Has Da Vinci Painted Our Picture of Jesus?

by Bruce Okkema

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” has come to be one of the most famous paintings of all time, yet many do not know its original setting. The image has been reproduced countless times the world over, and has become the subject of many paintings itself. 

Because this painting is so well known, it has been highly influential in establishing a picture in our minds of what the last night before Jesus’ death must have been like. Unfortunately it is the wrong picture! Nearly every detail in the picture is culturally inaccurate.

To list just a few: the people in the picture look European, certainly not Semitic. The supper that Jesus was participating in was a Jewish Passover Seder — Pesach in Hebrew. It was always celebrated after sundown, not with the blue sky as we see. These feasts have usually been celebrated with family, so there may have been other women and men dining with them, and children of all ages.

Jesus would have not been seated in the middle of a long table, he would have reclined on a couch or pillow on the floor, leaning on his left elbow. He certainly would not have been eating fish and leavened bread loaves! Rather, he would have been eating lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread as was commanded in Exodus 12. To leave lamb off the menu for Passover is to forget an essential detail of the supper in which Jesus presents himself as the true lamb of Passover.1

At the point in the Seder when Jesus took the bread, broke it and said, “this is my body broken for you” (Luke 22:19), those present would have seen him hold up the unleavened bread, the “bread of affliction” that reminded them of God’s redemption from Egypt. It was free from leaven, representative of sin in this case, just as a pure sacrifice offered at the temple had to be free of leaven. Without that image, we miss the message in Jesus’ powerful words.

Does it matter that we have the wrong picture? It does if we want to understand Jesus — if we want to understand his culture. Our human mind always associates images with our thinking process; in one sense, we think in terms of pictures. If we use the wrong picture, we will likely miss the message, and the story will sound different than intended.

Da Vinci never intended for this painting to become the theological icon that it has become. The peculiar details that he incorporated into the painting (for example, 25 hands for 12 disciples) are the subject of many books, but it is certain that historical accuracy was not his objective.

Ironically, Da Vinci’s painting which has taken Jesus out of his context, has itself has been taken out of context. We usually see the image portrayed as if it were a painting on canvas, when actually it was a mural measuring 15’ x 29’ painted on a wall in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.

Da Vinci was commissioned in 1494 by a patron of the town, Duke Ludovico, to paint a fresco in the monk’s dining hall there. Fresco is a technique using water-based paint applied directly to plaster while it is still wet, and requires the artist to work quickly before the plaster dries. Da Vinci simply could not paint this way; he wanted time to consider, to go back weeks, months, or even years later to add things.

So he decided to lay down a surface on the wall that would allow him to work as he usually did.2 He invented a technique of applying a mixture of oil and tempera over two layers of plaster, a technique that unfortunately proved to be unsuccessful. He could not have predicted that these materials would succumb to the attacks of pollution or humidity. Even during Leonardo’s lifetime the irreversible process of deterioration set in and pieces started flaking off the painting.3

The painting has undergone numerous restorations and remarkably survived a bombing raid in August of 1943, when a protective curtain hung over it prevented irreparable damage. Even so, the painting is just a shadow of what it originally was; its now dulling, neutral colors were once vivid and luminous.

As stated earlier, it was commissioned for a dining hall, but because we usually see the image cropped, we don’t realize that it was actually quite ingenious in its original setting.

Da Vinci made it look as though Jesus and his disciples were eating right there with the monks. The table at which the disciples sat was just like the ones the monks used, as were the dishes, the glassware, and even the tablecloth, with its blue embroidery and fringed ends. The architecture in the painting itself is an extension of the real architecture of the room in which it was painted. From the place occupied by the prior of the convent at meal-times, the painting appears as a continuation of the real refectory building, and the figure of Christ seems to offer the elements from the picture to the real spectators outside it. He chose to paint the moment when Jesus had just told his friends that one of them would soon betray him. The disciples were shown reacting in individual ways, with gestures and facial expressions that were very theatrical and full of emotion.4

Da Vinci’s intention was to present a character study, which is one of the reasons the painting took him four years to complete. The final work was preceded by a long series of preparatory drawings which are today in various collections around the world. The figures which gave Leonardo the greatest trouble were those of Christ and Judas, so much so that while the work was in progress, the prior of the convent went to the Ludovico, the Duke who had commissioned the work, to complain because they had not yet even been sketched.

