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.