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The Last Supper

Dieric Bouts
1464 - 1468
150 cm x 180 cm
Inventory number: 
Museum M Leuven
Category A: Flemish primitives
15th century Christs Old Testaments
Religious scenes

The Last Supper is depicted in a contemporary and bourgeois interior. The painter chose for a central standpoint that makes for a strictly symmetrical composition possible. The floor is set with a variegated pattern of glazed tiles. In the upper half of the painting we see nearly the complete back and sidewalls of the room. A wooden ceiling framework encloses the room. Against the back wall, a monumental hearth in white stone rises up the entire height of the room. It is closed off with a wooden panel that conceals the soot-covered backside. In front of the hearth a copper chandelier hangs on a pulley. The left wall of the room is broken up by two gothic windows with tracery. They offer a view out onto an open plane with wooden and stone houses and a large building with corner towers. To the right, the locale is extended by a small space, separated from the actual room by two gothic arches that rest on a central, red-marble pillar. To the right of the mantel, a high open door leads to a closed garden. On the transom, above the entrance there is a small image of Moses with the tablets of the Law. In the hallway, a wall niche with a water kettle functions as a sink. The arch in profile above the niche rests upon both ends on the figure of a man and a woman. They refer to Adam and Eve and also express a feeling of domestic communion.

Christ sits with his disciples symmetrically around a nearly square table, which is decked with a white tablecloth. A long and narrow cloth from another white material lies around the table’s edge and serves as a serviette. In the centre is a crenellated dish with brown sauce, referring to the lamb that has been eaten. The table setting consists of diverse sorts of glasses, knives, a salt dish and a crystal decanter with the wine that shall be blessed after the Host.

Peter is found on the right side of Christ, his hands reverently folded before his chest. John, shrouded in a white mantle sits at Jesus’s left side and has his hand in the manner of prayer. This makes it appear that he is intensely involved with the consecration of the bread. The apostle next to John greatly resembles Christ and is Jacob the Younger, the son of a half-sister of Mary. According to the old tradition, he was called a brother of Christ. This apostle also looks in the direction of the Host and lays his hands thereby on the table. Judas, Christ’s betrayer, is found—as is in the convention—on the other side of the table. He disturbs the serene character of the scene. His grimacing face shows brutal intents and he challengingly lays his left hand in his loin. The remaining apostles look in various directions and appear to be deeply lost in thought. Their hands suggest their wonder, reverence or meditation.

On the tableau we recognise four other personages. The first stands with folded hands directly behind Peter and looks at Christ’s hands. A second one is found by the cupboard on the right, and the two remaining figures look through a transparent sheet in the back wall. On the folded down board there are two crenellated dishes with the remains of the dinner.

Regarding the commission, we are well informed because of the contract that has been kept. The figure on the right side is often mistakenly compared to Dieric Bouts. The four persons that are to be identified as the masters of the brotherhood, with whom Bouts sealed the contract for the triptych, namely Erasmus van Baussele, Laureys van Wynge, Reynier Stoep and the baker, Stas Roelofs. The commissioners of the work are not depicted kneeling, as was customary, but show up as servants to the supper and as witnesses to the initiation of the Eucharist. The enjoyment of the Eucharist, moreover, forms the specific devotion of the fraternity.

The tableaux on the side panels are meant to be depictions of the Last Supper and of the Eucharist, and thus go chronologically and content-wise before the middle panel. They do not just foretell it, they also explain it.

On the left panel (upper), the meeting of Abraham and Melchisedech is portrayed. The story is borrowed from the book of Genesis (14: 18-20). Melchisedech, king of Salem and priest of the Highest, offers bread and wine to the patriarch Abraham near the gates of Salem, after his victory at Kedorlaomer. The former is left on the foreground, presented as a prince. The wine is seen to be in a valuable rhinestone pitcher. With an elegant genuflection, Abraham accepts the food and drink offered, while he makes a salutary gesture. As a warrior, he wears a protective cloak, a suit of armour and a sword. Behind Mechisedech, there is a man with a pointed hat, with a sceptre of a prince in his left hand. Out of respect he contains this with a long, yellow cloth. Abraham is accompanied by a warrior with a lance and dagger. Abraham’s army patiently waits in the background on the rocks and hills. The servant up front holds fast the horse of the dismounted commander. The two personages in black, on the left background, are seen as Varenacker and Bailluwel, Bouts’s advisors, which the iconography maintains.

The lowermost tableau shows the Seder meal of the Jews. In a contemporary room, a Jewish family cluster around the table to partake of the Paschal Lamb. (Exodus 12: 1-28). The roasted animal lies on a large platter. Around the platter we notice small breads made without yeast, as well as the bitter herbs from the biblical text—likened to wild lettuce. The central figure with the Jew’s cap and clothed in a red mantle, carves the lamb. By the manner of his hold he also shows it impressively to the viewer. The animal is a symbol of Christ. He carves it carefully, because the bones must not be broken.

On the right-most panel (upper) the manna is depicted. The story of the rain of manna plays out during the journey of the Jews through the desert on the way to the Promised Land (Exodus 16: 2-36, Numbers 11: 6-9). Bouts situates the events in a rocky landscape, at the break of dawn, a bold move. The manna must be gathered before the sun comes up, otherwise it will melt away because of the heat. In a lightened cloud, Jahweh appears as the protector of his chosen people. On the foreground a woman and two men kneeling gather the manna into jugs or baskets. They are all richly clothed. Both men can probably be associated with Moses and Aaron, the chief figures of the story. The latter must fill up a jug in the Ark of the Covenant served to preserve for future generations.

On the lower half of the panel, Elias is fed by the angel. The source of the imagery is the first book of Kings (19: 1-8), that contains the report of the prophet, who in order to save his life, flees to the desert. During his sleep, he is awakened by an angel who invites him to eat the bread and to drink from the jug with water that he has brought along. The painter interprets this passage literally. The head of the sleeping Elias rests upon his left hand. Next to his head is found the food: an earthenware beaker with bread on top of it. A stunning white angel treads softly nearby and wakes the prophet up with a careful hand gesture. From the foreground a meandering way leads up to a high spot, strewn with jagged rocks. There we again recognise Elias, who fortified by the heavenly food, begins a journey of forty days and forty nights, until he ultimately shall reach the divine mountain Horeb, where Jahweh appears. The landscape is desolate and evokes the desert from the biblical text.