Come and See
The paintings of New York artist Makoto Fujimura defy reproduction. No camera can even approximate the depth and energy of his fusion of abstract expressionism, minimalism, and nihonga, which depends on crushed mineral pigments like azurite and malachite as well as hammered gold and silver leaf. So perhaps it is not surprising that even when engaging, in this essay, with one of the most-reproduced paintings in history, everything depends on a personal encounter. That incarnational approach to both creativity and criticism makes Mako a fitting author of the final essay in our year-long exploration of the question, How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? For those readers interested in learning more about Mako's life and work, his story is one of six on the just-released DVD from the Christian Vision Project, intersect | culture. In our next issue, we turn to the Project's next theme, global mission, and the question, What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world?
"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathaniel asked. "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathaniel asked. "Come and see," said Philip.
The glass door automatically shut behind us as the guide motioned us to enter the inner chamber. We waited, and as another door opened, the cool, dry air enveloped us; a contrast to the July heat in Milan. The courtyard of St. Maria delle Grazie sparkled outside in the morning sun, and I wondered if Leonardo da Vinci stood upon the same rocks that I saw here, 500 years later.
Because of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, I had received several inquiries about commenting on the book and the movie, and my mind seemed to wander back to the same problem: "I have never seen Leonardo's The Last Supper in person. How could I comment on something that I have not seen?" Yes, I own a magnified version of a photograph of the painting (see plate B), represented in a magnificent book from the University of Chicago Press (440 pages of delight). And I have pondered the image as I have thought much about Andy Warhol's series by the same title. Yes, I had seen reproductions of Leonardo's The Last Supper. But I never had stood under it. So I came to Milan, Italy, to stand-under a painting.
"If you want to 'understand' something," said my friend Bruce Herman, "you have to be willing to 'stand under' it." Bruce, an art professor at Gordon College, went on to cite C. S. Lewis' Experiment in Criticism:
We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.
Lewis makes a distinction between "using" art and "receiving" art. He argues quite persuasively that "'Using' is inferior to 'reception' because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it."
Why is it important to experience a work of art firsthand? If we base our conclusions merely on what an "expert" has said, or on our own limited assumptions, we will never be able to "surrender" to the work and discover for ourselves what it has to say.
Here's what I discovered standing under The Last Supper: the most important visual catalyst for the painting is not the effeminate John, nor Judas, nor even Jesus himself. The key figure in kick-starting the visual movement of the painting is Philip.
It is Philip's outstretched, distressed body and his cinnabar robe that we see first in the painting's visual theater. The whole painting is first experienced via Philip's body. Our eyes go first to him; afterward they traverse to Jesus, the center of the work. Jesus' mouth is slightly opened (discovered to be so through recent restoration efforts) and his hands are making powerfully emotive gestures. Leonardo was capturing the moment of Jesus' announcement: "I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me" (John 13:21).
Leonardo painted in a grand, dominating scale for a small space. Even standing in the far back of the refectory, it is difficult for the eye to decipher the whole painting all at once. He painted The Last Supper in such a way as to force the viewer to enter the painting, physically and emotionally, and to viscerally become part of the narrative.
Only when the viewer stands under the painting can it be seen as it was intended to be (plate A). Leonardo had a specific visual message for those who stand under the painting. He had the visual sophistication to carry off what very few artists could even dream of doing: he painted the complex psychology of betrayal. It starts with Philip, and ends in a moneybag. Invited to walk into Leonardo's funhouse of mirrors, we are all meant to be part of this narrative, which is refracted within our own dark journeys.
As an artist, I naturally try to identify the source of light in a painting, because I know that artists often use light to reveal what they want the viewer to see. In this painting, it would be easy to assume that the light is coming from behind from the windows, through which we see a Renaissance landscape. But the source of light in this painting actually is the face of Jesus reflecting on all of the disciples—all but Judas, who is underpainted with black, denied a brightened countenance.
