Most of us who live now think of the Last Supper in terms that are familiar to us. In our imagination Jesus and his apostles sit around a square table on chairs. Jesus is a the center and his apostles arrayed around him. The famous painting of Leonardo Da Vinci (See right)  is uppermost in most modern minds when thinking of the Last Supper.

But the real Last Supper was different in many significant ways. Some of the following I am about it present is still a matter of debate other aspects of it are undisputed.

  1. Jesus and the Apostles did not sit on chairs at a table. Rather they reclined on ground or on mats and pillows, leaning on their left elbow (either forward of back) and eating with their right hand. Their legs were stretched out behind them. (See picture at left, click to get a bigger size) This was the typical fashion for eating in the ancient world. That they reclined to eat is made plain in the Gospel of Mark: While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me–one who is eating with me(Mk 14:18).  It also explains some things that seem strange to us moderns. First of all why did John lean back on Jesus’ chest to ask him a question? (Jn 13:25;  21:20) This would be strange and physically awkward in a modern upright table setting. But reclining on one’s side on a mat meant you had to lean back to talk to the person next to you. There is also another strange scene where Jesus is reclining to eat in the home of a Pharisee and and a woman begins to anoint his feet (Luke 7:38).  In a modern upright table setting this would mean she’s have to be under the table. Strange indeed! But in the ancient setting the posture was such that one’s feet were behind and thus the woman could approach Jesus from behind and begin to anoint his feet without his prior knowledge.
  2. The Place of honor in modern western settings  at a typical long rectangular table is either at the center or at one end. Everyone is seated upright and facing in to the center and can generally see all the others well. However, in the ancient meal setting the table was  “U” shaped either as a half circle or with 90 degree arms. Instead of sitting at the center of the table (as in DaVinci’s painting above) the host or honored guest sat at the far left corner. Further, everyone sat on one side on the outside of the table allowing the inside of the table to open for servers.  The picture to the right is from a very early mosaic in Ravenna, probably made well before the 5th Century. At this early time the artists still had access to the memory of the actual practices at the time of Jesus and thus depicts the Last Supper as it was more likely arranged. Notice that Jesus is at the head of the left corner and his disciples are arrayed in a sloping ark behind and sloping to his left. This was the usual setting for the ancient meal and especially something as formal as a passover meal.
  3. It would seem that the place of second honor was at the other end of the U shaped table on the right corner. This would help explain why Peter is not at Jesus’ immediate right or left and has to motion to John across the room to lean back and ask Jesus a question (Jn:13:24-25). Since Peter would like have had the other place of honor it makes sense that he would be across the room and unable to ask Jesus himself.

Thus the whole setting of the Last Supper was rather a different setting that most modern people imagine. Leaning on elbows and eating with one hand would all be very awkward to us. But I suppose they’d think what we do strange as well. The question of the arrangement also factors into modern discussions of liturgical orientation and Mass facing the the people vs. Mass facing away from the congregation toward God. I’m sure that this will emerge in the discussion but it is clear from the Ravenna Mosaic that Mass facing east toward God and not toward the people did not offend ancient notions of the Mass as the “Lord’s Supper.” To the ancients formal meals featured the honored guest at one end angled away a bit  from most of the other guests.

I am sure that this final observation may generate some discussion in the comments but it is also meant to explain some of the theology and history that Pope Benedict has asked us to consider in the discussion of orientation in the Liturgy.

The following clip is a humorous scene from the Passion of the Christ. Mary is puzzled over Jesus making a tall table to eat at. She cannot imagine that anyone would want to eat sitting up. She says, “This will never catch on!”

30 Responses

  1. Nick says:

    According to Sacred Tradition, when John reclined his head upon Jesus’ bosom he received divine lights about the Son and that was why – unlike the other Apostles – he went with Jesus to the Cross and was chosen by Jesus to take His Mother into his home. Also, Jesus permitted Peter to sit at the second place of honor to show his pre-eminence and representation of Christ as Pope (made even more explicit when he told John to ask Jesus something).

    At least, that is what I’ve heard. I’m no expert on Tradition, so it might be wrong.

  2. Mario de Guzman says:

    Good day Monsignor. From what I know, the custom of eating in the table while seated at chairs came from the Greeks. Eating with the foods placed on a low table while seating on mats are oriental customs and still can be seen in Asian countries. Since our holy mass originate from the last supper there is really one correct orientation in the celebration. But in my personal opinion it don’t matter much whether we use the orientation in the old Latin mass or in our modern mass because I believe it is the orientation of our heart that is important to our Lord. Best wishes to you Monsignor

  3. William Brady says:

    First of all why did John lean back on Jesus’ chest to ask him a question? (Jn 13:25; 21:20)

    If Jesus was on left corner then how did John lean back on Jesus’ chest? One possibility is that Jesus must have taken a seat of lesser importance giving John a seat of greater. Why would Jesus have done that? Jesus loved John. Don’t we give those we love a position of greater importance?

    What are your thoughts Msgr?

    • That is possible surely. But I think it is possible to still have Jesus at the left corner and have John lean back if they were leaning forward on their elbows, sort of on their stomachs (see picture above). John could thus pivot to his right elbow and lean over and back a bit. Jesus might also have pivoted to his right in respnse to John’s inquiry. Describing the physicallity of this is difficult in writing but I tried it and it seems to work. In the mosaic in the article it shows them clearly leaning back on their elbows and it such a case it would not have been posssible as you point out. In which case your theory might apply.

      • William Brady says:

        One other aspect of my theory. Jesus had just washed the feet of His apostles. He was completing the Mosaic ritual for Jewish priesthood (Gen 40:30-32) as well as demonstrating in act His statement of being the servant of all. He would have contradicted Himself if he assumed the first place at table after washing their feet. He was turning His Earthly control over to Peter. So what better signal than to give Peter a higher place at table than himself.

        Comments?

      • William Brady says:

        My bible reference should be Exodus 40: 30-32. Sorry for the error.

  4. April says:

    How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Matt 23:37 & Luke 13:34

    As I read some of the comments this verse popped into my mind. Jesus has long to gather us. So I feel He is receptive to John’s gesture. So a little shifting to let John in is logically to me.

  5. Deo volente says:

    Monsignor, if I recall correctly, in the clip from “The Passion of the Christ,” not only was a tall table fashioned by Christ, but the decoration and structure anticipated a much later period well beyond the early centuries (I can’t recall the date it was posited to). Gibson was thus making an inference of Divine Knowledge even in the design of the table which His Mother is so amply amused by.

  6. Grandpa: Tom says:

    Good Article Msgr. Pope. Da Vinci’s Last Supper in incorrect in several other ways besides the seating arrangement (Triclinium) which you explained very well. The Jewish Passover was the Festival of Our Freedom. The Passover meal would have begin at sunset signified by 3 stars in the evening sky. Da Vinci’s painting depicts a blue sky, therefore it is the wrong time of day. Da Vinci has the Apostles dressed in blues, green, gold, and purple. These are royal colors(not for fishermen and tax collectors), thus the term “royal blue,” made from expensive dye. The meal required a spotless lamb to be roasted (not fish), with the meat made into stew for all to eat. There should have been bowls and cups (for the wine) present, together with a wine vase, and a water jar to wash their hands. The bread should have been unleavened, not puffy, but pure and humble. The table cloth in Da Vinci’s painting is too expensive looking. The entire scene is simply wrong. Jesus would have told the story of Exodus to the youngest (John), and would have read the Psalms 113 – 118.

  7. Ed Fisher says:

    This post makes me think of another interesting point about the Last Supper. That our Lord and the Apostles were celebrating the Passover and our Lord would have said the Passover prayers in Hebrew the liturgical language of the Jewish people and not in the vernacular of the day. Would this not have set a precedence for Christians to have their own liturgical languages, whether it be Ecclesiastical Latin (for most of the worlds Catholics) or Old Church Slovanic, Syriac, Coptic, etc.

  8. Fr. Kyle Schnippel says:

    Something that hasn’t come up: where was Judas sitting? Obviously close to Our Lord, as they ‘dipped the bread’ together (into olive oil?), would Judas have been in a place of honor as Jesus attempted to persuade him not to do what he was doing? Interesting speculation, but no definitive answer.

  9. Hannah G says:

    I’m trying to picture the scene and to reconcile John leaning back on his chest with the Ravenna picture.
    It seems to me the Ravenna picture should have Jesus on the right hand corner (not the left) so that He would face John’s back while leaning on the left elbow? Then John would have to lean back into His chest to ask a question. Am I right?

    Hannah G

    • There’s just so much we don’t know about the specific moment involeved. For example, although one ate with the right hand and thus leaned on the left elbow at that time it seems they may well have shifted back and forth when not eating. It is obvious that anarm might “fall asleep” if pressure is put on it for too long etc. So I suppose there must have been shifting back and forth. Or as you say Jesus was to the right. The possibilities are numerous. Hoever It is clear that there was a reclining posture and this overall makes the leaning back motion less akward and puzzling. That’s all. If you look at the middle picture which you can enlarge by clicking it you’ll see various postures and positions that must have happened. Thus Hannah you may be right but there are also other possibilities.

