If you were on death row, what would you choose for your last meal? Lobster, pizza, linguine all’aglio e olio? Let’s change to the Last Supper of Christ. According to historians, the last supper was held on the occasion of Jewish Passover and therefore the menu was most likely composed of bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and charoset (a dessert of dried fruit) while the wine, almost surely red, was diluted with two parts water according to usage at the time.
But in art it’s another matter. Painters throughout history enriched the table according to customs of their times and followed specific symbolic conventions. Here are some examples taken from an article in Focus.it:
- The first artistic representation, from the 6th century A.C., is a mosaic in the Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. There isn’t a trace of wine on the table, but besides bread, appear two large fish. From early Christian tradition, the fish was a symbol of Christ.
- One of the dishes often depicted in Medieval and Renaissance times was lamb, as in this painting of the Master of the Book of Home, an anonymous German working between 1500 and 1600. Lamb is a symbol of purity, but also of sacrifice: its presence foreshadows the destiny of Christ. The painting is in the Gemäldegalerie of Berlin and is part of the altar panels called Polyptch of the Passion.
- Lamb wasn’t the only type of meat painted by artists. Within the altarpiece of the Majesty, Duccio di Buoninsegna, a Siena painter from the mid 1200s, replaces lamb with what appears to be a roasted piglet. This was a very common food at the time of the painter, but also an obvious historical inaccuracy, given that Jesus, being Jewish, would not have eaten pork. Today the painting is preserved at the Museum of the Duomo in Siena.
- Peeking out in a series of frescoes in Friuli, Trentino, and Veneto are river shrimp, much appreciated in those areas but that convey different meanings. Among the most curious is one that claims that shrimp symbolize heresy and sin because they are moving “backwards.” Here is the fresco of Antonio Baschenis (end of the 15th century) at Santo Stefano a Carisolo in Trento.
- Perhaps more sophisticated than the shrimp are the cherries scattered on the elegant table painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio around 1486. Here the red of the fruit is an explicit reference to the blood of Christ. On the table covered by a delicately decorated tablecloth, are other foods, including bread and cheese. The wine and water are in beautiful amphore. Note the presence of the cat, waiting for ….? This painting is in the convent of Saint Mark in Florence, which has become a museum and where there are numerous works of Beato Angelico.
- In the Last Supper of Tintoretto, painted between 1592 and 1594 for the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, a mysterious decorated cake appears at the end of the table. To engage the viewer, the painter decided to set the scene in a hallway that resembles a tavern of the time, wrapping everything in an extraordinary play of light and shadow.
- Among the last suppers, we can’t skip the masterpiece of Leonardo da Vinci, painted between 1494 and 1495 in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. A recent study identified among the dishes an eel seasoned with orange (or lemon) slices, which was widespread in the Renaissance.