The source of light points to what anchors the painting: the presence of Jesus. This is emphasized by the use of perspective, a Renaissance invention conceived to create an illusion of three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional space. The windows and other architectural elements create lines that end up in a single point, called the "vanishing point." In The Last Supper, the vanishing point is on the forehead of Jesus, the centerpiece of the painting. But if the painting were an equilibrium centered on Jesus, it would not create the psychological tension we feel from it. And this is because Philip breaks up the visual stasis.
In any reproduction one sees in a book or a photograph (plate B), Philip's body gets flattened. However, for a trained artist/viewer, the visual response to the actual piece is to see Philip's body contorted, surrounded by negative spaces. The angle compresses his body and accentuates the movement of his reaction. Leonardo's genius not only used the vanishing point to anchor the painting but also to create waves of motion that shock us into shedding visual conventions.
If you are an artist working on a large commission, you know that looking up at a painting distorts what you paint, so you account for that by exaggerating the vertical. In other words, you make the figure taller than it needs to be. What I noticed looking up at the painting is that Leonardo did not make Philip's body taller but kept it twisted, compressed and angular. That is why in reproductions of The Last Supper Philip's body does not stand out.
If Leonardo did not elongate the figure, why does Philip stand out?
It took me the whole fifteen minutes I was allowed in St. Maria delle Grazie to understand what Leonardo did. And then the painting began to open up to me. In a visual code quite different from the fanciful interpretations given currency by Dan Brown's novel, Leonardo reveals both his genius and the true message of the work.
Philip stands out because he visually breaks the horizontal plane. The top of Philip's head aligns itself with the perspective lines parallel to the windows. The eye attends to his head, magnetically drawn to the perspective line that juts out from the horizontal line. This only happens if you are standing below the painting.1 But there is another figure that breaks the horizontal line which is accentuated by the head of Jesus, and that other figure is Judas. The Last Supper is to be read from Philip to Judas, through the body of Christ, creating several visual "v's" and "w's."
In the New Testament, Philip is one of the Seven, the closest disciples of Christ. It's possible that he knew Jesus and his family, and may have grown up with Jesus. Philip is also noted for having the ability to point others to Christ. He convinces Nathaniel to "come and see" Christ in the early chapters of the Gospels, and in the Book of Acts (the historical document of the early church) he continues to draw many to Jesus, including the Ethiopian eunuch who was found reading the prophesy of Isaiah in Gaza.
It is clear to me that of all four of the Gospels, the Gospel of John is the one Leonardo relied on the most. The Gospel of Matthew reads more like a legal case to clearly convict Judas of betrayal. Both the Gospels of Luke and of Mark seem to focus on Peter, his betrayal compared to Judas', and his eventual restoration to become the founder of the early church. But the Gospel of John records in detail what Leonardo depicted, from John's reclining figure to Judas' darkness, from Thomas' infamous skepticism to Philip's surprise at what Jesus' mouth had just uttered.
Leonardo was interested in one thing: the psychological depiction of a night of betrayal. John 14:8 records Philip asking a question which reverberates throughout the painting:
Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us."
Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. . . . Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (John 14: 8–12).
Philip asks for evidence, a question that must have also filled Leonardo's mind. Philip's comment is one of near frustration, an insider's exasperation, and therefore even the nature of his request assumes a close, trusting relationship. Jesus responds to the basis of Philip's question by saying, "Don't you know me, Philip?" In doing so, Jesus makes one of the most remarkable promises ever made to his followers (more on this later).
It makes sense, then, that when Jesus reveals that he is to be betrayed by a close friend, Philip leaps out of his chair in disbelief. A pronouncement of a betrayal shocks the trusted the most. To this innocence Leonardo gives the most weight, initiating a shock wave that reverberates throughout the painting—and the corridors of time.
Betrayal has always been a part of our lives, and since ancient times artists have given ample attention to this common human experience, from the theater of classical Greece to the great Shakespearean tragedies. But today, we live in the expectation of one betrayal after another, of relationships breaking up, or of another political or religious leader found in scandal. Tabloid accounts of celebrities' comings and goings amuse us, as we simultaneously bemoan and are entertained by their depth of woes.
Our culture of betrayal goes way beyond individual failures: it is a culture that has lost the belief in the good, the true, and the beautiful. Without a fundamental confidence in civilization's own integrity—that wrong can be righted, that creativity is a gift to society—no art, and no work of our hands, can be infused with a transcendent vision. The culture of betrayal denies the potential to hope.
Our galleries and contemporary museums (not to mention movie theaters and bookstores) are full of vacuous images, designed to self-destruct. But blaming artists is not helpful: no, rather it is more accurate to say that artists are simply reacting to and honestly recording the conditions of our culture. They are, as Marshall McLuhan would have it, canaries in the cultural mines. Artists smell the poisoned air and sing.
But Leonardo was born in a different time. He was given the legacy of Giotto and Fra Angelico. He had patronage that he could count on from the church and from powerful individuals who also assumed a certain worldview. He had geniuses as contemporaries, including Michelangelo and Botticelli, who also worked within conventions that assumed a direct connection between culture and beauty, goodness, and truth.
In a sense, there was an innocence to that time, but it was not naïveté. Leonardo certainly was not naïve, and he was certainly a religious skeptic. But this commission, only one of two wall commissions he had received, gave him an opportunity to work out of the meta-narrative (the Gospel story) with conviction and force. He could trust that his paintings were meant to last and speak to the generations to come. As a result both of corruption within the church (of which Leonardo was certainly aware, and which he decried in his notes) and the loss of patronage about to ensue, this assumption saw its zenith in The Last Supper.
We may never recover that innocence again. In our culture of betrayal we need evermore to see and stand-under The Last Supper. We need to seriously consider "receiving" the message, as C.S. Lewis suggests, and allowing the work to speak into our lives.
In The Da Vinci Code, the character Robert Langdon, a professor of "symbology," finds it significant that Jesus and the effeminate figure seated on his right form the letter "M." Moreover, Langdon believes this second figure is not St. John but Mary Magdalene, the "bride of Christ," dressed as a man.
Yes, there is an "M" imbedded in the painting, but Dan Brown does not go far enough in tracing its mystery. The real "M," or rather the series of "M"s starting from Philip's outstretched hand, does not end with John but with Judas. More specifically, the shock wave ends in Judas' right hand, which holds the moneybag, symbolically depicting the very coins that Judas would receive to betray Jesus.
Is the figure of John effeminate? Yes. But every male figure that Leonardo painted bordered on androgyny. Leonardo's depiction of the sexual genre has never been a secret, and even a critique of such in open forums would not have surprised him. What would have been shocking to Leonardo is the failure of even learned viewers to recognize the greatest message imbedded in the painting—that Judas, the seed of betrayal, is in all of us.
Most paintings of The Last Supper from Leonardo's era depict Judas leaving the room. Yet Leonardo made a radical decision to make Judas part of the "inner circle," placing him—and, by association, us—at the Table. Judas is depicted sitting directly in front of Peter, whom Christ identified as the "rock" of the early church. Like Philip, Leonardo wanted to point to a deeper journey. And when we stand-under this work of genius, we too take part in that journey.
Leonardo forces us to recognize how easily we accept distortion and betrayal as normative and necessary. We are trained to cheapen our dialogue to fit our darkened realities. Today our moneybags are full of flashy, counterfeit sound bites.
Christians must understand that this can easily happen in our worship as well as in popular culture. Instead of practicing a daily discipline, we want God to be palatable, to accommodate our needs. I venture to say that what goes on inside our worship may have a much greater impact upon the larger cultural condition than we imagine.
Could it be that we have such a divided nation, insistent on quick judgment, because the Church does not fully know how to live and exercise grace? Could it be we lack a culture full of beauty because our worship is not beautiful? Can our ever-shrinking attention span be traced to the Church's failure to train us to listen well?
In our culture of betrayal, we are impatient, quick to judge. Rather than trying to "under-stand" a work of art, we stand over it and dismiss it as unreadable or, worse yet, impose a critical ideology upon it without first allowing the work to affect us.