  10. cinzia says:

    except- he DID know that someone was annointing his feet and drying them with her hair
    because he defended her. He defended the guys trying to tell her to back off, notably JUDAS
    who whined that she poured perfume on him so expensive it would cost a year’s wages- and should be
    spent on the poor, he argued.
    (because he was stealing from the treasury and such waste cut into his profits- ) This suggests that she
    was actually IN THE BUDGET so could use the funds in the treasury.
    The lengths you go to in order to extract the legitimacy of the feminine presence is astounding.

  11. Peter says:

    Our Lord and all the apostles were seated around the table waiting for Leonardo when Our Lord said; “If you don’t all come round to my side of the table and face the right way, you will never be in the picture”.

  12. Hannah G says:

    Thank you for your reply, Monsignor.

    “This suggests that she was actually IN THE BUDGET so could use the funds in the treasury.” Um, no it doesn’t. Ministries depend on donations and this was most probably true for them, Judas was just sour about the “waste”. For that matter, any money minded person could have complained, even someone with no direct stake either way. If I were to post a comment about spilling some expensive perfume in the street I wouldn’t be surprised to get some comments about wasting money. The lengths you go to in order to extract the legitimacy of the feminine presence is astounding.

  13. J. David Hill says:

    William Brady said
    “He was completing the Mosaic ritual for Jewish priesthood (Gen 40:30-32) as well as demonstrating in act His statement of being the servant of all.”
    Where can I find Gen. 40: 30-32. The 40th chapter of Genesis ends at verse 23.

    • William Brady says:

      David thanks for catching my error. I meant to quote Exodus 40:30-32. This is the part where Moses is following God’s instructions to setup the tabernacle and the priesthood that would serve in the tabernacle. Sorry for my error.

  14. Dan says:

    I am researching the Last Supper for our Passion Play at church – how fortunate that this post should be written just 2 days ago!
    I’m surprised that no-one has pointed out that the Last Supper was not the Passover Seder at all! Aside from the obvious omission of eating any lamb, there are other clues that tell us it was the day before, on the first day of preparation.
    According to Jewish tradition, as soon as possible on Nissan 14 (which begins at sunset), the family removes all the chamets (yeast products) from the house. Being good Jewish folks, the Apostles would have followed this custom, hence asking “where will you have us go and *prepare*…?”
    Later that evening, Jesus and his Apostles joined them to consume the last of the (leavened) bread, in preparation of the next day’s Fast of the Firstborn (which began at sunrise). Judas, having the purse, would be the obvious one to send out to buy any last minute supplies for the meal, so no-one suspected his rushing out to “do it quickly.”
    That night (beginning of Nisan 14), when Jesus was arrested, it was significant that Peter was the only one to follow him into the temple, since Jews were forbidden from entering the temple that day (lest they be defiled). This also partly explains why no-one came to his defense.
    That morning at the 3rd hour (9am Nisan 14), Jesus was cucified, hung all day until he died at the ninth hour (3pm), the same time the Jews were to sacrifice the Passover lamb for the meal.
    Since nightfall marked the beginning of the Sabbath (Saturday) *and* High Holy Passover day, work would have been forbidden, so the bodies of the thieves and our Lord were removed that evening, and Jesus body laid in the tomb.
    Fearful of Roman retribution, it is likely the Apostles ate the Passover Seder just as their ancestors did, with shoes on, staffs in hand, ready to leave at a moments notice.
    Jesus rose Sunday morning, having been dead during 3 days.

  15. Criscelyn Navarro says:

    I participated in a Jewish Passover Meal somewhere in the hometown of John the Baptist. A Messianic Jewish woman who served as our lecturer explained that John was on the right side of Jesus as they reclined on the table because traditionally the youngest must be on the right side of the head or the teacher to ensure the passing on of valuable teachings… while Judas was on the left side of the Lord — a privilege position of trust as Judas had to watch the Lord’s back. Jesus gave enough opportunities to Judas to change his heart on the matter of betrayal. Yet, we all know Judas forsook the glory he could have tasted as he abandoned and handed over Jesus to the enemies…

  16. John says:

    This discussion is very interesting. I wonder why Leonardo created a seating arrangement so different from the historically accurate one. He was capable of following history and creating a work of art at the same time. (On the other hand, so many of his works seem to violate historical accuracy–maybe that was not an important value in his time–think of The Virgin of the Rocks and The Virgin and St. Anne.) Perhaps he was unaware of the customs of Jesus’s time, and did not have access to any sufficiently older graphics such as the Ravenna mosaic. As a Christian aware of the disadvantage at which Christianity finds itself these days, I am surprised that more effort is not made to explain the Jewish customs that lie behind so much of the gospel story, and help to make sense of it, and therefor contribute to its credibility.

