About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The "real" Last Supper

Chiara Frugoni is a major Italian historian of the Middle Ages, and her book Medioevo sul Naso (literally, The Middle Ages on the Nose) is about medieval discoveries and inventions, such as the eyeglasses (hence the title of the book).

One of the fascinating little insights one gains from the book is what the last supper (you know, the one with Jesus and the 12), if it ever happened, certainly didn't look like the image we are familiar with (a la Da Vinci, the painter, not the silly "code" book). Frugoni reproduces a mosaic from the VI century found in the church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Italy) representing the famous dinner group. But of course, Jesus and his disciples are dining reclined, sustaining themselves with their left arm, exactly as any civilized Roman would have! Indeed the habit of eating at a table with chairs was introduced later on, during the Germanic invasions.

Interestingly, as pointed out by Frugoni, some passages in the Gospels describing the last supper don't make sense unless one realizes the correct pose of the people present. For example, John 13, 23-25 talks about himself (in third person) whispering to Jesus, with his head close to the divine breast. This makes for a very awkward scene (actually depicted by Stefano di Antonio, 1407-1438, in a fresco to be found in the church of Sant'Andrea at Cercina, near Florence!) if one doesn't realize that it is easy to get close to someone's breast if both people are reclining, rather than sitting.

I wonder how many other things would make much more sense if we were to really think about the customs and habits of the people at the time, rather than re-interpret what we read through modern (or Renaissance) eyes (with or without glasses, of course).


  1. Good observations, Mr.Pigliucci.

    Remember that artists, no matter how well intentioned, bring their own feelings and ideas to the masterpieces that they create just as we all do.

    And tho I do understand that the RCC has not exactly encouraged 'thinking' from non-clergy, it is nonetheless beneficial to apply an in-depth scientific method to what one will read and observe (i.e. induction) even to the bible itself. You have already applied that to one instance of art and history anyway.



  2. Just a slightly different angle on the reclining figures at the Passover Seder, i.e. the "Last Super."
    The Jewish custom at the seder is to recline as a sign of being free men, not slaves as in Egypt. Either way, at the sedar, they would have been reclining, not sitting upright.
    It's a shame the digital photo of the event got ruined when the computer crashed.


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