Looking for the Shape of The Last Supper

by Josephine Livingstone for Cabinet Magazine

Based on my own experience of eating dinner, tables are often rectangular, although oval is a common shape too. My own dining room table is oval. The round table at King Arthur’s court was round so that nobody was at the head of it, but this is rarely practical. You can sit more guests around an oval. On Sundays, we—the girls and I—have our friends from the neighborhood over for dinner. The table is too big for the room, so its big white body pushes ours to the edges. We all face inward. The lights are low but the table glows up from under the plates, candles, and flowers.

At the Divers’ perfect dinner party in Tender Is the Night, the hosts made everybody feel special. They were outdoors. “The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky like a mechanical dancing platform, giving the people around it a sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe, nourished by its only good, warmed by its only lights.” But the captivating effect all came down to Nicole and Dick. The faces of the guests turn towards the hosts like “the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree.”

We call the sacramental bread the “host” because of the Latin word hostia, which means a victim. In the fourth century CE, Saint Jerome translated the Bible into a Latin version called the Vulgate, and that’s where the word hostia first entered the Christian lexicon. “This is my body,” is what Christ said over bread at the last supper: hoc est corpus meum, very simple words. He must be so tired of dinner, having been a host and a host and the thing that makes a Christmas tree what it is and the subject of graces said at a million tables each day. Nicole and Dick were sacrificed in the end, now I think about it. Hosting is not easy. The host becomes a fifth table leg, holding everything up.

But metaphors are often unfair to the material things that they draw upon. So, it is the table itself that I think of most. The table always attends the dinner party but cannot speak. A defect in the table—a mismatch between its leg length and a squint in the floor level—can ruin a party, flinging a glass of wine over a guest who might laugh it off or might not. We only notice the table when it fails in its duty.

The mosaics that cover the walls of the Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna were put together in the sixth century CE. Here, the table of the Last Supper is a semicircular shape, and the apostles are reclining away from it. This shape is perfect for display. The men at the dinner fan out like playing cards held in a skilled hand.

And what good, curvaceous fish to adorn it. The table of the Last Supper became rectangular in many of its most famous portraits, which gave each artist the question of whether he would put the people all on one side, or not. The scene became a popular decoration for the Renaissance refectories of monasteries, the cenacoli. (The Last Supper is also called the ultima cena.) Monks would eat without talking, devoting themselves instead to contemplating Christ’s command to remember him during that last meal.

As Louis Inturrisi observed in a 1997 New York Times piece about Florence’s Last Supper murals, everyone on Ghirlandaio’s fresco at the Convent of the Ognissanti painting looks very clever and superior—“even the cat crouching in the foreground … looks as if he knows more than we do.” The Ghirlandaio painting is sort of exactly what you see in your mind when you hear the words “painting of the Last Supper.” It’s so beautiful it makes me crazy. The table is very long and rectangular, but with little extra parts at the end projecting forward. Some people call this a “shallow U” but it reminds me more of side tables hastily appended at an overcrowded Thanksgiving. Everybody is on the side of the table that faces us, except Judas, who is alone on the near side. On Christ’s left, John is unconscious. Although the room of the Last Supper is usually enclosed, Ghirlandaio gives the upper half of the painting over to an outdoor view of heartbreaking trees and birds.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper also uses a rectangular table. Every character is arrayed on the far side of it, as if arranged on a shelf for our inspection. Da Vinci has achieved a great thing here, which is to present a group in the motion of revelation, but folded out as if by scientific cross-section. Nobody has dinner down one side of a table, at least not that I’ve ever seen. But there is incredulous Thomas, swooning John, a jostling crowd, and Judas in shadow. Da Vinci’s is not a table separated from the world, rising up into the sky on the winds of charm, but a table in a room in the world. Its surface is held up by trestles at either end. It is almost uncomfortable to look at. A ruined dinner party is a sad place to be.

I prefer a table that rises from the earth. Lippo Memmi’s fourteenth-century Last Supper frescoes in the Duomo di San Gimignano. The men here are angry. Memmi has put them all the way around the table, but placed the haloes on the near-side apostles on the far side of their heads, which creates an odd effect of depth. And the table and benches are at a strange angle, of course. They ought to be. The table held the flesh and blood of Christ. The benches held that weight too.

Here, Christ passes the bread to Judas, fingering him for the predicted crime of betrayal. The transferral represents the highest drama possible, because it’s the single social moment that allows all of spiritual history to be reconfigured in the crucifixion and resurrection. The moment contains all those meanings, but at the second it takes place, it is just drama. Memmi’s fresco is like a freeze-frame in a reality television show, the zoom that enlarges a woman’s face into a grimace of shock. We cut to another woman’s face, to find enraged disbelief. Everybody looks from one face to another face to another. The instant lasts forever.

The “wrong” angle of the table is what makes Memmi’s fresco perfect. We do not notice a table unless it does something irregular. Perhaps you are sitting at that particular part of the board where the leg is uncomfortably between your knees. Then you notice it. Perhaps there is not quite enough space for all of you, or perhaps there is too much space and the tablecloth is stretching between you like an ice floe. “Say that again?” Nobody can hear each other.

But in Memmi’s fresco the table floats upward. Although the communal feeling is shock rather than the temporary bliss of the Divers’ party, the apostles and Christ are in a dark void together. Their table is important and visible. It is tilting, it is draped with a noticeable cloth, it holds a cooked animal at its center. Like the wood of the cross or the silver that Judas fingered or the plant that grew the thorns that Christ wore, the material is innocent. Or at least, if the materials of the Christian tale have agency in the story, it is not a kind of agency or consciousness that we can understand. Only here, in the fresco, can we see the table announce itself. I was here too! It says. There is no supper without me.

This piece is part of an ongoing partnership with Cabinet Magazine. Every month, the writing and editing team at Cabinet will produce articles surrounding our monthly Seminar Series, Homo Sapiens, I Hear You - a yearlong workshop based on reinterpreting and reimagining man's essential needs.

Josephine Livingstone is the culture staff writer at the New Republic and holds a PhD in medieval literature from New York University.