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Stanley Spencer's Last Supper

Stanley Spencer, The Last Supper, 1920


This painting by Stanley Spencer was made shortly after the First World War, where Spencer, a mild mannered, self effacing person, had seen action as a front line soldier in Macedonia, and worked as a hospital orderly in Bristol. Spencer survived the war but had known many who did not, and his life's work, following this, was to attempt to re-imagine humanity back into the world.


The last supper is a depiction of Jesus with his twelve disciples taking the Passover meal. Passover is the meal Jews eat every year in accordance with instructions given to them in the book of Exodus, which outlines the escape of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, and Jesus chose this meal as his last.


A key component in the Passover meal is roast lamb, which signifies the lambs blood painted onto door frames, to protect the people of Israel from the last plague to afflict Egypt, the taking of the first born sons of every household, "The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood I will pass over you." (Exodus 12:13). Passover is a festival which celebrates the liberation of a people from slavery and suffering, and yet, it is complex. Israel did escape from Egypt, but not into a land of milk and honey, instead they found themselves in a desert, where they wondered, grumbling and uncomfortable for 40 years.


As Spencer attempted to find a visual language that could offer hope to his nation, after the calamity of a terrible war, he recognized the power and subtlety of the Christian and Jewish story, to speak to the confusion and tragedy which rational explanation simply could not handle. Europe had literally just suffered a plague of the kind described in Exodus, and on the other side of it, those who had survived were very much in a desert of grief and loss, not only of those they loved but of meaning itself. The price paid for liberty seemed rather too high, and many became despondent and cynical.


Spencer's insightful genius led him to recognize the deep implications of the Christian festival of Easter, as it reinterpreted Passover. In the supper which Jesus ate with his disciples, there was no lamb, instead, Jesus broke bread and offered it to his disciples telling them that it was 'his' body, he then gave them the wine telling them that it was 'his' blood, essentially, he chose to become the lamb. What Spencer recognized so brilliantly was that the Last Supper describes the ultimate solution to suffering and sacrifice, that it is only made sensible when undertaken in the service of others. Spencer saw that the Last Supper describes the reversal of the sacrificial system, it doesn't describe an end to suffering, but a means by which suffering can be transmuted, by replacing the sacrifice of others, with the sacrifice of self.


In his painting, all of the disciples appear to be suffering. Their rows of feet are stretched out as if nailed to the floor, their hands appear either to be nailed to the table or held up in protest, each face is alarmed, distressed or pensive, and yet, at the heart of the picture, Jesus remains calm, rooted in the text he is reading. This text will have been the account of the first Passover, celebrated in the promised land, at the end of Israel's wondering in the desert. This is the text read at every Passover and signals the promise of a new land and nation, but not the end of suffering, that continues to be a theme through out the story of Israel. 


This painting describes a situation when suffering is inevitable, and all those involved bring their various confused interpretations, but where ultimately, all are led to appreciate that their lives are made complete through the act of serving others. This was Spencer's message to his people at a time of great crisis.


Having seen so many die, and come so close to death himself, Spencer chose a radical way to respond to the war. Unlike many of his generation, he was not confounded, instead he became more fervent not only in his Christian faith but also in his faith in art. Making sense of it all, he painted this picture of promise, but also of torment. To those who survived he was saying, on the other side of suffering and death is life, he had seen it first hand and was convinced that it was so.

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