I am the true vine and my Father is the vinegrower
There aren’t any paintings of the Last Supper that are cheerful, exactly. This one includes a playful dog, however – which I find irresistible, if a little sacrilegious.
Any painting of the Last Supper has to accomplish several goals: to tell a story outlined in the Gospels as historical fact; to suggest through symbolism the events to follow – using, for example, the position of Judas at the table, the demeanour of Peter; to inspire contemplation. I am not sure where the dog comes in.
There are so many stories in this painting. Jesus knows that he is to be sold by one of his closest friends. He predicts that Peter will deny Him. He breaks bread and shares it among the company, instituting the sacrifice of Holy Communion in which we still share. In John, He washes the feet of the disciples and gives them the New Commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.
The passage in John is beautiful and moving. It is elegiac and weighted down with sadness. Facing his journey towards Hell and Resurrection, Jesus gives His disciples hope, encouragement and strength. He promises the gifts of the spirit. He promises pain and persecution and eventual victory: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.”
Jesus is tender: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you”. He is reassuring: “Let not your hearts be troubled…. I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
Again and again in John, Jesus exhorts His followers to peace, love and courage. Like a parent leaving his children, He returns to the point over and over again, giving them words that they will remember, in which they will find comfort.
This scene is not ‘awesome’. It is awful. It presages the terrible things that will happen over the coming days: betrayal, torture, public shame and disavowal, the harrowing death. And then the miracle.