Art and the Lord’s Supper: Choreography of Grace and Table
Ann Laird Jones
Rev. Dr. Ann Laird Jones is a Presbyterian minister (PCUSA), currently serving in her twenty-ninth year as the arts ministry director at Montreat Conference Center as she continues the conversation between art and theology.
Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and . . .” With this little rhyme, many children learn with their hands that the church is all about those gathered. Step into any sanctuary, and there, right before your eyes, is the communion table, the heart of the church. This table is at once the focus of grace, the space for remembering, the place where the presence of Christ is realized, and the fulcrum of sacramental theology. It is where we gather. And it is where our hands break a loaf of bread in two, pour wine into an awaiting silent chalice, offer and receive the elements. It is where we come face-to-face with God and our hands touch.
Anderson Auditorium table, Montreat Conference Center, 2022, photo by Ann Laird Jones
The Lord’s Supper is not merely a series of words and phrases with a few actions thrown in, but a choreography of gathered grace. Even in an empty sanctuary as we are drawn to this Lord’s Table, we imagine the choreography, the action about to take place. Writer Adam Gopnik quotes Soviet dissident author Andrei Sinyavsky’s description of a novel: “The most rudimentary thing about literature . . . is that words are not deeds.”1 Words are not deeds. The Lord’s Supper is not just words, but action, deeds. Visual at every turn, it is about people and place, memory and hope. As you gaze upon this table, what do you see? What do you remember? What do you imagine? Art and the Lord’s Supper: visible action embracing invisible grace upon grace, the presence of Christ, the action of God with us forever.
But back to that table. In 1962 Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II, a liturgical “reformation” designed not only to modernize the Catholic church but also to study the rituals and liturgical practice of worship. The resulting liturgical revival changed the way the church worshiped, including how the church viewed the eucharistic meal. The communion table was moved into the middle of the people, away from the back wall, out of obscurity. The congregation and the clergy were now face-to-face.
First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina, a Gothic Revival style church built in 1884, made the decision to remodel their sanctuary in 2013. They opened up the entire chancel, enlarging it and bringing wood from the back portions of the chancel area to construct liturgical furniture. The large, new, round communion table now occupies center stage in the chancel. Here is a table that dominates not only the chancel area but the entire sanctuary: a table with no beginning or end, to which all are welcomed. Even the lighting above the table echoes the circular design. The bold metal circular light installation above echoes the form of the table below, embracing the space with light cast from twelve lanterns. The vision of the table extends and emulates font and pulpit, as the action moves outward.
Liturgical furniture by Erich Thompson, First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC. Photo by Cathie Dodson
How are the actions of communion, the sharing of grace in the Eucharist, depicted in art? What are the liturgical movements in these artistic renderings of the Last Supper? Who is moving, and where is the agency? Artists have been imaging the scene in the upper room for the last two thousand years, each asking these questions for themselves. Some of these include Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, Hannah Garrity, Catherine Kapikian, Sadao Watanabe, and Corita Kent.
The regrettable iconoclasm of the Reformation led to the destruction of countless altarpieces and visual depictions of the life of Jesus. Altarpieces, stained-glass windows, paintings, sculptures, and visual depictions of the life of Jesus were systematically destroyed and removed from sanctuaries over concerns about idolatry. However, much art about the Last Supper survived destruction. Surviving paintings and carved sculptures support the theory that even in the midst of iconoclasm, there was a curiosity about the role and presence of Christ at table. Images of the Last Supper show a clear intimacy between Jesus and the people who follow him and reveal the human need to somehow imagine God’s presence visually. Even as the Reformation reimagined visual space in Protestant churches, the table remained a central visual element within that space. There is scholarly evidence that visual depictions of the Last Supper continued to be made on altarpieces and in paintings. Perhaps because of the sparse and fearful visual imagination in this post-Reformation time, the church realized anew that theological imagination of sacramental presence must include visual language.
Depictions of the Last Supper in paintings and carved sculptures helped explain the eucharistic meal, particularly the role and presence of Christ at table with his disciples. Throughout his ministry Jesus is frequently observed at table, over meals, often in houses with friends, outcasts, tax collectors, and those no one would ordinarily invite to a banquet feast. How many parables point to guests who don’t show up, leaving room for those not usually invited? No wonder the table must occupy front and center space in our churches and in our theology.
Following are two classic understandings of this gathering at table with Jesus, one a fresco by Fra Angelico, Communion of the Apostles, and the other a painting by Juan de Juanes, Last Supper.
