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Kimberly Springer, PhD

London UK
© 2005

Is there any religious event more parodied than Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper? There might
be, but there’s definitely nothing that causes equal amounts of religious outrage and attempts at
censorship. And evidence is mounting. In 2001, 2004 and now, early in 2005, we have re-
workings of the Last Supper drawing accusations of “blasphemy” and cries of anti-Catholicism---
all this at the apex of the Da Vinci Code craze.

In early 2001, then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani froze and tried to revoke the Brooklyn
Museum of Art’s municipal funding when they exhibited photographer Renee Cox’s Last Supper
as part of a larger exhibit of black photography. In her tableau that recast black men as the
disciples and herself as a nude Christ Cox was a few steps ahead in hinting at the Mary
Magdalene connection that has Da Vinci Code fanatics buzzing. Giuliani declared Cox’s photo
“disgusting” and “anti-Catholic” and set about establishing a “decency commission.” That
commission was merely the latest in a series of attempts at artistic censorship Giuliani had waged
in his law and order campaign since taking office ---remember the flap over Chris Ofili’s The Holy
Virgin Mary in 2000? The attack on the World Trade Center gave Giuliani other priorities and the
decency commission was sidelined.

In England this past Christmas season, non-BBC Channel 4‘s billboard ads for its hit show
Shameless kept the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) busy fielding about 250 phone calls
from the religiously offended. Two separate billboards featured the Gallaghers, the show’s unruly
protagonists, having a properly drunken holiday supper. The ASA cited complaints that the
billboards “mocked the Christian faith, showed Christ in a drunken state and depicted scenes of
unnecessary violence.” That may sound like a typical family Christmas for some, but this re-
enactment, too, brought accusations of “blasphemy” and calls to remove the billboards. Noting
that the depiction accurately reflected the Gallaghers and was unlikely to cause offense to the
majority because it sent up da Vinci’s painting and not the actual Last Supper event, the ASA
didn’t see fit to pursue the matter.

Most recently, Milan city authorities ordered fashion house Marithe and Francois Girbaud’s
posters removed. They featured women stylistically lounging about a sleek silver table as if
attending the Last Supper of Fashion Week. Like Cox’s photo, Marith/Girbaud’s Christ was a
woman, but this time fully dressed. The only nudity was semi- and it was that of a shirtless, tan
and toned John the Apostle. Milan’s advertising officials reasoned that there was a “high enough
concentration of religious symbols” that the ad was bound to offend “at least a part of the
population.”

In each case, city or advertising regulators determined that someone was likely to take offence,
so they considered what proportion of the population that would be. But they’ve also moved
closer to defining what exactly it is about Last Supper recreations that have turned a painting into
an actual stand-in for a purported event. After all, who was there to witness it? Given that da
Vinci’s painting was itself a representation of Jesus’ last time with his disciples, what makes this
particular painting so ripe for parody? And why do Christians take such offense at what is, in
itself, simulacrum---a re-enactment of a re-enactment?

S. Brent Plate, assistant professor of religion and the visual arts at Texas Christian University,
says it’s the familiarity. The Last Supper’s recognizability make it an easy target for parody. “How
do images work themselves into our sense of history and theology?” is a persistent question Plate
encounters. It’s what he calls the “sacred power” of the image that convinces Christians that an
event, pre-dating photography or other documentation, happened exactly the ways it’s
represented in da Vinci’s painting. The painting itself serves as a substitute and allows believers
to endow the painting with attributes linking “back to the real Jesus, real history,” Plate explains.

If Da Vinci’s painting wasn’t the first Last Supper, it is still the ultimate reference point. There’s
evidence of earlier depictions of Last Supper-reminiscent banquets in the Roman catacombs. Still,
da Vinci’s representation wasn’t necessarily “true.” Plate says, for example, that likely Jesus and
his disciples were sitting on the ground and in a circle. He also notes, though, that the radicalism
of da Vinci’s representation is often forgotten as it becomes more firmly re-entrenched as an
accurate historical representation. Dominican monks commissioned da Vinci’s painting and there
was an established Renaissance format for representing this particular Biblical event. Yet, da
Vinci composed significant changes that make the Last Supper more egalitarian than accepted
depictions. Plate observes of da Vinci’s painting, for example, “We have Jesus sitting on the same
level as everyone else. There’s no halo above his head as in earlier representations. He’s framed
compositionally by a window and it’s earthly, not heavenly light.” These compositional aspects set
Jesus apart, but also make him very human.

Tellingly, religious communities are not keen on a Jesus Christ just like you or me. Rather the
Last Supper, as part of the trinity of events including the crucifixion and the resurrection, serves
as the starting point for a supernatural authority. Protest and accusations of anti-Catholicism are
never about the desecration of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. Instead, Giuliani and other anxious
voices continue to protest the representation of an event for which there really is no original.