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Reflections on Unity in Community through Artistic Expressions of the Last Supper

"Community" and "communion" are big words that mean different things for different people. Perhaps because I am a Christian with a big appetite for eating and cooking, I have often thought of two paintings about the Last Supper when thinking about community and communion.

The first painting happens to be the most famous among all artistic representations of the Last Supper: Leonardo di Vinci's mural in a church in Milan. Christians and non-Christians alike have admired this painting, and so have I. I love its breathtaking symmetry from the foreground to the back to the ceiling to the groupings of its thirteen figures. I love the terrific details about each person, starting with Jesus in the middle and moving to Bartholomew on the outer left and Simon the Zealot on the furthest right.

last supper by divinci

In Vasari's The Lives of the Artists, which my Great Books students read during this semester, the biographer writes that Milanese and foreign visitors alike held this painting in veneration because Leonardo "had imagined and succeeded in expressing the suspicion the Apostles experienced when they sought to discover who would betray their master." Leonardo dramatizes the most dramatic moment of the Last Supper, showing the reactions among twelve to the unexpected revelation from Jesus. The faces, in Vasari's words, "show their love, fear, and indignation, or, rather, sorrow, over being unable to grasp Christ's meaning."

Leonardo's wondrous creation illustrates Christian humanism during the Renaissance, but it also makes me think about the messiness of being in a community of believers today. As Christians, we strive to love and be grateful for one another: yes. But we also show plenty of fear, mistrust, and indignation towards one another, directly or indirectly.

We should hold the apostles as ideals for living our faith, and we should be mindful that their experience of community and communion carried not a little doubt, fear, frustration, jealousy, even betrayal as exemplified by Peter's denials. Leonardo's painting is a reminder about the messy reality about living together as followers of Jesus.

A different interpretation of the Last Supper comes from the Danish-German artist Emil Nolde. He was a prominent figure of Expressionism, a movement in the early twentieth century that sought to convey how the world felt rather than how it looked. Expressionist artists employed distorted perspectives and garish colors, among other things, to articulate the inner over than the outer. The painting "The Scream" by Edvard Munch is probably the most recognizable example of Expressionist art.

Emil Nolde Last Supper

Nolde grew up in a very religious Protestant family, but he did not begin to paint religious subjects until his forties and after recovery from a serious illness. Having seen Leonardo's mural painting some years before, he reworked the subject of the Last Supper and ended up with a drastically interpretation five centuries after Leonardo's creation.

It should be noted upfront that like many people of his time, place, and station, Nolde strongly supported the Nazi Party. Ironically, the Nazis condemned his work as "degenerate art" and removed over a thousand of his paintings from museums. They even banned him from painting. On the one hand, he was an admirer of non-European art and wrote that "no race is worse or better than the other [because] before God they are all equal." On the other hand, he remained a far-right nationalist and held to a vulgar and ugly anti-Semitism. It was a complicated history, to say the least. Like the music of Wagner, one's appreciation for the art should neither obscure nor negate the dark politics of the artist.

Back to the painting, Nolde's representation differs from Leonardo's mural in composition as much as it is in thematic emphasis. Instead of focusing on the reactions among the apostles, it highlights Jesus holding the cup and saying, "This is my blood of the covenant."

Rather than a variety of reactions, the painting shows unity and communion among the apostles, whose faces turn towards Jesus while sharing a similar expression. (Situated on the upper left side, Judas is the only one that looks away from the center.) Besides the cramped space among Jesus and the apostles, Nolde reinforces their companionship by showing one apostle extending his hand to another while a third apostle wraps his arm around the shoulder of the second. The followers of Jesus need one another as much as they need him.

I retain enormous admiration for the Leonardo painting, and I'd suggest a two-week exercise during which each day is spent on one apostle. Study his face and posture in the painting for a few minutes, then go online and learn more about him before looking again at him in the painting. For the last two days, study Leonardo's portrayal of Jesus then the entire table. This exercise, I think, will generate new insights about community and communion, possibly on the tension between individuality and community in living the Christian life.

That said, I find the Nolde painting speak to our times somewhat more powerfully than does Leonardo's masterpiece. I think that its Expressionist depiction of anguish and sorrow evokes the experience of anxiety, distress, depression, and other aspects related to the issues and problems of our society.

Given the unity noted above, however, I also find the painting revelatory of the quiet determination among the apostles to absorb the pain and anguish of Jesus. They look as if they were unified in brokenness, and they were determined to follow him and participate in his mission. It appears to me that they want to be in it together, to suffer together, and to be redeemed together. The fear and sadness over Jesus' forthcoming suffering and death is not the end but the beginning.

Not long ago, I looked at this painting again and thought back to an update on social media that a colleague shared last year during that grievous day of November 8. "The news came in during class," she wrote on Facebook, "that Pepperdine student Alaina Housley was killed in the Thousand Oaks shooting. I did not know what to say. They did not know what to say. We wept." In that moment, the small community of this classroom turned into a communion of shared sorrow. And I think it illustrated the experience of communion among members of the Pepperdine community then and after the shooting and wildfires.

Dr. Tuan Hoang Dr. Tuan Hoang is an Assistant Professor of Great Books in the 
Humanities/Teacher Education Division at Seaver College.