Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Last Supper

One of the most legendary works of art in all of history is The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. My original intention in writing about it was to forego an analogous approach because of how profound it remains to this day. Far be it for me to attempt to extrapolate some other message than what was originally intended by its creator due to the significance of that moment in time. Therefore, I thought a run through this work's history of abuse and destruction might be an interesting approach, and a bit different than how I've written about art in the past. I mean, it was nearly bombed to oblivion during World War II - that has to be pretty notable, right?

Then it dawned on me: comparing this piece's abuse via metaphor to anything else would do it a disservice and be an atrocity. Why? Because I don't believe it was painted to evoke emotion, but to capture a moment in history that tells a story while revealing a lot of symbolism. And not just symbolism inside the work, but also through its very existence. Instead, I'd like to dive into that symbolism because I think it's important and often overlooked.

Contrast was slightly increased in order to show greater detail.

Let me first note that two copies of The Last Supper were painstakingly created by da Vinci's assistants in order to preserve the details. As you can see from the image above, the original piece has deteriorated quite significantly over time thanks in part to a door being installed at the location which destroyed the lower-middle portion. Also note that this piece was done by da Vinci in tempera on gesso, pitch, and mastic (that is to say, egg-based painting medium on chalk, coal-based resin, and plant resin—more on this later).

Famous nowadays for how often it's been parodied, the original work was completed in the late 15th Century inside the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Depicted is Jesus with His twelve disciples on either side of Him. From left to right—according to notes taken by da Vinci himself—we see Bartholomew, James, the half-brother of Jesus, Andrew, Judas Iscariot, Peter, John, Jesus, Thomas, James, Philip, Matthew, Jude, and finally Simon. The moment being capture is the immediate reaction of the disciples after Jesus, in the Gospel of John chapter 13, verse 21, proclaimed, "Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me."

Now then, the most poignant use of symbolism is that of the Holy Trinity. There are three doors on either side of the room, three windows in the back, the disciples are clearly clumped into groups of three, Jesus' form is that of a triangle, the legs of the table are triangles, and on Jesus' sandals are three lines in the shape of a triangles. Obviously, the number 3 and triangles represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The next symbol is Peter angrily standing and holding a knife pointed away from Jesus. Some experts believe this expressed what was to later occur in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter chopped off the ear of a servant of the high priest who was attempting to arrest Jesus. This then leads to how the other disciples are reacting, as well. Bartholomew, James, and Andrew all seem shocked; John appears flush white and tilts to one side implying he may be faint; Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip appear upset and in search of more reason; lastly, Matthew, Jude, and Simon are turned towards each other in bewilderment.

Next, we have Judas Iscariot. Anyone who knows their history and/or the Bible knows that Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus for a bag of silver, which would have been worth about $200 U.S. dollars today. Some believe the bag he holds in his right hand indicates his position as the treasurer of the disciples, but I believe it symbolizes his forthcoming betrayal. I say this because he is also depicted as reaching for a loaf a bread in direct contrast to Jesus gesturing to a similar loaf in reference to Him being the Bread of Life. A small detail often missed is Judas' right arm knocking over a jar of salt. In those days, the phrase "betray the salt" was commonplace and used to express betraying one's master. Lastly, Judas is the only one obscured by shadow, leaning with his elbow on the table, and with his face turned far enough to make it difficult to see him.

Then there's Jesus. His eyes are clearly gazing downward and most will say at the loaf of bread in front of Him. I say His eyes are on His hand which would be pierced upon crucifixion. His right hand, however, is reaching for a cup and is likely a direct reference to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 20, verses 20-23: "Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 'What is it you want?' he asked. She said, 'Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.' 'You don’t know what you are asking,' Jesus said to them. 'Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?' 'We can,' they answered. Jesus said to them, 'You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.'"

The final example of symbolism is purely speculative on my part. For you see, the materials used to paint this scene were woefully unreliable. Artists in the 14th and 15th Century all had much more reliable materials with which to create works of art that would last a lifetime. Given Leonardo's inarguable genius, I believe he purposefully painted this scene as he did with the full intention of it eroding over time. Why would da Vinci do this, though? I have no clue, but given his reputation for having a feverishly inventive imagination, I suppose it was to send a message. Perhaps this was the first notable use of ancient trolling by having such a powerful work of art vanish over time in order to draw attention to how much people placed value on material things. I guess you can say that I like to think of da Vinci having existed on a much higher existential plain.

