Friday, May 23, 2008

Art and Religion

There is a famous depiction of the Last Supper by the thirteenth-century Sienese artist Pietro Lorenzetti in the lower church in Assisi. Christ and the Apostles are gathered in a circular chamber, defined by elegant pillars, but what is striking is Lorenzetti’s expansion of the scene. To the left, by the door, two men converse, probably the master of the house, elegantly dressed, and his head servant. The door seems to lead to a kitchen, depicted within a high narrow oblong. Here, next to a roaring fire where presumably the food has been cooked, a cat is warming itself, while a dog is licking a dirty plate, and a scullion is bending forward as he wipes another plate and empties its contents into the dog’s plate; another, better-dressed servant, leans over him, apparently engaging him in conversation.

Earlier art historians enthused about Lorenzetti’s way with perspective and domesticity, but recently scholars have begun to explore the symbolic content of the scene. The fire, they say, shows the Old Testament sacrifice, a lamb killed and eaten for Passover, while next door we see the new sacrifice anticipated by Christ, himself the Passover Lamb, in order that Christians may come to a new and purely spiritual sacrifice, ritually re-enacted in the Mass.

A closer look brings a shock to our liberal sensibilities: we may be happy to go along with the abstractions described so far, but baulk, perhaps, at certain aspects of the medieval imagination. For what is this dishcloth with which the scullion is wiping the plate? It is nothing other than the tallith, the Jewish ritual shawl. This domestic kitchen, then, with its cosy cat and dog, is the stinking physical world of the Old Testament, for St Bonaventure tells us that those who want real flesh as opposed to the spiritualized flesh of the Lamb of God are dogs who must be excluded from the Eucharistic banquet. This is strong stuff to emanate from so noble a painting, but it is indubitably there. Or is it – quite?

For what is the other servant, the one who bends over the scullion, pointing to, if not to his own prayer shawl, this time correctly covering his shoulders? Does not the emphatic gesture of his left hand suggest that he is reprimanding the scullion for desecrating this piece of ritual clothing, asking that it be reinstated in some sense, reminding us, the viewers, that it stands for the very world out of which Jesus emerged? After all, is it not this very same shawl that we see worn with pride by the Virgin’s father in another painting by Pietro Lorenzetti, of the Nativity, now in the cathedral museum in Siena?

That was Gabriel Josipovici's writing.

No comments: