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Is that John or Mary Magdalene in the Last Supper?

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Last Supper after cleaning

The Last Supper (after cleaning), Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

Scan © Mark Harden, used with permission
Question: Is that John or Mary Magdalene in the Last Supper?
Answer:

(Heaven help us all - aren't there more important questions in the world? This much brain wattage should be directed toward a cure for AIDS or poverty or illiteracy. Seriously, if you could just see my inbox...)

In Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, the figure at Jesus' right arm does not possess an easily identified gender. He's not bald, or bearded, or anything we visually associate with "masculine". In fact, he looks feminine. Fine. We all can, and should, agree on this.

The Burning Question seems to be: Is this figure a woman?

My answer: No.

Fact: Mary Magdalene wasn't listed among those at the table in any of the four Gospels.

    Yes, she was present during the Last Supper, according to Biblical accounts. Her role, however, was a minor supporting one. She wiped feet.

    In terms of this fresco, it doesn't matter if she was "written out" of being at the table. *If* she was omitted (on purpose or otherwise) it doesn't matter when or by whom. For whatever reason, the fact is she wasn't among the Thirteen Who Supped according to Gospel accounts - which were the only basis upon which an artist could compose a visual work of the Last Supper in an historical context, at that time. (All of the eyewitnesses are long dead, folks.)

Fact: Leonardo wasn't stupid.

    If you think people get testy over sacrilegious paintings now, a little (theoretical) time-travel back to the late 15th-century would be truly enlightening in terms of how uncasually the Catholic Church took matters of heresy then.

    Leonardo may have been one to "stir the pot", every now and then - you know, shake things up a bit, try to get people to think, etc. I suspect he had a sense of humor and may have liked a good joke. But I'd also bet money the very last place he fancied himself was locked up in some dungeon with an angry Pope deciding his fate. As previously stated, Leonardo, the man, was not stupid.

Fact: Cross-dressing wasn't invented by J. Edgar Hoover.

    Enough said.

Fact: The Da Vinci Code, while an entertaining read, is fiction.

    Go to the library and look for yourself, if you don't believe me. There's a big old "F" on the spine, right there above the word "Brown". (Do not contact me to inquire what the "F" stands for, I beg of you, unless you crave a lecture on the Dewey decimal system and its importance to civilization.)

    If The Da Vinci Code makes you ponder things previously unpondered, great. If it sparks healthy debate, fabulous. If it's causing you to verbally fight with other people over religion, please refer to that "F", realize its logical place in the order of the universe and snap out of it.

Fact: Leonardo was not working from a Polaroid of the actual Last Supper. There is such a thing as artistic license.

    Unless one works in photography or Photorealism (and, probably, even then), an artist's personality is going to creep into his or her work. An artist can't help but inject his or her psyche into a creation. No matter which piece you are looking at, you are also looking at a portion of an artist's being.

    In viewing The Last Supper, we get a glimpse of what was going on in Leonardo's mind's-eye as he painted it. If he meant for a deeper, hidden meaning to be painted within the fresco, he didn't tell us. It is not necessary to pick apart the psychological make-up of the artist. You either like the work or you don't. Just try to keep in mind that it's a picture, created by a human being who was, however insanely gifted, not old enough to have attended the actual Event.

    Additionally, if we really must get all nit-picky, it bothers me that no one ever writes to ask why Michelangelo created all of those masculine-looking women. Or why Picasso seemed to both adore and loathe females. Or even why female artists, themselves, are so often neglected in Art History. No - it's just John, John, John.

Fact: John isn't the only effeminate-looking male Leonardo rendered.

    Still not convinced? You need to familiarize yourself with some of Leonardo's sketches, then, just as Sigmund Freud did.

    (Warning: Mature Content) Whether or not Leonardo was gay, he certainly devoted more attention to male anatomy and beautiful males in general, than he did to female anatomy or females. There are some rather sensuous young men depicted in his notebooks, complete with long, curly tresses and modestly downcast, heavy-lidded eyes. There is one in particular I would invite you to look up, if you are over the age of eighteen. Leonardo's so-called Angel in the Flesh figure has a sweet, feminine face (almost an exact likeness of The Last Supper's John) and a slightly swollen bosom (ditto) across which he is holding some form of drapery. However, if you direct your gaze a tad south of the border, you will note the unmistakable Sign of Manhood. One which seems awfully darn pleased with itself, if you ask me.

    Google that at your own risk, and it will clarify much about John's gender.

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