Why all the fuss?
Since Dan Brown's mystery thriller The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, 2003) first appeared, people have asked a lot of questions, especially regarding Leonardo da Vinci's world-famous painting, "The Last Supper." Is the feminine-looking figure sitting just to the right of Christ really the apostle John, as traditionally believed, or is it instead Mary Magdalene?
The answer may be boring, in that it is drained of mystery and intrigue, but it is nevertheless so obvious that it rings true. The coming of the film version of "The Da Vinci Code," starring Tom Hanks, prompts renewed interest in this subject that should by now have been laid to rest.
The Fresco's Context
Keep in mind that Da Vinci painted this 460x880 cm (15x29 feet) fresco on the wall of the dining hall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan in 1498. His masterpiece is ingenius in many ways, not the least in its dramatic realism, enhanced by the way in which Da Vinci paints the perspective of the background as a continuation of the room in which it resides (see photo below).
Instead of assigning a halo to Jesus, he sillhouettes him by the light entering through a window behind him. Da Vinci groups the 12 apostles in four clusters of three, six on either side of Jesus. Except for the replacement of roman-style dining couches with contemporary table and chairs, Da Vinci closely follows the biblical narrative. His fresco is a snapshot of the moment after Jesus announces a traitor is in their midst. Listen for the click of Leonardo's "camera shutter" in the following excerpt from John 13:21-26:
After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, "I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me."
His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, "Ask him which one he means." [**CLICK**]
Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?"
Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon.
The Biblical Context
Da Vinci captures the immediate emotional reaction of the disciples, employing conventional gestures for surprise, interrogation, and perhaps even indignation. We see the disciples reacting to Jesus' revelation in the ways the Bible describes. See also the parallel passages: Matthew 26:21-25; Mark 14:18-21; Luke 22:22-23.
For hundreds of years scholars have agreed that "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23; 19:26-27; 20:2-8; 21:7, 20-24) is the way in which the Apostle John refers to himself in the Fourth Gospel. The Apostle John, prominent in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), is otherwise absent from the Gospel of John, except for an oblique reference to "the sons of Zebedee" in John 21:2. Scholars agree that his self-characterization as "The Beloved Disciple" is not an egotistical claim that he is worthy of an inside track with Jesus, but rather a Christ-exalting expression that though he was entirely unworthy, yet he was showered with the Savior's love. Add to this a few references to "another disciple" (John 1:35-40; 18:15-16; 19:35) which also appear to be autobiographical (John 20:1-9 merges the "Beloved Disciple" with the "other disciple"), and we gain a composite picture of the author of the Fourth Gospel.
Could this "other disciple," this "Beloved Disciple" be, in fact, Mary Magdalene? The biblical evidence is decisive against this hypothesis. In Greek, the definite article, translated into English as "the," has gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) and number (singular, plural, or dual), in agreement with the nouns, pronouns, or participles they accompany. In all of the verses cited above, the "the" attached to either "the other disciple" or "the disciple whom Jesus loved" is uniformly masculine, never feminine. Furthermore, identifying Mary Magdalene with "the disciple whom Jesus loved" makes nonsense out of John 20:1-18, especially verses 10-11a: "Then the disciples [Peter and the Beloved Disciple] went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying." She cannot go and stay simultaneously.
Why so feminine a figure?
This "Beloved Disciple," obviously a man, in the Fourth Gospel, is the one Peter buttonholes at the Last Supper and demands, "Ask Him which one He means" (John 13:24). Why does he look like a woman in Da Vinci's portrayal of that moment?
A reasonable inference based on John 21:20-24's testimony that John outlived Simon Peter by many years holds that John must have been considerably younger than Peter, or for that matter most or all of the other apostles. The earliest writings after the New Testament indicate that John lived on into the early second century. If he was about 20 at the time of the crucifixion, he would have been around 90 in the year 100. We could allow him to be a little older or a little younger, but not by much either way.
Sitting beside Jesus in the rennaissance master's "The Last Supper" is a figure portrayed as a young man, using the conventions typical of that day: fair features, no beard, and slight body. We find similar depictions of young men in Leonardo's other paintings.
In his two depictions of John the Baptist, for example, painted sometime between 1510 and 1516, we find a beardless youth. Even within "The Last Supper" itself, Da Vinci's portrait of Philip is similarly androgynous.
Want to go deeper? Compare Da Vinci with his fellow artists
A survey of paintings of the Last Supper just before and just after Da Vinci's demonstrates how stereotyped were depictions of John, who is regularly depicted as a young man, nearly always asleep next to Jesus. Once again, breaking with convention, Leonardo depicts him as only very sleepy. Some of these depictions actually label John and the other disciples.
- 1308-11 Ducco di Buoninsegna
- 1464-67 Dieric the Elder Bouts
- 1476 Domenico Ghirlandaio
- 1480 Domenico Ghirlandaio
- 1486 Domenico Ghirlandaio
- 1498 Leonardo da Vinci (16th C. copy)
- 1510 Albrecht Dürer
- 1511 Dürer
- 1520-25 Andrea del Sarto
- 1523 Dürer
- 1542 Jacopo Bassano
The Place of Mary Magdalene
It is abundantly clear, therefore, that Da Vinci's figure beside Jesus is John, son of Zebedee, not Mary Magdalene. Her place in history, however, is secure. She was the first human being to witness the resurrection of Christ, and responding obediently to the Savior's commission recorded in John 20:17, she served, as one scholar has put it, as "the apostle to the apostles." To make her into something else does not elevate her, but degrades her.
Da Vinci Decoded
Da Vinci's "Last Supper" is certainly coded, not with enigmatic images of a clandestine relationship between Jesus and Mary, but with the pathos of the Night of Betrayal. The hidden meaning that reaches us more than 500 years later is, "Is it I? Am I the one who will betray Him?"
The magnificent fresco pierces our heart and conscience with these probing questions. Are we, like John, hardly even conscious of the Lord's challenge? Will we, with false bravado, join our voices to those disciples who are saying, "I'll never deny You," or like Peter, go even further, "Even if all the others fall away, I never will"? Or, like Judas Iscariot, do we lean back in surprise, grasping tightly to our bag of money?
I believe that Leonardo intended for everyone who sat in that Milan dining hall, and by extension, all of us, to be, not detached spectators, but participants in the Last Supper. This is the true Da Vinci Code, and the mystery of "The Last Supper." What will I do with Jesus?
Steve Singleton, DeeperStudy.com