I'm sure there are a lot more examples in this piece. My first thought was the varying expressions of the disciples and my guess is that they're based on each one's personality; Peter being the most obvious thanks to his reputation for popping off at the mouth so much. If you see more, I'd be curious to know! Please feel free to share it in a comment below.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Apparatus and Hand

When I was a child, I used to have a vivid recurring dream. I grew up in a nice home in Redlands, California, which was on the corner Franklin Ave. and Garden St.. We had a half-circle driveway which entered and exited on the two different streets. Across Franklin was an orange grove where we, as kids, would run around and play pretend. It was the middle-America life for us back then, even though we were on the West Coast.

This dream happened a few times when I was very young, if I recall correctly. It would begin with me standing in the front yard of our house, and I would hear pounding footsteps. (I would later discover the footsteps were from me hearing my own heartbeat as I slept.) My chest would compound and fear would rise as I would turn to gaze up Franklin Ave. I somehow knew something was coming from that direction and so its pace quickened. Sure enough, cresting the hill and streaming down the street was a creature about 4 feet tall. The best way for me to describe this creature would be to say it looked like a small Snuffleupagus draped in a white bed sheet, and covered with old, antique plastic play telephones. Dozens of telephones. This thing would zoom to the front of our house, and for some strange reason, I'd get on its back and go for a ride around the corner. That's pretty much when the nightmarish feelings would awaken me.

I can't say what spawned this dream so many times. Even now, some 40 or so years later, I can still picture it, but am at a loss as to why I had it. The only odd revelation was that it seemed to be directly linked to my heartbeat. And as enigmatic as it was, I now find myself wanting to examine it's meaning. Bear with me as this is completely spontaneous and purposefully not thought out.

My suspicion is that this dream was manifest from a combination of deep seeded desires. A) I loved adventure as a kid and getting on something as strange as the telephone monster seems fitting. Bear in mind, this was during a time when mothers and school teachers would iterate how important it was not to get into (or onto, in this case) a strange vehicle. B) My mother used to tell friends that when I was about 3 years old, I'd point to the TV screen as we watched I Love Lucy and say that that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. So, perhaps my desire for immediate and constant attention is represented by the phones covering the telephone monster's body.

Enter Apparatus and Hand . . .

Apparatus and Hand, by Salvador Dalí, is a pre-Surrealism painting which was completed in 1927. It's oil on panel, and it was Dalí's first work after returning from military service when he was 23 years old. According to experts, it was during this period that Freud's publications about psychopathology and dream interpretation were popular with Dalí, and so this piece was inspired by Freud's writings. Seemingly, the "apparatus" figure is representative of Dalí, while the grotesque hand is representative of his mind. Around him are visions of what truly beleaguers his thoughts, and thus implies what influences him to some degree.

This artwork was one of the first paintings to strike me when I was much younger and in college. At the time, I was busy being an actor when I wasn't bogged down by being a student. Art in this form wasn't really a passion for me then, but I suspect this piece is what triggered it for me. Since then, I've spent quite a lot of time studying the details, contemplating their meaning, and almost finding something unseen in previous viewings each time I looked at it. I knew the history of this piece was available online, but I never really wanted to know about it. Art, for me, is something I allow to speak to me as is and without context. If I don't know the historical context, then I don't want to know it because I'd rather art have its own uninfluenced voice. (You can see this effect quite well in my previous post, L'Ange du Foyer.)

I strategically used the term "enigmatic" above because that's what this painting has been for me for a very long time. It wasn't until about a month ago that I discussed it with a co-worker. You see, I had received a very heart-warming comment in my L'Ange du Foyer post which started the conversation. When we dove into picking this piece apart and analyzed its details, we both came pretty close to what experts have since determined with regard to its meaning. Yet, for over 20 years, it's been an enigma and a source of incredible imagination. Apparatus and Hand has been a very slow metronome where each beat reminded me to stop thinking about the here and now, to stop thinking about tomorrow and the next day, and to take a moment to contemplate the surreal. To stop and let my imagination run around and have some fun.

And so, I've returned to writing. Not just because this piece has been an intimate part of my life for two decades, but also because of that comment. If what I type here can make someone see their life in a new, encouraging light, then why should I deprive them of that? I have a gift, and so I've chosen to continue to use it.