In both paintings, categorized as “communion of the disciples” by art historians, Jesus is both the host of the meal and the one offering the host to eager disciples.
In Fra Angelico’s fresco, the composition feels weighted on the left side, as if the disciples behind Jesus at table are leaning into him, compelling him forward. His bare feet are showing—still to be washed in the hour of his death? Four stools await four kneeling disciples—perhaps the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, John? A woman kneels in the lower left-hand corner of the fresco: Mary? The composition finds balance in the well to the right: living water? Jesus holds what appears to be a chalice with a plate on top as he offers bread and wine to each haloed disciple. Immediately outside the two arched windows are other buildings, each with similar open windows. The background is not a landscape stretching to infinity, but next-door neighbors. The scene takes place in real time, in a real house, with the real and present Jesus.
Fra Angelico, Communion of the Apostles, fresco, Museum de San Marco, 1440
In Juan de Juanes’s painting Last Supper, Judas (in yellow) holds a bag of coins and sits on a stool inscribed with his name. He is the only disciple without a halo and looks as though he is about to leave the scene. Jesus’ gaze seems to focus on him. Even the knives on the table point to him. The role of betrayal is woven into the theology of grace.
Juan de Juanes, Last Supper, Museo del Prada, 1562
The Wroclaw Last Supper is an anonymous fifteenth-century relief sculpture showing an intimate moment frozen for all time. This beautiful sculpture was not destroyed in the iconoclasm period but remains today as a moving example of visual liturgical choreography. We see a variety of postures among the disciples: prayer, beseeching, reaching, receiving, holding, hands opened, hands clasped, gathered around table together. Their hands point in many directions, leading the eye around the table and carrying liturgical meaning, helping viewers understand that there are many ways to pray and to receive communion. Jesus is larger in scale and seems more at ease than his disciples. The meal is relaxed even if the anxious disciples are not. John leans into Jesus’ embrace. We see the (giant!) bare feet of a disciple at the bottom of the sculpture as he washes the feet of the one next to him, even as his feet have just been washed by another. Everyone is in motion. Nothing is static. The realized presence of Jesus in this meal is not something to wait for, but something that is happening right now.
Wroclaw Last Supper, Anonymous, circa 1490, Poland. This file is made available under the Creative Commons (CCCO 1.0) Universal Public Domain.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano, 1495–98
Leonardo da Vinci’s mural of the Last Supper from the 1490s at the Santa Maria del Grazia monastery in Milan is widely considered to be the first work of the High Renaissance due to its harmonious integration of subject, setting, and theme. Rather than a round table, typically seen in earlier thirteenth-century Byzantine depictions of the Last Supper, this long, rectangular table depicts the symmetry and angular clarity of the later Renaissance. Even the cloth on the table is straight, unwrinkled, and completely symmetrical with the rest of the painting, despite the chaotic theological action already in motion. Leonardo da Vinci had no experience working on such a large expanse (this piece is twenty-nine feet long) nor in this medium (painting on plaster). With this work he experimented with tempura paints, applying them directly onto the dry, sealed plaster wall rather than following the normal fresco procedure, which involved mixing pigments with the wet plaster. Though the painting is damaged and the paint peeling, this depiction of the Last Supper has greatly influenced the Western cultural conception of the eucharistic meal to this day.
Of note in da Vinci’s Last Supper is the use of linear perspective, a technique developed in the Italian Renaissance to create depth on a two-dimensional surface. The method includes using a horizon line and vanishing point to which all lines in the composition recede, creating depth by tricking the eye. In Leonardo’s Last Supper, the vanishing point is actually right behind Jesus’ right temple. Everything emanates from this point, placing the primary focus on Jesus and secondarily on the disciples’ reaction to his announcement of his impending betrayal. Instantly all hands fly up: “Is it I, Lord? Is it I?” Immediately we are brought into a scene of penitential confession. The expression on each face is that of fear of possibly imminent loss. Da Vinci uses not only facial expression, but also the hands and postures of the disciples to express motion and drama, to project meaning into the eucharistic meal, and to create a scene where grace and love must prevail. Implicit in each reaction is the relationship between disciples and Jesus. The table is filled with food to the very edges. There is grace for all at this table.
Hannah Garrity, Last Supper, papercut banner installed in Anderson Auditorium, Montreat Conference Center, on the final summer Sunday worship service, 2012
Hannah Garrity, the liturgical artist for Montreat Conference Center, made a papercut banner in 2012 using da Vinci’s Last Supper as an influence. In Hannah’s interpretation, the disciples point to Jesus with a focus on their relationship with him instead of pointing to themselves with recriminating “Is it I?” They still do not understand Jesus’ impending suffering, but they have begun to know and trust the love of the one they follow. The starkness of this moment shows that Jesus’ identity is still hidden from the disciples, but their response to grace is clear. Even though they lack understanding, they come to this table with both memory and hope, gathered around their Lord. Their hands reach out to him, changing the direction of their attention away from themselves. Hannah made the decision to increase the movement in the composition by using a company of doves as a reference to the Holy Spirit’s action in the scene. In this way the well-known work is transformed, changed from “color by number” or a copy of the da Vinci image to a dynamic, motion-filled Lord’s Supper. The change in visual motion articulated a theological change from fear and guilt to celebration and joy. It is as though the viewer can feel a rush of wind, the Holy Spirit represented by flying doves. Bread is broken, the cup of salvation is shared, and eyes are opened to grace upon grace in God’s real presence.
Hannah Garrity, Last Supper: God’s Hand Meets and Holds Ours, installation photo and planning sketches, Montreat Conference Center, 2017
In her 2017 work titled The Lord’s Supper: God’s Hand Meets Ours, Garrity imagines how disciples’ hands and the Lord’s Supper are visually related to the experience of communion in Anderson Auditorium at Montreat Conference Center, a very large, cavernous space. Hannah’s question was about how to keep a sense of intimacy in such an enormous auditorium. By using long pieces of sheer fabric in conjunction with a large painting, Hannah activates the space. Instead of focusing on a wide, horizontal table, emphasizing the wideness of the auditorium space, Garrity uses strips of fabric to draw the eye upward. “The painted hands are a representation of God and her people meeting, joining in the same space, in the sacrament of communion.”2
What do we mean by the presence of God at the table? It’s the action of God’s hand on ours. God holds us in God’s embrace.
Catherine Kapikian is founder and director emerita of Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., where she served as a professor and distinguished artist in residence from 2009 to 2020. Kapikian is a working artist, a theologian, a seminary graduate, and the author of Art in Service of the Sacred. She has made hundreds of large installations around the globe, many of which involve participants from the community in the making process. She calls this participatory aesthetics and says this about the process:
In the shared experience of fabricating (painting, sewing, needle pointing, constructing, cutting, hammering, gluing, etc.), the community comprehends design choices, understands the necessity of reciprocity in seeking meaning from the work, and flourishes in a joyful process. Deep correspondences exist between participation in creative processing and spiritual formation.3
On January 29, 2019, Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) invited Kapikian to write about her work called The Last Supper, which she created for, and with, the Wesley Theological Seminary community in Washington, D.C. Designed to be installed on the soffit in the refectory at Wesley, the installation reminds the community about the sacramental experience of gathering at table right in the midst of where the community gathers at table every day.4
Catherine Kapikian, Last Supper, 44′ x 5′ 5 3/4″, painted wood relief, 2020
Using the Fibonacci mathematical principle of expansion without termination, Kapikian emphasizes and makes visible what might be invisible in Leonardo da Vinci’s interpretation of the Last Supper, realizing in visual form the transformation that happens around table together. Above you will see the 7-foot mockup made for the initial presentation to the seminary community. She made more than a thousand drawings of hands as she prepared the design, which spanned the entirety of the 44-foot length of the seminary’s 44-foot by 5-foot-5 3/4-inch refectory soffit. Five vertical panels provide the installation vertical tension, giving the sense of touching the divine even as the meal intensifies. Kapikian describes this magnificent work this way:
The division of light and dark shapes that define this recasted, traditional iconographic image emanate from a centralized point that sets in motion the Fibonacci Mathematical Principle. The power implicit in this prescience “Last Supper” interpretation overrides its symbolic suggestion of church-imposed barriers inferred in the vertical wood reliefs adding visual interest when walking along side or beneath it. The bracketing set of hands giving communion symbolize the sending forth task of Wesley students and draw attention to the genius of Leonardo da Vinci’s gesturing hands.5
Kapikian’s rendering of the hands of Jesus and his disciples was executed by the hands of a community that worked tirelessly for many months sawing, painting, and finally installing this work. One moment in time conveys the history of all creation, in present tense, with past and future tenses in every shadow.