“Perhaps the fathers know how to paint?” retorted Da Vinci to Ludovico. “How can they judge an artistic creation? For one whole year I have gone every day, morning and evening, to the Borghetto, where the scum of humanity live, to find a face that will express the villainy of Judas, and I have not yet found it. Perhaps I could take as a model the prior who has been complaining about me to your Excellency.”5

Understanding that Jesus was celebrating the Passover meal is critical for understanding how he fulfills its promises of redemption, and brings it to a new level in the lives of his followers. From the time Abraham told Isaac in Genesis 22:8 that “God himself will provide the lamb for the offering, my son” until now, the story of God’s redemption is the story that we have to get right.

Telling the story of how God himself redeemed his people out of Egypt, gave the covenant, and dwelled among them — all of this is commemorated during the Seder. It is vital to understanding Jesus and his ministry as the great fulfillment of that first act of redemption by God. The story is all about the sacrifice, the covenantal meal, blessing, teaching, and making disciples. This needs to be conveyed accurately in words and in pictures for those who come behind us to know the truth.

When you consider the impact that Da Vinci’s wrong picture has had in etching our picture of Jesus, intentionally or not, you can realize the seriousness of taking things out of context. Along with this, due to the innumerable “restorations” and re-paintings of Da Vinci’s work over 500 years, we cannot even be sure that what we see today is what he actually painted.

