Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Seating Arrangement of the Last Supper

Ancient depiction of an early Christian "agape" love-feast

[Jan. 30, 2011] It is a well attested that there was no such thing as a Mass versus populum in antiquity, as all liturgies were done facing East in anticipation of the Second Coming of the Lord. In those situations where, for geographic or architectural reasons, the church building had to be constructed facing some other direction, and in which the priest celebrated Mass from behind the altar, there was still no versus populum Mass, as the congregation would have turned and faced the East during the Canon, so that priest and people were still oriented in the same direction. Thus, even if certain antique churches of Rome appear to have designs facilitating versus populum liturgies (as do most modern churches with altars removed from the wall), we must remember that the faithful, too, would turn to face East along with the priest. If there were circumstances where the priest and the faithful were facing each other, as at the homily, it was certainly not for the purpose of seeing the Eucharist as some sort of "communal meal" or celebration of the community; this would have been the last thing the Fathers would have cared about.

Praying East was universal in the early Church. St. John Damascene, writing around 740, said:
It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. But seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, that is to say, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing both with our spirit and our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and Spirit, and are united with the Lord in a twofold manner, being sharers in the mysteries and in the grace of the Spirit.

Since, therefore, God is spiritual light, and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness and Dayspring, the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed the divine David also says, "Sing unto God, you kingdoms of the earth: O sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rides upon the Heavens of heavens towards the East. Moreover the Scripture also says, "And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed:" and when he had transgressed His command He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise, which clearly is the West. So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland. Moreover the tent of Moses had its veil and mercy seat towards the East. Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East. Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward. Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him. And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven; as the Lord Himself said, "As the lightning comes out of the East and shines even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be."

So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten (De Fide Orthodoxa, IV. 12).
We must keep this Eastern orientation in mind when looking at early Christian liturgies. The Mass was rightly seen as primarily eschatological and sacrificial, not as a communal celebration. It is quite interesting to note that, historically, the first individual to propose a versus populum celebration of the Mass was none other than Martin Luther, and that he made this recommendation explicitly for the purpose of detracting from the sacrificial nature of the Mass. In 1526, Luther wrote:
"The Mass vestments, altars, and lights may be retained till such time as they shall all change of themselves, or it shall please us to change them: though, if any will take a different course in this matter, we shall not interfere. But in the true Mass, among sincere Christians, the altar should not be retained, and the priest should always turn himself towards the people as, without doubt, Christ did at the Last Supper. That, however, must bide it's time" (The German Mass and Order of Divine Service, III, "On Sundays for the Laity")
The two points of interest here are: first, that Luther sees a celebration "facing the people" as much more in keeping with his teaching on the Mass than the traditional ad orientem orientation. But second, note that he supports this opinion by appealing to the seating arrangement at the Last Supper, where Christ "without doubt" also faced the people.

If Luther is correct about the seating arrangement at the Last Supper, then we have here an excellent example of archaeologism, the practice of throwing out long-standing liturgical traditions in favor of a return to some presumed apostolic simplicity. Archaeologism is, of course, fallacious, as Pope Pius XII pointed out in Mediator Dei, because it denies the Providential guiding of the Church by the Holy Spirit in traditional developments for the simplicity of the early Church. In Mediator Dei, the Pope stated that "it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device" (MD, 62). It was in this vein that Newman made his famous statement in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: "They are ever hunting for a fabulous, primitive simplicity; we repose in Catholic fullness" (Part II, Chap. viii, Sect.12).

But, as it pertains to this argument, we should also mention that archaeologism fails on another account: that it is rarely accurate in its descriptions of what is and is not "apostolic." Communion in the hand, deaconesses, vernacular liturgies, Masses facing the people, and a whole mess of modern innovations are said to be of apostolic origin when in fact none of them are found in the primitive Church (or if there are traces of them, as in the case of altars removed from the wall, the modern liturgists completely miss the point as to why this was the case). This is indeed the case with Luther's assertion that Jesus ate the Last Supper facing His disciples and that ergo Mass should be versus populum because of this.

