Tag Archives: Leonardo da Vinci

6th Sunday Easter (C) John:14:23-29

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan 1498

The Gospel reading for the 6th Sunday of Easter (C) comes from the account of the farewell discourse of Christ at the Last Supper, on the night before his death. As fits liturgically with the proximity of Pentecost, which marks the culmination of the Easter season, the coming of the Spirit is one of the themes of the Gospel for the 6th Sunday. There are other themes, recurring ones in John’s Gospel, of Jesus as the Word of God for the faithful, of the peace which only Christ can give and of the sorrow of Christ’s departure, as well as the theme of belief.

On one level, Leonardo’s painting of the Last Supper concertinas moments in the sequence of the announcement of Christ’s betrayal from John’s account in Chapter 13, with some details from the synoptics; there is Christ’s actual announcement, the denial and shock of the disciples, Peter leaning towards the Beloved Disciple to ask him to ask the Lord who he means, and Christ the handing of the morsel to Judas, However, on another level, Leonardo draws on the image of Christ and his message found in the whole of the Farewell Discourse (as chapters 13-17 of John’s Gospel are known) as well as the whole Paschal Mystery for his painting of the Last Supper and the themes of this week’s passage may be found there too.

Leonardo drew on precedents by Ghirlandaio, and del Castagno, as well as others before for the basic composition of the Last Supper, with a central Christ and apostles arranged along each side of him at table, though sketches suggest he was experimenting with other possibilities. However, the dynamic movement away from the central figure of Christ in shock and denial at Christ’s words of betrayal and their consternation contrasted with the composure of Christ is his own. Leonardo achieves this through dramatic positioning of the figures and by the facial expressions of the apostles, juxtaposed with a serene expression of Christ.

Leonardo shows Christ touched with human tenderness and compassion for the disciples as at any moment of farewell, but there is also a deeper pain present at their lack of understanding of of what is taking place, compounded by their aggressive response to the announcement of betrayal. The painting works in a way analogously to the Gospel of John. There, the narrator, as one is reminded several times, is the Beloved Disciple who gives us a horizon of Resurrection belief beyond Christ’s death and the bewilderment we experience as we hear the Passion narrative unfold. Similarly, the Beloved Disciple in the painting is the only serene figure apart from Christ, and reveals the joy of the post-resurrection believer in Christ’s victory, right in the middle of Leonardo’s depiction of denial and all too human responses in the other disciples. The Beloved Disciple in Leonardo’s painting is the one whom the Word has found a home in, whose heart is not troubled or afraid, who lives in the Spirit, who has heard and keeps the Word that has been told and who believes.


Easter (A,B,C) John 20:1-9

Easter is the celebration of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ, the annual commemoration of the event at the heart of Christian faith. Buttressed by six weeks of preparation and seven weeks of deepening reflection, it extends over a quarter of the year. The event also gives shape to every week in that each Friday to Sunday echoes the great event. At the heart is Christ’s journey to the cross, burial in the tomb and Resurrection, so perhaps it is appropriate to choose an image which seems to draw on the whole Paschal Mystery, rather than only the summit, the Resurrection.

This painting by Memling was brought to light from a private collection at an auction at Sotheby’s earlier this year. Hitherto, it had not featured in scholarly writing about Memling’s paintings. The attribution is now upheld by several scholars. It shows Christ blessing and was painted in the 1480s. It is a devotional image, close to other examples of the subject by Memling, the Christ Blessing  in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts, dated 1481 and Christ Blessing in the Norton Simon museum, Pasadena and also Antonello della Messina’a earlier Christ blessing from 1465 in the National Gallery, London

The origins of the theme are complex and two fold. On the one hand they may lie originally in the icon of ‘extreme humiliation’ in Byzantine art in the 12th century. Even before the discovery of a shroud, purported to be that in which Christ was wrapped, brought from Palestine to Constantinople in 1204, already, linen for the consecrated species of the Eucharist had embroidered or painted on it the sleeping figure of Christ. The ‘extreme humiliation’ icon (Akra Tapeinosis) seems to have developed from this, and the shroud probably encouraged devotion. The icon shows the dead Christ, whose body lies in death while his divinity is awake and his soul is in hell. Sometimes the Christ is seen close up, and sometimes standing in the tomb. It is a Holy Saturday image, but still emphasises the divinity of Christ, whose katabasis saves us. In the West the image slightly changed and became more humanly focussed ‘the Man of Sorrows’, where the emphasis is more on the suffering of Christ, and on fostering our compassion in response. Sometimes the attributes of the Passion, the nails, ladder and sponge were featured, too.  We can see this in the Memling’s Man of Sorrows, from the devotional collection of Queen Isabella of Spain in Granada. There were many artists who painted these for devotional purposes in the 15th century.