Kapikian firmly believes that “to be created in the image of the Creator is to be creative.” This meal, this Lord’s Supper, is the embodiment of this creative movement: gesture and longing, the realized presence of God with us. The meal is the moment when our hands touch. Kapikian remarks on the role of hands in her piece when she writes,
I regard da Vinci’s gesturing of the disciples’ hands as brilliant, so I decided to pick up on this motif in my rendering. I emphasized the hands by de-noting them with different colors, and I bracketed the Last Supper image with a pair of hands lifting the cup and a pair of hands lifting the bread.6
The focus in Kapikian’s Last Supper is the interaction between Jesus and his disciples around the table, exemplified through the gesturing, moving hands. These hands express all sorts of emotions, including fear, anxiety, anger, love, joy, and strength, not to mention the desire to make this moment last forever. For Kapikian, bringing the Eucharist into the context of the refectory was essential, drawing together another very beloved community gathered for a different kind of daily bread. Her re-imagined Last Supper is a visual reminder to the Wesley Seminary community that when they gather around table together, Christ is always present. Christ reaches out his hands to us in complete love. Christ’s hands touch ours as we share the cup of grace and break bread together. Catherine Kapikian’s influence throughout the church is profound. She brings the invisible moment of Christ’s transformative presence into gigantic, beautiful, visible form, and invites us to that table.
The Last Supper installation was built by the Wesley community over a period of many months, completed a week before COVID-19 lockdowns closed the campus. The installation has yet to be dedicated.
Sadao Watanabe, Last Supper, print, 1973, author’s collection
Twentieth-century artist Sadao Watanabe was born in 1913 and was integral to the spread of the mingei folk arts and crafts movement. He is considered to be Japan’s foremost Christian artist of the twentieth century. Sandra Bowden, coordinator of exhibitions for the Christians in the Visual Arts organization, is drawn to Watanabe’s “unique Japanese perspective on the great biblical narratives.”7 Watanabe uses a process called Katazome, a traditional Japanese stencil art form for dying kimonos that uses stencils, paint, and resist-paste to make an image. In Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe, Sandra Bowden writes that the Katazome process is an “intricately choreographed folk art form, requiring loving attention to detail and to the vagaries of natural materials.”8 Watanabe was influenced by the strong outlined forms of Georges Rouault’s work.
Last Supper is a hand-colored kappazuri stencil print on washi handmade paper. Watanabe’s process is part of the power of the work. Bowden describes his materials:
Watanabe only used natural materials: the stencils and print paper were all made from the fibrous bark of kozo (the paper mulberry tree) by farmers in northern Japan. His shibugami (stencil paper) consisted of three-ply sheets of kozo paper, hardened with persimmon tannin, then dried and cured in a smokehouse, which gave it a brown coloring. . . . Black was made from pure carbon and white from crushed seashells. Red came from the pulverized bodies of the female cochineal, a cactus-feeding insect, and blue came from the leaves of the indigo plant.9
In Last Supper, the disciples sit side by side, indistinguishable from the table. The traditional paschal lamb is exchanged for a giant fish in the middle of the table. The disciples focus on Jesus, but also on one another. Jesus’ hand is outstretched over the plate of broken bread in front of him. The scene is intimate, cozy, comfortable, and natural. It is exactly how I imagine a supper with people I love the best. Bowden comments on Watanabe’s ability to capture emotion:
One striking feature of Watanabe’s biblical characters is their impassive, tight-lipped faces. They inhabit a different spiritual space from the swooning, open-mouthed saints who roll their eyes heavenward in grief or ecstasy in much Western religious art since the baroque period. The notion that expressed emotion reflects deep devotion is foreign to Japan, where social convention discourages the public display of feelings. Watanabe’s figures resemble actors in the Noh theater, who perform behind masks and communicate emotion through body language. Look away from the faces in Watanabe prints and focus on the gesticulating, oversized hands, and razor-sharp fingers. Hands with palms outward command attention and offer blessings; hands with palms inward signal fear, wonder and joy.10
For Watanabe the practice of making art was a form of worship: “As I grow older, my work becomes less of myself and more of my Lord.”11 His depiction of the Eucharist includes us all at this deeply spiritual level of being one with God at this table of grace. No one disciple is lifted up or left out, not even the one betraying Jesus. All are welcome in this place. All are home at this table.
Corita Kent imagined the table in new forms and new ways, with new images to tell the story. Both an artist and a nun, Sister Corita Kent visually interpreted the wonder of the Lord’s Supper in terms of twelve slices of bread in a print called Wonder Bread.
