in the same bowl as Jesus to reflect the message in Matthew 26.23 where Christ identifies his betrayer as “he who has put his hand into the dish with me” – or maybe that is why Judas is wringing his hands?
Then we have Simon Callow with his back to the action pointing back to the scene. He is Matthew so maybe he is checking out what he heard with the Simon the Zealot and Jude (Thaddeus) in order to write it all up correctly later?
So here we leave these lovely “lovies” with their doubts and fears for the future with compliments to Alistair Morrison for his patience in getting everyone available to pose – at least to enable him to piece the shot together – it is an endlessly fascinating piece of work and I shall certainly go back to visit it again.
On the date that I wrote this Blog this photo was on show at the National Portrait Gallery in London and also published in a book called Hidden Gems – produced and sold in aid of Variety Club.
Finally, let’s look at a Caravaggio type Last Supper, in fact, painted by Valentin, which was recently on display at the Beyond Caravaggio Exhibition at the National Gallery. This also shows the characters emerging from a solid black background and has a lamb carcass on the plate instead of the traditional bread and wine remembered in the Communion – but in this John is very like a boy and almost sleeping in Jesus’s lap as described in the Gospel – of John no less – so it his remembrance we rely on.