Notes on The Last Supper by Dieric Bouts
This is the central panel of a triptych known as the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament. The work was commissioned in 1464 by the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament for St Peter’s church in Leuven, where it is still displayed.
 
There are four other paintings attached in pairs either side of the centre panel, but it is the Last Supper composition that is the main focus of this presentation.
It is a remarkable painting and rich in iconography which is generally missed or overlooked in presentations of the work. While the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper is the dominant theme, there are other narratives (apart from the side panels) in this exposition.
The Flemish Primitives website provides a comprehensive biography about the artist Dieric Bouts and a visual description of the Altarpiece of the Last Supper painting, as well as access to view the painting in a large format.
about this presentation

 

This presentation is work in progress and in the form of a series of random notes as posted on my catchlight.blog. Linked updates are listed below.

 

30.01.2019   MORE ON SIMON AND PHILIP

24.01.2019   SIMON THE ZEALOT AND PHILIP

14.01.2019   WHO DO YOU SAY WE ARE?

11.01.2019   HAND SERVANTS

10.01.2019   A COMMUNION OF ARTISTS AND SAINTS

Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament,

1464-1468, by Dieric Bouts

St Peter’s Church, Leuven

a communion of artists and saints

 

It is possible to identify the apostles around the table with the iconography clues embedded by Dierec Bouts, but less obvious are some of the second identities Bouts has included. They are mainly artists, his contemporaries. But Bouts picks out one artist in particular, Rogier van Weyden, the figure standing on the right side of the frame who historians generally describe as one of the servants on hand.

 

Historians are also uncertain about the identities of the two men framed on the back wall, peering through a serving hatch (right). Generally thought to portray “members of the confraternity responsible for commissioning the altarpiece” they are, in fact, two artists: Dieric Bouts (left) and Hans Memling (right). The German painter is said to have spent time working in Van der Weyden’s Brussels workshop, while Bouts was also influenced by Rogier who died in 1464, just three months after Bouts had agreed the contract to produce the altarpiece.

 

Another artist said to have greatly influenced Bouts was Jan van Eyck. He is the figure in red, seated in front of Van der Weyden and portrayed as St James the Lesser, a pointer to the quatrain on the Ghent Altarpiece in which Jan acknowledges his brother Hubert as the greater artist.

 

Dieric Bouts and Hans Memling?

Variations of Hans Memling:

As Jan van Winckele, as a servant, St John and St Michael

But what about Hans Memling’s contribution to the altarpiece, if any? Memling was probably the youngest among the group of featured artists and so it would not be unreasonable to focus on the youngest of the disciples, John, sat on the left of Jesus. There is a resemblance to the Memling portrait in the serving hatch but a more convincing connection are components from The Last Judgment triptych painted by Memling between 1467 and 1471. The faces of the two St Michael figures (Membling?) resemble St John, probably because the writing of the Book of Revelation is attributed to the Evangelist, while Memling’s group of artists as heavenly apostles is seemingly inspired by the group of artists as apostles in the Bouts painting.

A section from Hans Memling’s Last Judgment showing Jesus and his apostles in heaven.
National Museum, Gdansk

The Memling portrait in the serving hatch is adapted from an earlier portrait by Bouts painted in 1462 and located in the National Gallery, London. The sitter is questionably said to be Jan van Winckele. The gallery’s description explains that it is “the earliest surviving dated Netherlandish portrait to include a view through a window, although such views were included in Netherlandish paintings with religious subjects.”

Dieric Bouts alongside Hans Memling, and the National Gallery’s ‘Jan van Winckele?’

By linking the two paintings in this way, and then portraying Memling alongside his own portrait, but looking in the opposite direction, was Bouts suggesting that both men had been working on producing triptychs at the same time that shared a similar narrative – the apostles as artists – but viewed from different perspectives, apostles on earth and apostles in heaven? Bouts as the ‘master’ and Memling as the ‘disciple’ he favoured?

 

As to the other standing figure beside the serving hatch, he is not an artist but a patron. The clue to his identity is that Bouts has placed him standing behind the apostle Peter who represents the foundation of the Church. He shares the same name as the apostle – a second Peter, so to speak. He is Peter II, a member of the influential Adornes family of merchants from Bruges. He is represented as a deacon attending to Jesus in his role as priest, the Last Supper being the first Mass.

 

There is a particular reason why Bouts has depicted Peter II Adornes and Rogier van der Weyden as standing figures. Both men died in 1464, the year the painting was commissioned. Not only is Bouts suggesting that they were upright and respected figures in society, but their standing is symbolic of being raised up and resurrected. A communion of saints.

 
hand servants

 

The Last Supper panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament was for St Peter’s Chuch, Leuven. Its Dean at the time was Dominic Bassadonis who also served as Chancellor of Leuven’s Old University, founded by Pope Martin V in 1425. The University’s four boarding schools were named: the Castle, the Falcon, the Lily, and the Boar (or Pig).
 

College crests… The Boar or Pig, the Lily, the Castle, the Falcon… Louvain Monumental

Each school had its own coat of arms or emblem, as shown above. These are referred to in The Last Supper painting, “assigned” to hands of the four apostles alongside Jesus. From left to right they are St Andrew (castle), St Peter (falcon), St John (lily) and St Thomas (boar or pig).

Hand signs… Castle, Falcon, Lily and Boar (or Pig)

Probably the most difficult to distinguish, but more meaningful, are the hands of Thomas. The four fingers of his left hand form the boar’s head, the thumb its ear. Thomas’ right hand covers his left for a reason. He had doubted the resurrection of Jesus and refused to believe unless he could touch the wounds of the risen Lord.

 

The French translation for boar is sanglier. However, Bouts splits the word in deference to Van Eyck’s use of word play in his paintngs. Jan is seated next to Thomas. When sanglier is split into two words – sang and lier – a new meaning evolves: blood and bond. So Thomas’ right hand represents a seal over the wound made in Christ’s hand when he was nailed to his cross – a reminder of a new covenant bond with God, sealed with the blood of Jesus. It was at the Last Supper that Jesus shared the cup of wine with his disciples and said to them: “This is my blood, the blood of the new covenant, to be poured out on behalf of many.”

 

There is another narrative that connects to both the boar sign and the issue of blood. In Judaism, physical contact with blood or a boar (pig) is considered unclean and requires the person to be ritually purified. Above the figure of Thomas at the door entrance is a receptable for washing. A basin and towel are also under the cupboard beside Van der Weyden.

 

For the hands of Thomas to represent uncleanliness at the table is a pointer to the teaching of Jesus when the Pharisees complained about his disciples breaking traditions by not washing their hands before eating food, and what is understood by a man being clean and unclean (Matthew 15 : 1-20). Thomas’ doubt was not washed away by ritual cleansing but by being invited to touch the wounds of Jesus.

 

The twelve disciples of Jesus seated at the Last Supper... but who are they?

who do you say we are?

 

So who are the twelve disciples sat around the table? Running clockwise from Jesus, they can be identified as follows: John, Thomas, James the Less, Matthew, Bartholmew, Jude, Judas, James the Great, Simon the Zealot, Andrew, Philip, and Simon Peter.

Two portrayals of John the Evangelist, both likened to the artist Hans Memling.

John the Evangelist

 

John is the easiest to identify as he is generally considered to be the youngest of the disciples and usually portrayed without a beard. In the two images above, the left a section of The Donne Triptych by Hans Memling (National Gallery), John can be easily matched with the clip from The Last Supper, probably because Memling is the model in both paintings.

 

John is often depicted in paintings holding a chalice or with one close to him, sometimes containing a snake, as shown below. Notice the twist pattern on the lid of the silver chalice lid and the ‘snake’ handle.

 

The disciples are not seated at random. Each man connects in some way with the one on his left. So there is a specific link between John and Thomas, the disciple next to him. It is this: John has his eyes focused on the bread which Jesus says is his body, Thomas hasn’t. His appears to be deep in thought, “somewhere else”. This scenario points to the time when Jesus appeared in the same room after his Resurrection. Thomas was not present. He was “somewhere else”. When he did return the other disciples said to Thomas “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas doubted the claim until Jesus later appeared a second time to the disciples, Thomas included. This account only appears in John’s Gospel and is the link.

 

Thomas

 

Some of the iconography identifying Thomas was pointed out iearlier, but there is more.

 

Thomas was also known as Didymus – meaning “twin”. Bouts has interpreted “twin” as meaning “two-fold” – the folding of Thomas’ hands and the folding of the table cloth on which his hands are placed.

 

Thomas was a builder by profession, so one of his attributes in art is a builder’s square. To the left of his head is a pattern of square floor tiles. He is also seated at the corner of the table, and the fold in the table cloth forms a 45 degree angle. Thomas was the first disciple to profess his faith in Jesus by acknowledging the resurrected Christ as his Lord and God, a cornerstone and foundation of faith.

 

Match-ups... from A Goldsmith in his Shop by Petrus Christus, and The Last Supper by Dieric Bouts.

Simon the Zealot and Philip

 

Seated on the left side of the table are the apostles James the Great, Simon the Zealot and Philip.

 

Simon and Philip mirror a similar group portrayed in A Goldsmith in his Shop, a work attributed to Petrus Christus and dated 1449, some 18 years prior to the completion of The Last Supper. In turn, for the Goldsmith painting, Petrus adapted some of the features and narratives from the Ghent Altarpiece produced by the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck and completed in 1434. Bouts’ version is a composite of the two groups with added narratives.

