How to Read Paintings: The Last Supper by Dieric Bouts

A superbly detailed Netherlandish painting that draws the viewer into a devout scene

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The Last Supper (1464–1468) by Dieric Bouts. Oil on panel. Central panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament. St. Peter’s Church, Leuven. Image source Wikimedia Commons

There is, a magnetic quality to this painting.

It was made by the Netherlandish painter Dieric Bouts in around 1468. Not only is the image extraordinary in its detail, it is composed in such a way as to allow the viewer to completely enter the scene.

Just look at how the two men at the front of the table leave a space for us to approach. Both wearing red, they sit on either side of a circular metal tray, creating a sort of aperture into which we can come into and take our place.

The magnetic effect is heightened by the vivid use of perspective. Let your eye follow any of the lines of the room — say, the edges of the table or the wooden beams on the ceiling — and you’ll see how they all converge on a single point directly above Christ’s head. This point indicates the eye-level of the viewer. It’s as if we’ve just walked into the room and, gazing down onto the table, have caught Christ’s eye as we approach.

The painting depicts The Last Supper, the final meal that Christ took with the twelve disciples before his arrest. The men are sat around a rectangular table, a sort of ice-berg of white that structures the central portion of the image and acts as the lightest area of the painting. The symmetrical structure of the image places Christ as the focal point — in fact, his raised right hand has been deliberately placed at the exact centre of the work.

The raised right hand is significant, of course. Painted depictions of The Last Supper tend to fall into two camps. Later depictions preferred to concentrate on the human drama of Christ announcing to the Twelve that one of them would betray him, with Judas nearby looking on sheepishly. Judas appears in this painting sat opposite Christ to the left, given typical shadowy features that are meant to tell us about the nature of his character.

But Judas is not the main focus of this work. This painting falls into the earlier type of Last Supper image. It concentrates on Christ giving his disciples bread and wine during a Passover meal, when he referred to the bread as “my body” and the cup of wine as “my blood”. This moment is understood by Christians as marking the inauguration of Holy Communion.

In his left hand, Jesus holds a communion wafer; on the table before him is a chalice, the traditional vessel holding the consecrated wine. In front of the chalice is a large metal bowl with a brownish gravy, an indication of the lamb that was eaten as part of the ritual meal. Other objects across the table are various types of glasses, knives, a salt shaker and a crystal pitcher. And according to Flemish custom, the tablecloth has a swathe of extra material for the diners to wipe their mouths on.

Over the centuries, certain artistic conventions evolved to differentiate between the disciples sat around the table. John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, is shown on Jesus’ left-side, dressed in a white robe with his hands in a prayer position. As per tradition, he is depicted clean-shaven and has long hair.

Peter is on Jesus’ right-side, exhibiting the well-known characteristics of short grey hair and a beard, with slightly ruddy cheeks suitable for a fisherman.

Next to Peter is Andrew, shown as an aged man with longer hair and a forked beard. The apostle next to John is James the Less, the son of a half-sister of Mary. As is traditional, he is shown with similar features to Christ since he was identified with the apostle whom St Paul called “James the Lord’s brother”.

Various aspects of the painting give its setting not in Jerusalem but in a Netherlandish town in Northern Europe, possibly Leuven in Belgium where the artist made his home. Through the windows, the buildings are Flemish in style, and the interior too is a description of a contemporary Netherlandish hall.

Dieric Bouts was born in Haarlem in the Netherlands in around 1415. He is thought to have trained in both Brussels and Bruges. He later married into a wealthy family from Leuven and moved to the town.

The Last Supper painting is in fact part of a triptych, and makes up the central panel in the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament, which Bouts was commissioned to make by the Leuven brotherhood at St. Peter’s Church.

As the contract shows, Bouts was to be assisted by two theologians from the University of Leuven who would have advised the artist on the correct placements of the disciples and the gestures made by the key figures.

The artist’s patrons also appear in the painting. They are not shown kneeling, as is more common, but as servants at the sacrament and as witnesses to the Eucharist. These include the portraits of two men peering through a hatch in the far wall.

The painting is so replete with details that it’s easy to get lost in the act of decoding. But sometimes it’s worth taking a moment simply to enjoy the brilliant use of paint in the description of space and light.

My own favourite detail is not necessarily the most obvious: as the tiled floor disappears beneath the legs of the table and stool, shadows are cast. Not only are these shadows perfectly painted, they also create a beautiful interplay with the tile pattern and the bare feet of the disciples. This area of the painting is dedicated to the artist’s ability — and joy — at exploring the textures, shades and colours of a variety of materials. It’s almost as if you can feel your own feet treading on that intricate flooring.

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website

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Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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