In doing so we miss out on experiencing what the work of art can offer, and consequently we do not journey into the power of genuine art. This lack of authentic encounters leads only to a vortex of distrust, fueled by the media, whose capital is fear. We are drowning in a deluge of despair, and our memories of the good, the true, and the beautiful have nearly faded completely.
Sadly, today no one has Leonardo's ability to ask such complex and deeply layered questions, even with the advent of moving images. It may be argued that Leonardo was the last painter to integrate history, theology, science, and art with such mastery. Consider this: can we think of any other artist after Leonardo whose work would be a target for an intriguing conspiracy tale? No one has had the genius, the psychological complexity, nor the level of skill and patronage, not even Picasso, van Gogh or Warhol. Don't get me wrong, there are certainly notable contributors—Grunewald, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Gorky, Kandinsky, to name a few—but none of these artists has approached the enormous influence of Leonardo.
Our wrestling against an established system demands that the system has strength enough to withstand the challenge, and at the very least serve as a dialectical opponent. Even in facile intrigue there is always substance underneath. Our critique of contemporary culture must begin with that assumption. And then we must not just engage and critique from that conviction, we must create from an opposing center.
For Leonardo, a firm foundation was immediately accessible. For him to have painted as he did, he had to be convinced of a center that holds.
So who is at the center for us? Where does the "vanishing point" end?
It ends on the forehead of the Savior.
And that foundation will hold, no matter how full our moneybags get, or how little it takes for us to engage in betrayal. To Leonardo, the triangular shape of Jesus literally holds the painting in its visual movement. To Leonardo, that foundation was never in question: the question to him was the question of "evidence."
Jesus exhorted Philip to "believe" on the basis of the evidence of miracles. Leonardo, of all people, wanted evidence. He looked for it in the stars and sketched it in the sinews of cadavers. He sought resolution in the core of his creativity, and asked deeply phenomenological and existential questions. In other words, Leonardo saw himself at the Table, too, and, like Philip, leaping up at the comment of Jesus. Leonardo, even as a skeptic, was in a deep creative engagement with the Savior even as he approached God with intellectual rigor and dialogue.
In a remarkable passage in John 14, Jesus, the miracle worker, tells his disciples, in direct answer to Philip's comments, that they shall do the "greater work": "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (John 14:12).
What were the "greater things" to which Jesus referred? What could be greater than raising Lazarus from the dead, an event recorded in Chapter 11?
Leonardo framed the answer implicitly in The Last Supper with Philip's earlier words: "Come and see."
The greater things were in telling the world to "come and see." Come and see a masterpiece to consider these eternal questions. And that is what Leonardo determined to undertake.
The Last Supper may miraculously outlast celluloid and our 15-minutes-of-fame mindset, as the world deteriorates in front of our eyes. The Last Supper, in that sense, is a perfect antidote for the 21st-century cultural landscape, exposing us for who we truly are. Even in a mere 15-minute encounter, the work leaves us spellbound in wonderment.
This is why we all need to travel to Milan, just for a momentary decompression, to stand-under the Christ who is about to reach for that bread of communion. Like Leonardo, we may desire to participate in that evening, in the suffering of the one and only true Artist, and follow him to the vanishing point, the source of our bright countenance.
There, witnessing the earthy vermillion glow of the Milan rooftops, we may find ourselves deeply reflecting on the Gospel of John, Chapter 14, where the Savior's still voice continues to expose the depth of our woes and the secrets of our depravity. In Christ's outstretched arms, we may yet find our malaise lifted, our imaginations sparked to do "greater things."
A special thanks to Dr. John E. Walford of Wheaton College and Dr. William A. Dyrness of Fuller Seminary for their insights in preparation for this essay.
Makoto Fujimura's paintings and installations are exhibited and represented by Sara Tecchia Roma Gallery in New York City. He currently serves a six-year term on the National Council on the Arts, appointed by President George W. Bush and approved by the Senate in 2004. In 1990, he founded The International Arts Movement, www.IAMny.org, a non-profit arts organization committed to renewal of our hearts and culture. www.makotofujimura.com
1. Note that Philip's body is much more animated in the actual painting than in the simulation here (plate A), and still more so than in a typical flat reproduction (plate B).
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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