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The Last Supper

Passion Story, Image 111

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Audio transcription

“Tantum ergo sacramentum veneremur cernui.” – “So great therefore a sacrament, let us venerate with bowed heads.” These words open the fourth of the four motets on Gregorian themes that Maurice Duruflé composed for Choir for four voices in 1960. His motet heralds his deep adoration of Christ and spans time. It draws from a univocal Gregorian hymn composed by Thomas Aquinas in 1216. Conversely, “The Last Supper” of the Master of the House Book, a painting adorning the so-called Altar of Speyer spans space: the disciples have gathered around the table. Outside, the sun is setting. Jesus, proportionally over-sized, sits at the head of the table. John, his favorite disciple, rests his head in Jesus’s lap, his face hidden by hair. The Passchal Lamb has been served. Jesus dips a piece of bread into the plate with the meat. In the Gospel of Matthew’s this gesture indicates betrayal: Judas is given this morsel of bread and is thus marked as a traitor. Judas sits at the other end of the table. The missing halo, the bright yellow robe and his sharply contoured profile make him stand out among the disciples. Equally perplexing is Judas’s twisted posture. Averted from the table, Judas tucks away a knife. We viewers see the pouch where he hides the reward for treason. Bread and wine are the symbols of the New Covenant, the treaty between God and humankind by way of the Holy Communion. Through it, sin can be overcome, as presented by this gesture. The Master of the House Book has symbolically brought sin and redemption into a clos tense relationship. And Duruflé combines soprano and tenor in such a way that the leading voice in soprano is followed by the tenor in canon: Jesus leads the way, we follow him.

Full Length Music

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Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986)
„Tantum ergo sacramentum“
No. 4 of the “Quatre Motets Sur des thèmes grégoriens”, op. 10
RIAS Kammerchor Berlin


The Last Supper (1480),
Master of the House Book,
75.6 × 131.0 cm

Christoph Schmidt

Detail, Sleeping John

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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

Christ once more is gigantic, although he sits at the far end of the table. And because Petrus and Jakobus – the disciple who looks like Christ – sit next to him and are equally large in scale, this produces a strange, tilting perspective: the figures in the back are taller. With the table and the room implying perspective, they are made even taller. It is interesting to see how liberally the artist deals with this perspective. We know from another painting, “The Washing of the Feet”, that he knew perfectly well how to create perspective by reducing figures in the back. Here, is is meant to elevate Christ as the centre of the painting.

The disciples are sitting around the table, Christ in their middle with John quasi sleeping on his lap. It’s a somewhat funny depiction, as we only see an eye of John. The painting originates in the 15th century, a time when painters experimented. Any previous painting would have shown John – whether sleeping or not – leaning on Christ, and it would have shown his face because he’s such an important saint and role model for at least half of the male population who were also called John. But here, where everyone knows who it is, the painter was able to simply depict his mop of hair and nothing else. The painting shows the moment, it’s not so much about John sleeping, and more about this contact that tells us: this is the disciple that Jesus loves.

And here in the front, we see Judas who tucks away his knife. He’s obviously cut a piece of bread which he is surely about to dip into the plate with lamb. It is clear that he’s isolated. This disciple sitting next to him, possibly Jakobus junior, already curiously looks at him: what’s he doing? Clearly, Judas is the traitor. He’s got a sachet with money that he received for betraying Jesus. This is the moment we see.

It is of course antisemitic. It’s not so much about race, as it concerns belief. The yellow colour of his robe points to the fact that iconography at the time showed Judas and Jews in general in yellow and with hooked noses. But if you think about Multscher, all his figures including the apostles have such huge noses.

Detail, Fly

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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

Flies abound in the 15th century, and they also appear in painting. There’s a perhaps modern myth that flies stand for the devil. Yet there are also paintings with Madonna on whose knee is a fly. In reality, this is an antique gesture: The viewers are supposed to be astonished, “there’s a fly on this painting” so that they try to wave it off. The painter thus shows them: Got you! You didn’t see that I only painted this fly.

Detail, Judas

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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie and Gregor Meyer, artistic assistant of the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

This painting shows really well how sin and redemption are diametrically opposite one another. Jesus Christ on one side with a benevolent look on his face and on the opposite side Judas who’s already in the middle of sinfully betraying Jesus. He actually turns away. Perhaps he is uncomfortable, knowing that redemption will come. What is fascinating in this motet is that Maurice Duruflé composes Jesus’s succession in this redemption by letting the tenor, the third voice from the top, follow the soprano in a canon. Jesus leads the way and we follow him suit, and this creates something very harmonious and peaceful.


The Last Supper
Main floor, Room