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This very large fresco has been a secret for most of its history. It was painted in the 1440s for the cloistered nuns of Santa Apollonia in Florence, which is why it was very rarely seen by outsiders. Eventually, it was covered in plaster, which is why it’s so well preserved, unlike the scenes above it. We have it rediscovered only since the suppression of the nuns by the military in the 1860s, and can now marvel at the poetic effect it achieves and see in what its greatness consists. Indeed, authorship itself was unwittingly a secret, but that, too, has been resolved. The last secret, not likely of resolution, is the story of the author. Castagno is little known except by slander and by his works, and the slander is not honest either. The most famous chronicler of Renaissance Italy, Vasari, offers a great big lie of a story accusing him of murdering another painter out of jealousy–so far as anyone can tell, the lie is meant to explain the dramatic quality of Castagno’s painting–his characters have no softness about them. Art history could step in to help us in our time of need, explaining what painting looked like before him and afterward, but that’s too much of a distraction. We can only attend to the mysteries in the painting itself.
This last supper is one of a rare number of paintings that articulate the mystery of the stories in the Gospels in a quiet way, through the technique. It strikes me that some such paintings make far more of a claim for their makers’ craft than you might expect of wall-painters who merely painted stories everyone already knew–the development of technique seems to be tied up with a reflection on what we believe. So I will first point out the Gospel elements of the painting and then look to what the painter added. You can see the Gospel of John, chp.13 faithfully followed in John lying on Christ’s bosom as Christ blesses him; in Christ’s having just given Judas the piece of bread that identifies him as the betrayer; in the confusion of the Apostles; and in Peter’s inquisitive intimacy. Piety is aided by the names that identify the Apostles. The Christian abhorrence of Judas is such that he’s depicted across the table–he does not confront us–his posture means he cannot look at us. On the other hand, it means, he’s closest to us of the gathering…
Everything else is the painter’s contributions. Some seem to me of great importance to Christians, others less so. The room decorated in the Roman manner, but with a modern table and chairs, speaks to the Renaissance fascination with classical antiquity. It’s worth pondering that Rome is not the Christian’s friend, especially not its imperial wealth, its taste for splendor, and its greatness. The setting serves to make the scene more dignified than it would otherwise look, but at the price of humanity. There is much that is portentous–look at the panel behind the central grouping of Peter, Jesus, Judas, and John. The painter’s interest in marbles, seemingly a frivolous extravagance, allows for this extravagant gesture that hints at the precise moment when Christ announces the fearful fate to come, which we understand, unlike the Apostles. Another similar touch is the mythical beasts depicted–two Sphinxes framing the bench where the Apostles sit, two others, gargoyles, on the walls, which themselves look scaly. Aside from the Renaissance taste for invention, these additions suggest what a different world we’re staring into as though it were next door us. You may say that, as the scene imposes on us, so also the beasts warn us.
And that’s where the problems really become serious–the painter transforms by his art the wall into a window into another world, which is supposed to look as real and compelling as ours, but more important. After all, the audience is us–the characters depicted are not looking at us, we are looking at them, confessing thus that our world is not enough for us, so to speak. The incredibly elaborated painterly convention of the painting as a window opening into another place, a place with all this realistic architecture, raises questions about our beliefs. This is our preparation for two remarkable technical choices which are of theological importance.
Two specific choices deal with perspective, which is the supreme achievement of the Renaissance so far as realism is concerned. They are the secrets that are supposed to guide our self-understanding. One choice is obvious to the point we do not notice it, because it concerns the wholeness of the painted scene, as though it were constitutive to the world; the other is not at all obvious, but we do come to notice it fairly quickly if we stare at the elements of the painting, and will be revealed as truly constitutive to our world.
The first is a practical matter: The perspectival lines do not seem to coalesce into one precise vanishing point. Perspectival painting is done on a mathematical grid that regulates foreshortening, the rendering of objects in depth by diminishing them in relation to their distance to the viewer. The painter does effect the illusion of depth, but he does not achieve a precision reminiscent of mathematics. The architectural space seems both realistic and strict, but it is not. A unique vanishing point depends on an unique viewer–on the viewer’s position. It is one of the worthwhile details that the witness to the scene, John, seems asleep. We look upon the scene from a perspective that assumes the authority of the Church and perhaps of God–that is what is implied in seeing what we believe. But the construction is not strict–you get the same scene from just about anywhere in the room. Confronting us with the Gospel stories is what’s important to the painter, not designing the space in accordance with an unique viewer–it is important that the painting look realistic, but also that it look in a sense common, always available to the eye.
The second is a theoretical matter: In such a mathematical architectural space, getting a sense of size and proportion is very easy. This leads to a shocking paradox: Everything in the foreground makes sense; everything in the background makes sense; but the intermediate space makes either the one or the other an impossibility and pulls the apparent whole to irreconcilable parts. Look first to the panels behind the gathering. They are replicated on both sides, but greatly foreshortened. If they are, as they seem, the same size as those in the back, the ones in the back should be small, not great. Or if the foreshortened panels are realistic, then the far scene is at a great distance from us, such that we could not possibly see the human bodies as life-size–they’d have to be giants! Either way, the intermediate space must actually be much greater than it seems. Look then to the floor and the ceiling–now you notice the great clutter of the tiling there, again, an effect of foreshortening. That suggests the same concentration of space. This incongruity seems to be the technical equivalent for the painter of the belief of the believer. You may recall the Apostle’s word, Faith is the evidence of things unseen.
The contradiction in the perspectival construction is meant to deal not merely with the unreality of depiction, a mere use of color and shape, but also with the mysterious character of the Gospel stories. We assume in recognizing the scene that it is near us, part of our common world. For it to be at all intelligible, that is necessary–just like our assumption that the body of Christ is about the size of yours or mine! But that first assumption leads to the perplexing problem the painter conceals and reveals at the same time: We are not really in the same world as that of the Gospel miracles and the act of redemption. Our assumption of proximity rests on no known natural power. It is only the grace of God that might bestow on any of us a miracle, a divine presence.
The suggestion embedded so artfully by a painter otherwise at work to conceal his art is that we have to be reminded not to take for granted what we believe. We are tempted to presume on the miracle of our access to the Gospels–to presume a familiarity with those stories and, therefore, with the grace on which they rest. In reading the witnesses to Christ, we presume, we, too, are thereby witnesses, as though it meant nothing more than looking out the window into the house adjacent. We have to be reminded what a leap it is to arrive at any real familiarity with the witness.