Despite the distortions caused by natural wear and tear and earlier repainting work, the Last Supper is an essential work for identifying Grão Vasco’s creative dimension. Grão Vasco takes the formal groups away from the centre and arranges them at different levels of depth, always unified or interconnected through the patterned distribution of the light, in the rigour that he shows in the expression of volume and the plasticity of form, through subtle gradations of colour, in the expressive density of the faces or in the preciousness with which he gives visibility to the tiniest and most discreet details from the foreground to the background.
The importance of this painting, one of the last works that he produced, is also linked to the singular and complex nature of its iconographic programme. Considering that it was commissioned by the bishop Dom Miguel da Silva for the chapel of his episcopal palace, located on the outskirts of the city, in Fontelo, it is quite likely that the programme was the result of the patron’s informed interference, for his opposition to the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal had earned him the hatred of Dom João III and caused him to flee to Rome in 1540.
The originality of the painting is also connected to the relationship between the figurative register, developed in a continuous fashion and without any formal interruptions, and the tripartite nature of the support. In the central panel, the figures represented on this side of the wall indicate that it is the Last Supper or the Institution of the Eucharist – Christ, who is holding the Eucharistic chalice, is flanked by St. Peter, St. John and another haloed figure, an apostle. St. Matthew, already identified as an evangelist through an inscription on his surplice, is depicted in profile and in the act of writing. The identification of the theme is reinforced with the figurations of the left panel – seven apostles are arranged around a table, which is an L-shaped continuation from the central panel. They are joining in the feast by raising the Eucharistic host. Judas, who is in the right panel, and also seen escaping in the left panel, depicted with the customary iconography of his betrayal, the purse of coins and his yellow costume, complements the group of the apostles.
Except for Judas and the small dog – certainly a symbol of loyalty and faithfulness in contrast to the apostle’s betrayal – the figurations of this panel are not normally included in the representation of the theme of the Last Supper.
The episode of the washing of the feet is evoked through the representation of the basin with water in the foreground, and the presence of the two female figures who are approaching Christ, one of them carrying the box containing the nard perfume, the attribute of Mary Magdalene, may be associated with Cupid, in a probable allusion to the dichotomy between profane love and sacred love.
To add yet another meaning to the iconographic programme, but also in order to ensure the painting’s visual unity, a continuous wall is represented across the whole of its width, separating the different grounds.
In the central panel, a group of figures appear in an adjacent compartment, one of whom is carrying the Easter lamb to the Eucharistic table, in keeping with the traditional Jewish celebration. The objects that are placed on the table – the bitter herbs and the unleavened bread – may be understood as an indirect allusion to the theme of the departure from Egypt. Dalila Rodrigues