Sister Corita Kent, Wonder Bread, screen print, 1962
In 1962, Sister Mary Corita walked into a West Hollywood gallery to look at paintings of Campbell’s soup cans. . . . Andy Warhol was democratizing art in new ways, and it sparked an epiphany for this artist-nun. “Always be ready to see what you haven’t seen before,” she said. It’s how we “make contact with what is really there, uncluttered by old thoughts and prejudices.”12
It reminded her of the Eucharist, and copying it twelve times evoked the liturgical year. It’s a playful meditation on sacred time, wonder, and communion—a different kind of bread inspiring our imaginations year after year.13
Corita Kent took what she saw on the table and imagined a connection between the world which the table beckons and the moment of eucharistic transformation. She was fascinated, for instance, with the word wonder in connection with bread and saw it as a bridge to understanding the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table. Michael Wright remarks on the role of religion in Kent’s work:
These prints don’t depict a Christian scene, but they’re the end result of a distinctly Christian creative process and a reforming imagination. And we can join in—as artists, as appreciators, and as people.14
Ray Smith, director of the Corita Art Center in Los Angeles, reflects on the reasons for contemporary interest in Kent’s work when he writes:
She took words and graphics meant to be read and understood instantly and tricked you into looking at them longer. She did this by both re-contextualizing common messages and manipulating familiar images.15
Corita Kent’s focus was always on the people in her presence, those who are around the table, as they engage with what is on the table.
As a potter, I have long been intrigued with sacramental theology and the role the physical objects play in the celebration of communion. For years I focused primarily on the liturgical vessels themselves, caught up in a love affair with the chalice form, studying endlessly about the historic development of this particular form. In liturgical rites in the earliest days of the church the chalice was actually a very large bowl, capable of holding wine and water enough for all who gathered to share. Over time the cup was gradually withdrawn from the laity and reserved for clergy. The choir screen separating priest from congregation went up; the cup got smaller, the stem taller, elevating the cup. In present times, particularly in the aftermath of COVID separation, gathering at the Lord’s Table together has taken on new meaning. We are hungry to be together again. We thirst for God’s presence in scary times. The performative action at table is the one place where we see the actual bread broken, wine poured, and the cup of salvation offered to us, as a community. The table itself and those gathered around it become the image of the Lord’s Supper.
May we never again walk into a sanctuary and see emptiness, but rather imagine only fullness at the table of grace. May we see a world of God’s beloved people crowded around this table, jostling next to the saints who have gone before us, crowding in to touch the hands of Jesus as he offers the bread of life and the cup of salvation. May we know the radical freedom afforded by visualizing and imagining God’s presence with us at table, and may we forever go forth from that table imbued with grace upon grace, filled with joy and delight, knowing God’s hand and ours have touched.
Then Jesus took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:17–20)
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungrateful? Ah, my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste
So I did sit and eat.
~ George Herbert16
- Adam Gopnik, “Salman Rushdie and the Power of Words,” New Yorker Magazine, Daily Comment (August 13, 2022), https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/salman-rushdie-and-the-power-of-words/, emphasis added. “Literature exists in the realm of the hypothetical, the suppositional, the improbable, the imaginary. We relish books for their exploration of the implausible which sometimes defines a new possible for the rest of us.”
- Hannah Garrity, interview by author, August 12, 2022, Montreat Conference Center, Montreat, NC.
- Catherine Kapikian, “Vocation,” 2022, catherinekapikian.com.
- Catherine Kapikian, “On Installing The Last Supper,” the website of CIVA, January 29, 2019, https://civa.org/civablog/on-installing-the-last-supper/.
- Catherine Kapikian, “Gathering Spaces: Wesley Theological Seminary Refectory, Washington, D.C.,” https://www.catherinekapikian.com/ecclesial/.
- Catherine Kapikian, “On Installing The Last Supper.”
- Sandra Bowden et al., Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe, (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2012), 10.
- Bowden, Beauty Given by Grace, 84.
- Bowden, Beauty Given by Grace, 84–88.
- Bowden, Beauty Given by Grace, 96.
- Anne H. H. Pyle, “A Christian Faith in the Tradition of Japanese Folk Art,” Printing the Word: The Art of Sadao Watanabe (New York: American Bible Society, 2000), 26.
- Michael Wright, “The Listening Heart: Corita Kent’s Reforming Vision,” The Nation, a podcast, March 28, 2022.
- Wright, “The Listening Heart.”
- Wright, “The Listening Heart,” emphasis in the original.
- Ray Smith, “An Artist Who Sees Holiness in Wonder Bread,” blogpost, August 27, 2015, Getty.edu/news, commenting on the 2015 Corita Kent retrospective show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Someday Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent.
- George Herbert, “Love Bade Me Welcome.”