Sarah Johnson Home Front
Don’t tell Dan Brown, whose book The Da Vinci Code has persuaded a credulous generation that Jesus Christ survived the crucifixion, married St Mary Magdalene and made a fresh start selling holiday timeshares in the south of France... or something; don’t tell Brown, but I have discovered a hidden code in another painting of the Last Supper.
Frustratingly, the only reproduction of this painting I can find is a rotten little postcard which, as tends to be the case with postcards bought in Italian churches, is woefully short on information. Whoever printed the postcard cut out about a foot’s width of the left-hand side, removing an entire figure and spoiling the symmetry of the painting. Obviously a deliberate act of sabotage by a sinister international religious conspiracy, wouldn’t you say?
And to add to my frustration, this particular Last Supper, which all but jumped off the wall at me when I walked into the church of San Polo in Venice, is not nearly so well known as Da Vinci’s. It is by Tintoretto, painted in 1568-69, nearly 25 years before he painted his more famous Last Supper for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore.
A Google search will only turn up the more famous, later painting, rather than this one, which is to my eyes so much more interesting. It’s clearly that dratted sinister international conspiracy up to its tricks again. They’ve got control of Google now.
As in Da Vinci’s picture, Tintoretto has placed Jesus right in the middle of the picture – so far, so similar. But instead of sitting placidly, as Da Vinci portrayed Him, the Lord has half-risen from his chair behind the table. He is pressing forward, urgently, as though wanting to push his way out through the canvas. He is leaning over slightly to one side, adding to the sense of emergency and action.
In each hand He holds a morsel of bread and rather than limply handing the bread out, like Da Vinci’s Jesus, this Christ is energetically thrusting the bread right in the faces of the two disciples on either side of Him, nearly touching them, nearly cramming it between their teeth. I have the distinct impression that He may have knocked something over on the table in his urgency.
“Take, eat,” he seems to be begging the disciples, with gritted teeth, “remember me.” Where Jesus is the still centre of Da Vinci’s painting, in Tintoretto’s he is the heart and source of a burst of atomic energy radiating out of the picture.
The other figures are all active and busy, but their busy-ness is purposeless in comparison with Jesus. Compared with Da Vinci’s table, this one is a bit of a mess. An argument is being conducted behind Jesus’s right shoulder; hands are waved, the tablecloth is askew, there is someone under the table clearly the worse for drink; a servant is busy with crockery.
The disciples are aware of what Jesus is doing – but only He seems aware of how little time there is, how much this action, this moment, matters. For me, the magic of the painting is in the contrast between Christ’s urgency and forcefulness and the energysapping effect of domestic chaos.
Everyone except Jesus is distracted by the little quotidian things, some of them worthy but others less worthy. The picture gives me a tremendous sense of spiritual energy. His arms thrust out towards me through the minutiae of shopping for legs of lamb, of laying and clearing tables, of hiding little foil wrapped eggs around the garden for children to find, the million little jobs of family life. “Never mind all that,” He seems to say. This is what matters.
If Tintoretto was playing other games (using portraits of living people in the picture, for example), then the games are all lost on us now, and seem irrelevant and childish. As an artist, however, he has passed down a far more astonishing secret code – a code present in the life-giving energy of the central figure, the explosive creative force captured at the birth of a spiritual chain reaction that changed the world.