Where did Luther get his idea about how the Last Supper was eaten? Since the New Testament itself offers scant evidence, it was probably from contemporary, Renaissance era depictions that Luther formed his opinion—works like Da Vinci's famous "Last Supper." Out of concerns for symmetry, perspective, and establishing a focal point, Renaissance depictions invariably positioned our Lord at the center of the scene, but this positioning was artistic rather than out of care for historical accuracy. Luther, along with many since, have taken these famous depictions to reflect what actually occurred.

How would the seating of the Last Supper looked? Ancient meals were eaten in the reclining position, and as far as I know, this was universal throughout the Roman, Greek and Semitic worlds. Diners would recline upon their elbow on cushions placed in a semicircle around a very small, circular serving table. All the guests would have been seated around only one side of the table, leaving the other side completely open so that servants could move about freely to serve the food. You can see this all depicted below in the famous Constanza fresco, which portrays a secular Roman meal:

Furthermore, and more importantly to our discussion, the head or master of the banquet would certainly not have been seated at a central location. In antiquity, the center did not denote prominence as it does today; rather, the master of the banquet would have been seated at the far right of the table, as the "right hand" was the most honored seat. We see this in several ancient and medieval depictions of the Last Supper, the most famous being the San Apollinaire Nuevo mosaic in Ravenna, dating from early Byzantine times. Notice the semicircular seating arrangement with Christ clearly at the right hand of his guests:

We see the same thing in the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God in Monreale in Sicily in a depiction dating from the Norman period. Again, we see the semicircular arrangement with Christ at the extreme right, only this time seated instead of reclining, reflecting the change in dining customs that had taken place between the Byzantine and Norman periods:

Thus, the oldest depictions of the Last Supper tend to accurately reflect the seating arrangement common in the ancient world, a small semi-circular table with Christ seated to the right of his disciples.

Over time, however, what was originally the small, circular table in the center grew to dominate the scene. Below, in the Russian "Mystical Supper" icon, dated around 1497, we can see that the table has grown tremendously. Nevertheless, one will notice that the icon retains the semicircular seating with Christ at the extreme right of semicircle:


This form endured in the East much longer than the West, perhaps because the Byzantine Empire preserved many of the cultural customs of the ancient world longer than the Latin west. For example, the Gladzor Gospels of Armenia, illustrated around 1300, were still depicting the ancient semi-circular table with Christ to the right of His disciples: 

The form began to change in the West, however, sometime around 1000-1100. An interesting moment in the evolution of Last Supper depictions in the West is the Last Supper by Ugolino de Siena, painted around 1330. In this scene, we can see that Christ retains his traditional position on the left side of the painting (i.e., to the right of the disciples seated along the back of the table), but now the ancient semi-circular table has transformed into a conventional rectangular table with rows of seating on either side. Thus, from the viewer's perspective Christ retains His traditional position, but from the point of view of the disciples, He is now at a central position at the "head" of the table:

The advent of the Renaissance in the early 14th century—with its emphasis on technique, symmetry, proportion, and perspective—altered the manner in which the Last Supper was depicted. Seeking symmetry and focus, the Italian artists inevitably put Christ at the center; the only way to realistically depict twelve apostles seated around the Lord was to elongate the table into a very long rectangular structure, as in Da Vinci's version. This slowly became the norm from the time of the Renaissance onward.

To bring this back to Luther and the Mass, those who want to move the altar out into the congregation to attain a more "table-like" arrangement and cite the Last Supper as a justification are in error. In the first place, all of Christ's disciples would not have been gathered around him, but were in a semicircular line, one next to the other. Furthermore, they were not "facing" Christ, nor He them, but they would have had to turn slightly at a 90° angle to look at Him as He spoke. But then again, those who make such arguments don't really care what the early Church did or why she did it; like Luther, they are merely concerned with adopting the liturgy to suit modern ideas about what the Eucharist and the Church are. Rather than try to force a return to a past that never was, or revert back to a Semitic dinner seating arrangement that would be impractical for large liturgical gatherings such as the Mass, it is best to simply stick with the Tradition of the Church, not as it was frozen in time at the year 100, but as it developed through the ages and came down to us: with priest and people facing the Lord, showing forth the sacrificial nature of the Mass in anticipation of His glorious return.

