I have Jesus Christ Superstar on the brain. On. the. brain. I just can’t get enough of it. I love how human Judas is in the play/movie. He’s a real person with frustrations and justifications, real, true anger and real, true love. We know how it’s going to go. We know his fate before the movie even begins. And then I’m always so happy to see him show up again, all be-fringed and belting it out toward the end of the movie. So what does this have to do with the Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia in Florence? I’ll tell you: the Judas in Andrea del Castagno‘s Last Supper there is about as far from the Jesus Christ Superstar Judas as you can get. But let’s step back for a minute. Here’s the painting:
It probably looks familiar – not exactly the same as Leonardo’s more famous, and later, version, but the format is similar. Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper, again like Leonardo’s, is in a refectory (the place where monks/nuns eat in a monastery or convent, “cenacolo” in Italian) in a convent in Florence. Whether or not you’ve seen it before, take a moment and bask in its amazingness. The marble panels behind the disciples. Their halos. The variety of faces the artist has depicted here. The sphinx sculptures at the ends their bench. I particularly appreciate the names of many of the disciples below their feet. (Although I wonder why some are written there and some are not.) And check out the positions of their feet, too, while you’re at it.
Much has been written about this painting, and I don’t want to go into an extensive formal analysis. But I think that just sitting and looking and thinking for a minute is never a waste of time. Click here for a larger version with zooming capabilities.
Back to Judas. Here’s a detail:
He so strikingly breaks the plane of the white tablecloth, but his head is at the same level as the apostles sitting on the other side of the table. He has no halo. He’s one of them, but he’s not. Check out the marble panel behind his head (and behind Jesus and Peter, too) and how much more turbulent it is than the other panels – such a great device for drawing our attention! Judas is depicted with the head of a satyr, a symbol of the devil, but this is nothing new: he’s already been demonized in art long before this painting and will be long after. In the words of Jesus Christ Superstar, “Poor old Judas!”
Just for fun, let’s take a quick look at some other last suppers that were created nearby. I’ll bet you thirty silver coins that you can pick out Judas in this one:
This one’s tricky:
And then there’s this:
which copies Leonardo’s iconic version:
It’s not as easy to pick out Judas here, but that’s due to the state of the painting. Here he is: dark, bearded, again satyr-like:
I’m fascinated that the nuns of Sant’Apollonia chose Andrea del Castagno to paint their Last Supper. (You can read more about it – we don’t know much – and all aspects of this fresco here.) He also painted a Crucifixion, Entombment, and Resurrection in the refectory, and according to art historian Eve Borsook, this is different. “As in earlier versions, the Crucifixion appears as the tragic fulfillment of the sacrifice of Christ’s flesh and blood, symbolized in the bread and wine of the Eucharist as his last meal. But by adding the Entombment and the Resurrection to the conventional scheme, Castagno’s is a more humane interpretation: the Resurrection instead of the Crucifixion is the final episode.”(1) Those other frescoes have been removed from the wall, so you can not only see the frescoes still on display there but also the sinopie, or underdrawings, that were used to paint the fresco.
Did you find Judas in Fra Angelico’s painting above? If not, he’s one of the figures kneeling, with a darker halo. You can barely see him. Clearly he’s not the focus here!
Just for fun, I’ll end with two of my favorite, more modern Last Suppers – quite different from the versions above but still recognizable.
A final note: Heard of The Last Supper (or in Italian, “L’Ultima Cena”) for ages but not sure what it is exactly? Here’s a quick and easy version: It’s the last meal that Jesus Christ had before he was crucified, and is part of the story of Jesus Christ’s last days, sometimes called “The Passion.” It’s the basis for the modern Christian Eucharist, or Holy Communion, when Christians either eat bread and wine that represent Christ’s body and blood, or in Catholicism, eat bread and wine that they believe has been changed into Christ’s body and blood, to remember the sacrifice that he made. The Last Supper was taken in the Garden of Gethsemane by Jesus and the twelve disciples, and during this meal, Jesus told the disciples that one of them would deny three times that he knew Christ and one of them would betray him. Of course, Judas already knows that he’s the betrayer since it’s already in the works, but the others don’t know and are shocked by Jesus’s words. So in Leonardo’s version, he’s just told them this and they’re all reacting to the news.
In addition to Judas, you can easily recognize two other figures in the Last Supper, once you know what you’re looking for. John the Evangelist is shown as a young man, often sleeping next to Jesus. He’s exhausted, poor little lamb. And usually Peter is on the other side of Jesus. If you know of any recognizable disciples in these scenes, let me know!
(1) Eve Borsook, The Companion Guide to Florence, London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991 (sixth edition): 295.