Before Jesus is arrested, he has several meetings with his disciples and followers. At one dinner, in the house of Simon the Leper, his friends, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, whom Jesus has raised from death, were present. The Evangelists’ accounts are somewhat confusing, in that several Mary’s show up in different stories throughout the Gospels. Sometimes, Mary is identified as his mother (such as in the Wedding at Cana). Other times, I was unsure which Mary was involved. For this story, Matthew and Mark only state “a woman”, but John names her “Mary”. Tradition specifies that she is Mary Magdalene, who anoints Jesus with a jar of perfume.
In numerous stories of Jesus’ ministry, women are identified as being his followers. This may have ranged from women who assisted with traditional tasks, such as hospitality. At other times, Jesus interacted with women in a non-traditional manner. Mary Magdalene is named in several of these accounts, especially in up-coming stories about Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection.
But, at this dinner, Mary came to the table, carrying an alabaster jar. She broke it, releasing the perfume, which she poured on Jesus. Domenico Puligo’s painting, in the Borghese Gallery, shows us an image of Mary, holding a jar, as if she had just entered the room and was preparing to act. The painting is in the style of a portrait, closely cropped without background defining the interior of the room, or as was often done at the time, showing a symbolic landscape in the distance. Mary turns her head, youthful eyes looking in anticipation, carefully holding the valuable jar of perfume. Just as Jesus is looking to his near future, anticipating the events of the Passover season, Mary is telegraphing her action with her eyes.
What might have been intended as a loving action, stirs controversy among the disciples. Judas rebukes Mary for wasting such a valuable commodity, proclaiming that it could have been sold to provide funding for those in need. Jesus comforts Mary, defending her action as just, because he will be with them only a short while longer. John’s account of the story states that Judas, being the treasurer of the followers, had alternative motivations. He is in charge of the group’s purse, which he enjoyed dipping into at times. John also reports that Judas’ greed would soon tempt him to negotiate with the Jewish leaders to betray Jesus for a sum of money.
The Last Supper is an image, which we can easily recall from numerous portrayals. Most Renaissance paintings of this subject built on Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco, which is in Milan. Jesus sits in the center of the Passover Seder table, with six disciples on either side of him. While the Evangelists provided numerous messages and teachings that Jesus provided at this dinner, the typical moment of action is when Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him. There is commotion among the disciples, as they try to understand what Jesus has said, or ask Jesus, “Surely, not I”.
The disciples were a bit of an unruly bunch. Just as they had argued over Mary anointing Jesus at the earlier dinner, they also argue over whether to allow Jesus to wash their feet. And, later in the dinner, when Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times, Peter puts up a blustery fuss. The Evangelists portray the disciples as missing the point once again.
This tapestry in the Vatican shows the Last Supper, with the disciples on both sides of the table. Jesus faces use from across the table. The architecture, table settings, and folds of the disciples roles, especially those on the near side of the table dominate the tapestry, as much as the interactions between different groups of disciples. Rather than being a unified group, they divide into groups of two or three, looking at each other. To find Judas, notice which one does not have a halo.
Another painting, from the Borghese Gallery by Jaopo Bassano imitates, Leonardo da Vinci’s composition, with a long table, Jesus in the middle, and the disciples clustered to his right or left. The disciples appear to be piled upon each other in cramped quarters. Some lean in on the table. Others gesture outward. Some break away in side conversation. On the table are the wine, bread, meat and other foods served at a seder. On the floor, in front of the table is a round bowl, probably used to wash the disciples feet prior to the meal, some type of silver vessel, and a sleeping dog. Notice the cat peaking out from behind the orange cloak of the disciple on the right, front corner of the table. Symbolism, or just including animals that might have been common dinning room companions of the day?
After the meal is over, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Some of his disciples stayed in the garden, while Jesus asked three to accompany him. While he prayed, they dozed off, more than once. The story of Jesus’ agony during his prayers is well known. Sebastiano Conca’s painting in the Vatican, isolates Jesus, kneeling with his hands out-stretched. An angel reches down with one hand holding the cup of wine from the Eucharist, while gesturing upward with the other hand. Often this is viewed as a time when his human frailty and divine strength grappled with his knowledge of what was about to happen. In the context of Roman culture, a sacrifice carries some interesting connotations related to this story.
Romans conducted animal sacrifices, ox, sheep, pigs, birds of various sorts, on annual feast days, in preparation of special events, such as battles or constructing a building, and in honor of gods whom they believed has assisted them. Romans would only sacrifice an animal that went willingly to the altar. In many sacrifice scenes, the animals are show cooperating with the procession leading it to the altar. Further more, if the animal resisted, it was set free, and another sought in its place. Jesus’ prayers bring him and us to the understanding that he would be a willing sacrifice. Moments later, as I will describe next week, Jesus will take himself and his followers to the place where he will be lead toward the altar, willingly.