The Last Supper (1909)
by Emil Nolde
public domain

Maundy Thursday, 1 Corinthians 11:23-32

Historical Description: 

Emil Nolde (1867–1956) was raised in Denmark by devout Lutheran parents and, like many youth, strayed from his parents’ faith. He became famous during a short and disappointing stint (1906–7) as a member of Die Brücke, the pioneer German Expressionist art group based out of Dresden. Influenced by Van Gogh, the art of Die Brücke especially resolved to “bridge” the past with the present, utilizing primitive art, masks, and woodcuts as mediums for modern expression of intense emotion. In 1909 Emil bridged the gap back to his parents’ faith after barely surviving a nearly fatal illness. This experience of both the wrath and mercy of God inspired Emil to express the gravity and urgency of the Christian faith in his art. His painting The Last Supper was the first in a series to bridge the gap between German Expressionism and Christianity.

Devotional Reflection: 

When we imagine Maundy Thursday, many of us might first recall Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper, painted in 1498 on the wall of a convent in Milan, Italy. While this famous image captures the disciples’ incredulity at Jesus’ words, “One of you will betray me” (Matt. 26:21), it does not capture Paul and Luther’s emphasis upon the comportment of one who is well-prepared to receive the sacrament worthily, discerning Christ’s body and blood, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Emil Nolde’s lesser known Last Supper captures this emphasis better.

Our Lord is surrounded by an array of disciples. Over his shoulders in the background, the disciples’ faces hang like phlegmatic masks of African animism. Their wooden emotions range from distracted to mildly curious to out-in-space to critical. The beady eye and sinister eyebrow of Judas Iscariot can be seen in the upper left-hand corner, ready to “do quickly” what he was going to do (John 13:27). But the foreground shows two earnest disciples, one looking in faith at Jesus’ face, the other at Jesus’ cup. At the same time, these two disciples express “fervent love” toward a hidden brother. One reaches out across the table to hold his hand. The other places his arm around him. The array of all the disciples together accurately depicts the range of emotions we may experience while we partake of the Lord’s Supper. Disgusted by the distant disciples in the background, the earnest disciples in the foreground encourage us to imitate their faithful eyes and loving arms as we worthily partake of our Lord’s body and blood.

But even more inspiring than the two earnest disciples is the comportment of our Lord in the center of the painting. The cup is guarded by his very large hands, but they are also ready to tenderly give away only what he can give. Of all the faces in the painting, his is the most intense. His face is paradoxical, expressing both eucharistic ecstasy and the bitterness that could also ache on the night he was betrayed, “Father, if it be your will, take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). Jesus’s hands and face inspire us to meditate more deeply on the love and agony of giving away his body and blood for us – his simultaneous pleasure and pain. Remember him like this when you “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24).

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