Village Voice - March, 2008
FROM THE PASTOR
Two of my favorite paintings are of The Last
Supper. The most famous, of course, is
Vinci’s iconic masterpiece. The 15th
century mural depicts the
scene of The Last Supper when
Jesus announced to his
twelve disciples that
one of them would betray him. The
painting is huge, measuring approximately 15 feet ×
29 feet, and can
be found on the wall of the dining hall at the
The other favorite painting, The
Sacrament of the Last Supper, I have seen.
It is of much more recent vintage. It
was completed in 1955 by the Spanish
artist, Salvador Dali, and hangs in the National Gallery of Art in
The artistic styles of the two paintings are completely different, but the subject matter is the same, and both paintings draw the viewer into The Last Supper in a powerful, almost mystical, way. There is a beauty and harmony and symmetry to both scenes that defy easy explanation.
Art scholars suggest that part of the appeal of the two works is the artists’ use of a mathematical construct known during the Renaissance as “The Divine Proportion.” Also known as the Golden Proportion or the Golden Mean, the Divine Proportion is a fixed mathematical ratio that has long been associated with aesthetically pleasing shapes. Simply put, the Divine Proportion is dividing a line into two parts, so that the smaller part of the line is the same ratio to the larger part, as the larger part of the line is to the whole.
The ancient Egyptians employed this proportion in
architecture of the Great Pyramids. The
Greeks used it to build the Parthenon in
In the early 1900’s an American mathematician named Mark Barr assigned the Greek letter phi to designate this Golden Mean or Golden Ratio or Divine Proportion. Because the ratio is associated with aesthetically pleasing forms and shapes, it evokes emotions of tranquility and beauty.
I know very little about art criticism, and even less about geometry, but the Divine Proportion is an intriguing clue as to why these two paintings are so evocative. Certain shapes, forms, and proportions are naturally pleasing to the eye and uplifting to the heart. The proportion is Divine because, according to Renaissance philosophers, beauty is a function, not only of human consciousness, but of precise mathematical proportions hard-wired into God’s created order. As the American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “If eyes were made for seeing, then beauty is its own excuse for being.”
The Last Supper remains a powerful image, not just because of the paintings, but even more because of the Lord’s Supper that it became. When Jesus took the bread and the cup of the Last Supper, and interpreted those common elements in terms of his own body and blood, they became the Lord’s Supper. A divine alchemy took place that changed, not the elements themselves, but human hearts. In giving his life, Jesus gave life to us all. His sacrifice became our salvation.
We will observe the Lord’s Supper two times during
first on Sunday morning, March 2, at 8:30 and 11:00 a.m., and again on
evening, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. During
the Maundy Thursday service we will take the Lord’ Supper by
meaning that worshippers will be invited to come to the front of the
tear off a piece of the bread, and dip it into the cup before partaking
elements together. In that sense we will
“come to the table” that our Lord has prepared for us.
There are copies of those two favorite paintings, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper, hanging in my office. Every time I look at them, I find myself draw into the picture, for they are more than representations of an ancient scene. They are contemporary invitations to come to the table and share the bread and the cup ever anew.
The universe seems to whisper a hidden code to create harmony and beauty. It’s more than mathematics; it’s the language of God. Perhaps the best symbol of the Divine Proportion is not a line but a cross.
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