Last Supper

The Romanian ‘Last Supper’ picture

In November 2019 I bought from a curio and second-hand shop in Dublin a 2-record LP set (undated, but I guess from the 1970s) entitled “Romanian Byzantine Liturgy”, produced under the auspices of the Bible and Mission Institute of the Romanian Orthodox Church. What interests me here is a picture on the front of the record-sleeve, described as “The Last Supper, miniature from a Romanian manuscript of the 17th century”. The picture is reproduced on the back cover.
          What is of particular Interest is that elements of the picture date to a very long time before the 17th century, in fact to very earliest times. And it is some of these that I wish to examine now. The survival of these primitive details should come as no real surprise; for in the days of hand-written manuscripts successive generations of scribes tended to copy and re-copy things handed down from generation to generation and from century to century. And it is in this context, of survival of something very primitive, that this Romanian picture is of such particular and considerable importance.
          The picture includes thirteen people, Jesus and his Twelve Disciple, and I wish to identify four of the twelve here.
          (1) Twelve of the thirteen are depicted with a halo, and only one - going round the table from Jesus’s left, to the very end of the bench at the middle in the front - without. This must - for obvious reasons - be Judas Iscariot.
          (2) In John’s Gospel (13.23 and 25) it is assumed to be John who leans at table on Jesus’s breast. But the person doing so in the Romanian picture is clearly a woman. In my Dublin address “John and Mary” of 24th February 2019 (published in Oscailt in March 2019) I suggested that Mary Magdalene was one of The Twelve, and that when the ‘centralising Church’ “wrote her out of the script”, John became used in official circles as ‘substitute’. Interestingly and importantly, Mary, in the Romanian picture, it in her rightful place. And, intriguingly, where the men have golden haloes, Mary has a yellow one. One 19th century reference book (Encyclopedia Britannica 9th ed., Vol.21, 1886, p.146) has remarked that saffron “was a royal colour in early ... times, though afterwards perhaps from its abundant use ... as a scented salve, it was especially appropriated by [prostitutes]” - thus the use of this colour in the Romanian picture may be an unwarranted slur on Mary’s character.
          (3) John himself is described as “very young” in the Pistis Sophia (Book 1, bottom of p.66 in G.R.S.Mead’s edition and translation), and general church tradition holds that John was, by quite a long way, the youngest of The Twelve. Only two of the Twelve, apart from Mary, do not have beards in the Romanian picture, and the younger of these is clearly the man sitting next to Judas Iscariot. This must in the circumstances be John.
          (4) If John was so young, his brother James cannot have been an older man, one of the several disciples with grey hair and beards. On the immediate left of Jesus and Mary is a grey-haired man. Beyond him, on his left, is a younger man, bearded but with a marked facial resemblance to John. This must be James.

Dr.Martin Pulbrook,                                       3rd December 2019


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