The Last Supper (fresco, c.1480) by Ghirlandaio, Domenico (Domenico Bigordi) (1449-94)
Paintings of The Last Supper are amongst the most frequent scenes depicted in Western art. This is not surprising. The dramatic scene in which Christ’s betrayer Judas reveals himself in the midst of a meal shared with the apostles opens the Passion narrative. Depictions of the story feature especially in Italian art of the renaissance. In Florence a tradition developed where religious communities of women and men commissioned artists to locate the scene of The Last Supper on the refectory wall. Ghirlandaio’s The Last Supper painted for the refectory of the monastery of the Ognissanti situates the scene in a room where we must imagine the table stretching across the dining space. At the short ends of the table as we see in this detail, a single figure closes the composition. Ghirlandaio renowned for his lively figures invests this scene of a shared meal with fine descriptive passages of everyday life. The apostles as we see in this detail react to the moment of betrayal (which is not included in the detail) with a variety of well-observed actions. Gestures intended to individuate each apostle’s reaction to the words of betrayal signal to the viewer a range of emotions. The youthful apostle at the left places a hand in a respectful gesture on the arm of his much older companion beside him. This action juxtaposes the old man’s confusion with the younger man’s dawning understanding. The third apostle, reacts decisively to the drama. His body pivots away from his companions at left. We read in his abrupt movement the horror felt by a good man as he recoils from betrayal. Ghirlandaio’s figures inhabit a world drawn from daily life. Through the apostles frescoed before us Ghirlandaio invites the viewer to imaginatively become one with Christ at his table.
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