Let us close with a quote from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, taken from a talk he gave at the 2001 Fontgombault Liturgical Conference entitled "Theology of the Liturgy."

"Meanwhile the problem has been aggravated by the fact that the most recent movement of 'enlightened' thought goes much further than Luther: where Luther still took literally the accounts of the Institution and made them, as the norma normans, the basis of his efforts at reform, the hypotheses of historical criticism have, for a long time, been causing a broad erosion of the texts. The accounts of the Last Supper appear as the product of the liturgical construction of the community; an historical Jesus is sought behind the texts who could not have been thinking of the gift of His Body and Blood, nor understood His Cross as a sacrifice of expiation; we should, rather, imagine a farewell meal which included an eschatological perspective. Not only is the authority of the ecclesiastical magisterium downgraded in the eyes of many, but Scripture too; in its place are put changing pseudo-historical hypotheses, which are immediately replaced by any arbitrary idea, and place the liturgy at the mercy of fashion. Where, on the basis of such ideas, the liturgy is manipulated ever more freely, the faithful feel that, in reality, nothing is celebrated, and it is understandable that they desert the liturgy, and with it the Church."

For more on this subject, please see Dr. Peter Kwasniewski's article "The Possibly Dubious Liturgical History of Leonardo's Last Supper" at New Liturgical Movement. 


Alexander said...

Also, the disciples at the last Supper were basically ordained at that moment. Essentially making them clergy.

Therefore even if the Apostles sat in a manner the Moderns claim they did the argument still fails as they are not laity.

Claude said...

First, thank you very much for your very, very interesting blog! And what about orientation ... ? Never in the history of the Church, throughout all its architectural experimentations with all possible variances of liturgical arrangements and all the masses celebrated in all possible conditions and environments, from jungle, war camp, house to cathedral, was there ever such a concern as the modern man's concern that he should be the object of the liturgy. This is the devil's age old trick succeeding in the Church: once again convincing modern man to eat the "forbidden fruit" so that he becomes like God, orienting the liturgy towards his idolized self. But as a matter of fact, whatever the setup, the priest never faces this modern man as all liturgical action is oriented towards the Father, out of love, in persona Christi. Claude

Not That Guy said...

Would Mr. Larson's latest (posted just today) be an example of this archeologism? He writes:

"The early Christians, whose intimacy with Christ we have examined, “broke bread from house to house”. It is almost certain that there was no incensing, ornate vestments, elaborate altars, statuary, developed chant, magnificent architectural monuments, etc. There certainly was a distinct order, comprised by scripture readings, sermon, prayers for the people, kiss of peace, offering of bread and wine and thanksgiving, consecration of the bread and wine, intercessions, etc., all very much reflected in our Mass. But as Adrian Fortescue (highly respected in Traditionalist circles) states in his article on the Liturgy in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1910), even as late as the fourth century the Roman Rite “had practically no ritual beyond the most necessary actions”.

And yet it was the “breaking of bread…in simplicity of heart”, and the “great grace” which was received in the hearts of these first Christians, which produced the charity, massive conversions, and miracles which confront our own poverty in this regard. The question needs to be asked as to what extent the evolution of the form of the Mass into “the most beautiful thing this side of heaven” masked an historical process in which the collective Christian heart (with many exceptions) drew further and further away from the immediacy and simplicity of Christ, and in so doing violated the deepest reality of Christ’s Sacrifice. The deep divisions which now exist in the Traditionalist movement would seem ample evidence of this decay, to say nothing of the extraordinary lack of unity in truth which exists under the reign of the New Mass."

"Our Chastisement, Our Blessing" (The War Against Being)

Boniface said...

Hmmm...while I can see that this could be the foundation for an archaeologist argument, I do not think this statement itself is archaeologist. For something to be archaeologism (in my opinion), it is not sufficient to assert that an earlier form was better (I myself can offer many examples of things in the Church that I think were better earlier on) - but I think it has to assert that it is better merely for being earlier, and that this holds as a general rule. But that's just my opinion.