 

There are several visual matches for Simon (Petrus Christus): the burgundy skull cap, the red robe, both men looking up, transfixed, and the three-hand triangle formation are the most noticeable pairings. Simon’s hands can also be matched – one rests on the table edge, the other is raised.

 

In both the Goldsmith and Last Supper paintings, Jan is portrayed with his eyes looking down over the shoulder of the figure of Petrus sat beside him. This defines the relationship between the two artists. Petrus studied under the watchful eye of Jan in his studio and later took over the workshop after Van Eyck’s death in 1441.

Jan van Eyck doubles up as the Duke of Burgundy in the Ghent Altarpiece and is mirrored in the Goldsmith painting by Petrus Christus.

The self portrait of Jan in the Ghent Altarpiece is also a representation of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy – and this makes the connection to Philip the Apostle. So, in fact, the figure in The Last Supper represents three people, Philip the Apostle, Philip the Good, and Jan van Eyck. Already mentioned is the relationship between Jan and Petrus, so what is the relationship between the apostles Simon and Philip? What is the relationship that unites the figures when portrayed as Petrus and Philip the Good?

 

When the contract to produce the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament was drawn up and signed in March 1464, it stipulated the assignment of two theologians to assist the painter Dieric Bouts. Johannes Varenacker and Egidius Bailuwel were associated with the Old Leuven University and are featured in the top left panel of the altarpiece.

 

Left: Theologians Johannes Varenacker and Egidius Bailuwel. Right: A representation of both Van Eyck and Varenacker.

Bouts has also portrayed Varenacker in The Last Supper panel, in the guise of James the Less sat at the table corner opposite Philip. The figure also represents an older version of Jan van Eyck. So there are two representations of Jan at the table – as Philip, and as James the Less. There is a specific reason for Bouts doing this and likely that Varenacker played his part in constructing the links, hence the reason for portraying the theologian a second time in the altarpiece and in this particular section.

But the combined figure of Van Eyck and Varenacker portrayed as James the Less isn’t just speculation on my part. The connection is confirmed by an associate of Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, in his Adoration of the Kings panel of the Monforte Altarpiece.

Johannes Varenacker and Jan van Eyck in multiple guises. The centre image is from the Monforte Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes.

The humble figure of St Joseph is a representation of Varenacker shown with a depiction of Christ’s Shroud on his shoulder, a pointer to Van Eyck’s fascination for what is now known as the Turin Shroud. Notice Joseph has cap in hand as also Varenacker and Van Eyck in the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament.

One of the New Testament references connected to the figures of Simon and Philip is from John’s gospel. The passage about the miracle of the loaves describes how five barley loaves and two fish were enough to feed 5,000 people who had sat down to eat on a hillside (6 : 1-15).

Verse 5 reads: “Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching and said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?’”

Such was the size of the crowd that Philip answered “ Two hundred dinari would only buy enough for a small piece each.”

Another disciple, Andrew, whose brother was Peter, said a small boy had five barley loaves and two fish but it wouldn’t be enough to feed everyone, estimated at 5,000 people.

Sitting next to Philip in The Last Supper panel is the mentioned Andrew (in red) alongside his brother Peter (in green).

Philip and Simon the Zealot are portrayed with their mouths open. They are in a conversation which represents the question asked by Jesus and Philip’s answer. Simon in the role of Christ (as in Petrus Christus) is portrayed “looking up”.

When taking the loaves, Jesus gave thanks – a blessing – before giving the bread out to the people. Simon’s (Christus) right hand is raised in blessing. It also represents the tail end of a fish, as does the joined hands of Philip, in regard to the two fish presented with the five loaves. The three-hand, dove-like formation represents the descent and action of the Holy Spirit in blessing the offering.

On the table are six pieces of bread, not five. However, two are half-cuts, the pieces in front of James the Less and Simon the Zealot, or Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus. In the case of the latter pairing this points to the two painters sharing in some way, perhaps Jan passing on his knowledge and experience to the younger artist, or even his studio after his death.

The juxtaposition of the knife and half-cut bread placed in front of Simon refers to the Zealot’s type of death and martyrdom when his body was reputed to have been sawn in half. It also points to the breaking of bread (Christ’s body) during the celebration of the Eucharist. The knife is positioned on a trajectory pointing to the figure of Jesus blessing the communion wafer in his hand with the words: “This is my body which will be given for you.” (Luke 22 : 19)

Elements of the Philip and Simon pairing (Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus) are reflected in two figures on the opposite side of the table, with the large dish echoing the famous mirror feature in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait painting. Already mentioned is the elderly depiction of Van Eyck sat at the corner of the table. Next to him is Matthew, the tax collector.

More to follow...

Above: disciples Andrew and Peter... Below: A conversation between Simon and Philip.

• CATCHLIGHT

Text © bernard gallagher, 2016/17/18/19

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