This scenario has been a great example of what we must not do with scripture. As we are learning and studying we should always be careful to keep things in their historical and cultural context. So as we listen, and dig, and teach, and paint, let us pray for much wisdom so that all those whom we disciple will hear a story, and see a picture that is bright, and clear, and true.

~~~~

1 Dwight A. Pryor, “Misconceptions about Jesus and the Passover” Series by the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, Dayton, Ohio jcstudies.com
2 Diane Stanley, Leonardo Da Vinci, William Morrow & Company, New York, 1996
3 Francesca Romei, Leonardo Da Vinci, Peter Bedrick Books, New York, 1994
4 Diane Stanley, ibid
5 Liana Bortolon, The Life & Times of Leonardo, The Curtis Publishing Company, New York, 1997

Photos: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], Joyofmuseums [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], BB [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Learning About Prayer From Jesus

by Lois Tverberg

It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. Luke 6:12

Jesus was a man of prayer. He stayed up all night in prayer, arose early to pray, and taught his disciples to pray. How did people pray in Jesus’ time, and how did he probably pray? Understanding the traditions of Jewish prayer adds depth and meaning to Jesus’ teachings on the subject.

For instance, the prayer that Jesus probably prayed before he broke the bread at the Last Supper was probably something like, “Blessed is he who brings forth bread from the earth.” If the very next thing Jesus says is “This is my body, broken for you,” could he be hinting that just as God brings bread from the ground, he will bring Jesus, the Bread of Life out of the ground? It is an interesting thing to ponder. Our understanding of that passage is enriched by knowing the prayers of Jesus’ day.

Jesus also teaches many parables on the importance of prayer – about the persistent widow, and about the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We can learn much about the mind of Christ on prayer by grasping his teachings as they would have been understood in his time.

We can be especially enriched by understanding the prayer that Jesus taught us. Although we know it by heart, many struggle with some of the phrases like, “thy kingdom come” and “keep us from evil” that may seem foreign to us. Understanding his prayer in the context of the other prayers of his time will help us pray as Jesus intended for us to pray.

Of course, we need to be not just hearers of the word but doers as well. These articles will only be worthwhile if they inspire you to a new level of prayer, and a more intimate walk with your Heavenly Father.

Searching Shepherd

by Lois Tverberg

Which of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in open pasture and go and look for the one that was lost until he finds it? Then when he has found it, he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing….Luke 15:4-7

Interestingly, Jesus wasn’t the only rabbi to tell parables about shepherds looking for sheep. Another person said,

When a sheep strays from the pasture, who seeks whom? Does the sheep seek the shepherd, or the shepherd seek the sheep? Obviously, the shepherd seeks the sheep. In the same way, the Holy One, blessed be He, looks for the lost.(1)

Searching Shepherd2Both Jesus’ words in Luke 15 (above) and this parable are about repentance. Jesus talks about God having joy at repentance, and this other rabbinic parable says even that when a person repents, ultimately it was God who caused it to happen. It is interesting that even other rabbis had the understanding that God has mercy on the lost, and pursues them to bring them back to himself.

How did the idea of repentance become linked together with the image of a shepherd finding his sheep? It likely came from a very important passage very early in the Scriptures, at the culmination of Deuteronomy, right after God had given his covenant. God gave grave warnings of all the terrible curses that will happen to Israel if they forsake him, the worst of which that they will be scattered as a people – the dissolving of the nation itself. But then, after all of that, he promises:

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. Deut. 30:1-6

People understood this promise was not just one of being brought back together physically, but more importantly that God would bring them back to himself spiritually – that he would give them a new heart to love himself. If they just started to repent, God would do the rest in terms of restoring their relationship.

Jeremiah reiterates this promise in chapter 31, when he speaks of the future hope for Israel:

“Hear the word of the LORD, O nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands: `He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’ … “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Jer. 31:10, 31-34

Both of these passages would have been central to the messianic hope of the people in Jesus’ day. They knew that their nation was in desperate need of redemption, both physically from the Romans, and spiritually from their sins. They longed for God to send the “shepherd” messiah who would give them all a new heart to obey God, making a new covenant with his people for an intimate relationship together.

Now we see why Jesus so frequently uses imagery of a shepherd to describe himself, and why at the Last Supper he speaks about a “new covenant for the forgiveness of sins.” He is saying that he himself is the fulfillment of God’s promise from the very beginning to forgive his people of their sins, and to give them his Spirit and new hearts to follow him.


(1) B. Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, p 192. © 1998, Hendrickson. ISBN 1-56563-244-2. Also, see B. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, © 1995, Hendrickson. ISBN: 0-80280-423-3. Both books are available at En-Gedi’s bookstore.

Photo: http://pixdaus.com/the-shepherd-and-his-sheep-in-a-beautiful-path-through-the-t/items/view/568897/

Repainting DaVinci, Again

by Lois Tverberg

You are those who have stood by Me in My trials; and just as My Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. – Luke 22:28-29

On our recent trip to Israel, we learned much of the latest thinking in archaeology. One picture that changed for us was that of the Last Supper. Many of us already know that DaVinci’s picture of the Last Supper is quite far from reality – that the disciples didn’t sit in chairs at a long table, eating fish for the Passover meal that required lamb and unleavened bread (See the related director’s article). It has been thought that they may have reclined at low seats around a U-shaped table, called a triclinium.

BurntHouse

Scholars now suggest that no tables were present at all in the room! Instead, people reclined on the floor, and platters of food were placed on mats in the middle of each group. While platters are found commonly in excavations, tables are rare, and only in the homes of the very wealthy. Also, the word “table” isn’t present in the Greek text in the descriptions of Jesus reclining and eating – every time the gospels say that Jesus reclined, the phrase “at the table” is inserted in English where it isn’t present in Greek (almost 20 times in the NASB!) Apparently common people ate on the ground, as bedouins and some Africans do even today.

It is very interesting to look at where dining at tables occurs in the Bible. In the Old Testament, it is almost exclusively in royal palaces. David dined at King Saul’s table (I Sam. 20:29) and when he was king, he invited Mephibosheth, Saul’s grandson to sit at his table (2 Sam. 9:7). A dining table seems to be associated with royalty. It sometimes is a metaphor to mean to have a close relationship with a ruler, as when it speaks of “400 prophets of Asherah who eat at the table of Jezebel” (1 Kings 19:18) Sometimes, however, “table” is used metaphorically – as in Psalm 78:19, when the Israelites say, “Can the Lord prepare a table in the wilderness?” Here it is talking about God providing food for his people, and no physical table is involved at all.

If dining at tables is understood to be an activity of nobility, it sheds light on sayings in the gospels where a table (trapeza, in Greek) is actually mentioned in the Greek text. When Jesus initially refuses to heal the woman’s son, the woman says, “But even the dogs feed on the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matt 15:27). It sounds like she is comparing Jesus to a wealthy, royal man with a great feast-laden table, to herself, an insignificant little dog scrounging for a tiny crumb. The contrast makes her saying more powerful.

And now we have a better sense of what Jesus means when he speaks of “my table” in the passage above. He is pointing forward to his royal table in heaven, when he has taken on his full glory. There we will have communion and abundant fellowship with him and each other, dining at the table of the King of Kings.