Symbolism explained

Tortoise shells, herbs, dogs sat on the floor, to mention but a few - this painting is charged with symbolism. Discover the meaning behind The Last Supper, by Grão Vasco.

By Grão Vasco National Museum

Last Supper (1535-1540) by Vasco FernandesGrão Vasco National Museum

The composition is remarkable for the way in which it fulfils the painting’s theatrical and narrative requirements – a fundamental feature of Vasco Fernandes' work. The painting’s originality also derives from the relationship between the figurative register, which is developed continuously without any formal interruptions as if it were a single panel.

In the central panel, the figures represented on this side of the wall indicate that the theme of the painting is the Last Supper – Christ, who is holding the Eucharistic Chalice, is surrounded by St. Peter, St. John and another haloed figure, an apostle. But there is nothing conventional about his representation.

St. Matthew, seated on the opposite side, is already identified as one of the evangelists through an inscription on his surplice. He is represented in profile and engaged 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 is in the right panel, with the customary iconography of betrayal, the purse of coins and his yellow costume. He complements the group of apostles and adds a dynamic meaning to the scene.

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.

With drops of oil floating on its surface.

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 iconographical 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, in an absolutely remarkable staging of the scene, a group of male figures appear in an adjacent compartment, one of whom is carrying the Easter lamb to the Eucharistic table – a direct reference to the Jewish Easter as a prefiguration of the Last Supper.

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.

In the side panels, two openings to the outside suggest another time in the narrative, which, given the extremely poor conditions of visibility due to the degradation of the pictorial material, may be supposed to be the subsequent stations of Christ’s Passion.

The link with this narrative would appear to be Judas, who enters the scene...

...and will slip out through the opposite door in the left panel.

In the minimal scene of the background, which is already taking place on the outside, we can identify the figure of Ecce Homo, while in the right panel it is a group of soldiers that are about to burst in from the background, in an allusion to the scene of Christ’s Arrest.

This painting’s iconographical richness also derives from a number of more discreet references, whose meaning escapes us, such as the superb shell of a tortoise, still with its head, which one of the guards is using as a shield.

In the central panel, attention is drawn to the fascinating description of the domestic atmosphere where the figures appear, with an astounding sense of theatricality, from amongst curtains and wall hangings.

Credits: Story

Author: Dalila Rodrigues
Edition: Grão Vasco Museum
Translation: John Elliott
Digital production: Luís Ramos Pinto

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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