Village Voice - March, 2008


Two of my favorite paintings are of The Last Supper.  The most famous, of course, is Leonardo da 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 Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.  I have not yet had the privilege of viewing it in person, but it is perhaps the most copied and reproduced painting in the world.  

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 Washington, D.C.  Dali’s oil on canvas masterpiece is not as massive as da Vinci’s mural, but at a size of 66 inches high and 105 inches long, it is still a commanding presence.  Although ostensibly based on da Vinci’s work, the Dali painting is uniquely surrealistic. 

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 the architecture of the Great Pyramids.  The Greeks used it to build the Parthenon in Athens.  The ancient Totonac people of Mexico used the principle while building the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacanos.  Medieval cathedrals evince the same geometric proportionality.  During the Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and da Vinci employed the Divine Proportion in their paintings to achieve balance and beauty.  In The Last Supper da Vinci used the Divine Proportion to define the fundamental proportions of the painting, in everything from the dimensions of the table at which Jesus and the disciples sat, to the proportions of the walls and windows in the background.  Dali self-consciously used the Divine Proportion in his painting of the Last Supper.  One art critic noted, “symbolic-geometric elements are evident, the scene is a dodecahedron.”     

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 Lent, first on Sunday morning, March 2, at 8:30 and 11:00 a.m., and again on Thursday evening, March 20, at 7:30 p.m.  During the Maundy Thursday service we will take the Lord’ Supper by intinction, meaning that worshippers will be invited to come to the front of the sanctuary, tear off a piece of the bread, and dip it into the cup before partaking the two 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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