Behind the altar of the church at Somerton is a remarkable reredos, carved in high relief. It would be easy to overlook from a distance, but it repays a much closer inspection. It is a depiction of the Last Supper unlike any other I have seen, dating back seven hundred years, to the fourteenth century, and it is a fascinating artistic survival from this time.
The reredos is in superb condition for its age. In places you can still see the colours of the original, medieval pigments used to paint the carving. One reason for this is because, for centuries, the reredos was hidden away to preserve it from the Puritanical forces of Cromwell and his troops and was only reinstated in 1822. There were originally thirteen figures, though only eleven are now immediately apparent… and therein lies a tale.
“Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake. He then lying on Jesus’ breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.” John 13 KJV.
The ‘beloved disciple’ leans upon Jesus’ breast in the manner told in the Gospels. Only one figure is severely damaged…almost obliterated… and that is the figure of Judas Iscariot. Scarred stone remains where once he knelt before Jesus. The image suggests that this may have been the moment when Jesus dipped the sop into the wine to indicate his betrayer… the moment when He set in motion the events which led to the inevitability of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Reading the account in the biblical texts, there is no blame from Jesus laid upon Judas. Perhaps He saw him as the necessary instrument of destiny.
Indeed, there seems to be more censure in His words to Peter when “Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake. Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.” John 13 KJV.
Even so, Jesus and the Apostles are not portrayed in the stiff symbolic postures we are used to seeing. There is no sense of this being a ‘last’ supper, a solemn communal act before the events of the Crucifixion. We seem to get a glimpse of a party…of friends enjoying time together, before they knew that destiny was about to strike.
Each of the disciples is individually carved and portrayed as a person… a human being with feelings, tastes and habits of their own. These are not just static characters from a holy book, they are people… fallible human beings, just like those in the congregation. They, who chose a path of faith and devotion, serve as a reminder and example that all the faithful can serve the Light in their own way.
One refuses the cup that is offered to him. Not only can it be seen as an amusing refusal of yet another drink, it is also a direct contradiction of the symbolic Cup that is accepted by Jesus. “He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” Matthew 26 KJV.
Others are deep in conversation… or dayrdreaming…
or lost in their thoughts…
It is a superb piece of art in its own right, let alone for the theological symbolism it may hold. It also makes you wonder if the sculptor modelled the disciples on living people, on his friends, family or local notables, for there is a reality and life to these figures that seems to transcend simple imagination.