On the other hand, the image derives from the icon of Christ as the Saviour of the world, also found first in Byzantine iconography, and then in the west, which developed into images such as Roger van der Weyden’s Salvator Mundi in the Braque family portrait,and that recently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci  where Christ is portrayed more clearly in majesty. These show Christ as a Saviour, as ruler and judge, sometimes with orb and sceptre. The painting is also reminiscent of Van Eyck’s Holy Face, seen in copies such as this from the Groeningen museum and other paintings after the Sudarium, the miraculous image of Christ’s face believed to have been imprinted during the Passion.

This image above, like the others by Memling, draws on all of these and seems to be of a more human Christ,  rather than a Man of Sorrows type, or the Salvator Mundi. We cannot see his wounds, significantly, perhaps, because of the blessing he gives us.  He does not emerge from a tomb, but his hand rests on a ledge. Indeed, the tips of his fingers on the left hand were painted on the frame, now lost, which further emphasised the reality of the figure in the viewer’s space. Nor is Christ magnificently enrobed or crowned, and holds neither sceptre nor orb. Nevertheless, this is the Resurrected Christ who blesses us in his conquering of death, even if the markers of this are limited and the space is indeterminate, Christ is shown as a human figure in time, yet also beyond time, the alpha and the omega.

In the Sotheby’s catalogue entry there is a detailed report on the painting. Research analysis shows that, originally, Christ’s head was surrounded by cerulean blue clouds which became whiter nearer to Christ’s head, a sign of divine light. However, it seems Memling over-painted this background with the gold ground appearing through dark clouds, making for an even more dramatic and celestial finish. In this respect it is close to the gold ground of  Memling’s Salvator Mundi with musical angels dated 1491 in Koninkijk Museum.

In doing so, did Memling wish to accentuate the divinity of Christ to complement the humanity rendered so skillfully in the details of the beard and face? It is not clear whether the decision was at the request of a patron or a decision of the artist himself, but it serves to better portray both the humanity and divinity of Christ, and bring together his suffering and his triumph, ours, too, in Resurrection.

Christ the King, Last Sunday of Year B: John 18: 33-37

This Sunday the reading is for the final week of the year and does not come from Mark, but is chosen from John’s Gospel to fit the theme of the feast, which is Christ the Universal King. The chioce of gospel fits the understanding of Christ’s kingship being distinct and different from worldly kingship, at the same time situating it in the Passion and showing that its roots are in this action of God’s love. The panel we can see above, which shows the passage from the Gospel, is taken from the Maesta, originally on the high altar of Siena cathedral, one of the most ambitious altarpieces ever painted. Duccio painted the Maesta with a team of assistants between 1308 and 1311, when it was installed in a solemn procession in the Cathedral. The Maesta is two sided. The front is Mariological with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and of Christ’s birth around the central image of Mary seated in majesty with the Christ Child. The back, with its scenes of the Passion is Christological. This was seen by the clergy when seated around the chancel for the praying of the Office and also for the celebration of Mass.

This scene of Christ before Pilate for the Second Time is taken from the end of the top left row of the rear of the altarpiece. Duccio uses a conflation of the gospel accounts. The sequence of panels depicting the passion is to be read boustrephedonically, that is up, along, down and up and so on, with the sequence ascending. Duccio was careful to arrange the design of images in each panel to fit the overall design and movement of the narrative and to give a sense of balance so the scene moves from left to right. In this painting, from the far left of the work, the artist positions a large body of figures- the Pharisees and soldiers, on the left, behind Jesus as he faces Pilate, who wears the robe given him by Herod to ridicule him from the scene below.

One is struck by the isolation of Jesus, by the clusters of the Pharisees and soldiers who both act as single masses. Just as in Leonardo’s painting of the Last Supper the artist shows the singularity of Jesus and the movement away from Christ in the  groups of apostles, here we can see Duccio create a similar force. He clusters and positions the groups both close to but distinct from Jesus, fearful but, perhaps, deep down, curious about this figure. For what he is to do is something beyond human comprehension, and the strength and grace needed to do so unimaginable, but which shows love even beyond persecution.

Duccio seems to show Jesus leading humanity, albeit hesitantly, towards a different set of values from those of Pilate and the wordly power of the Roman Empire, towards kingship as service and love even at great cost.