  17. Edward Bachmann says:

    A few weeks ago I was gazing at the famous picture of the last supper (were Jesus is seated in the middle of the long side of the table) and realized that, that specific position (in todays time and probably in Leonardo’s time when he painted the picture) is/was the least significant or the lowest ranking position at the table because the head and foot of the table would be where the most significant or highest ranking person/postion would sit. (By the way there is also an argument/seating arrangment that also says, that the middle of the long side of a table is where the most important person/position of the table sits. I also believe this positioning of Jesus, at the table, to be Leonardo’s under lying struggle with his faith and political realm that he was part of, and his great artist’s touch – being able to poortray one position, at a table in two different ways.) Also, we know that in Jesus’s time that people would sit/lay in a semi circle or in a horse shoe fashion/setting around a low table. I believe Leonardo knew this but had to stretch out the horse shoe setting so everyone would be seen in the painting for the paintings sake and bring the whole last supper arrangement into Leonardo’s political/religous time frame (hence the table and chairs). Again, putting Jesus at the center of the painting also accomplished the focus of the painting and the above mentioned two arguments regarding the two seating arrangements. I believe that, deep in Leonardo’s heart, he wanted to portray Jesus’s seating postion to be the most humbling or most insignificant position around the table. Please feel free to comment on these thoughts. Thanks, Edward Bachmann

    • Andrew Pearson says:

      This is not the only theory on seating position. I believe the correct one places Jesus at the upper left corner of the triclinium table; the place of honor was to his immediate left (the left corner of the back table) allowing the dipped morsel to be passed directly to Judas who occupied this position. John was to the right of Jesus and could easily rotate (or roll) to the right and his head would have been on Jesus’ chest. The least position was at the end of the left leg of the triclinium table (the one closest to the viewer when standing on the open end of the table).
      Many of the “traditions” mentioned above reflect an attempt to justify a theological position rather than attempting to discover the actual history mentioned in the gospels.
      With the number of people in Jerusalem for Passover, the “Sabbath day’s journey” had to be expanded to include Bethany (where Jesus/disciples stayed) and the number of lambs slain required that the sacrifices start days before the Passover itself. The Passover meal would have been celebrated on the day that your lamb was slain – so the Passover meal could have taken place on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. The only fact regarding the timing of Jesus’ capture is that it was on the same night they celebrated the Passover Meal together, but that could have been almost any night of the week.
      The study of the Passover celebration and the “Last Supper” provides many interesting possibilities.

      • Yes, it does. Although I am not sure it is fair to indicate that traditions other than what you articulate are merely justifying theological traditions. There are insights and questions that arise from act Scriptural data, such as, why is Peter not next to the Lord….It would seem John is……Judas, as you point out seems near at hand too? This is not merely doing theology, it is trying to make sense of the data.

  18. Nita Austin says:

    Actually, Jesus is not reclining on the end, for that makes no sense…John could not have leaned into the bosom of Christ, if He was on the end or first reclining place. Jesus was at the another of the first leg of the U, the corner. John was beside HIM on His right, so he could lean back into Jesus. And Judas was on the other side…..THE LEFT SIDE…all important…”some will say ‘ Lord, Lord….and He will say ‘I do not know you” …those were on the left hand of Christ….Also Jesus had to be beside Judas, for Him to be able to dip His bread into the sauce and feed it to Judas……..In Roman times the first leg of the U was reserved for family, thus John reclining there, for he was closest to Jesus and Jesus had John take care of His mother. In Roman times the host place where Jesus was…where the first leg of the U joins the top leg of the U…remembering this U is upside down…John on Jesus right….Judas on Jesus left….which in Roman times was for the guest most honored THAT WAS NOT FAMILY….Judas had one of the best seats and those seated next to him where arranged in lesser order….Roman custom, which made Peter have the worst seat in the house…unable to catch Jesus’ eye, but could catch John’s…..thus Peter had to ask John to ask Jesus……….I think, Peter having the lease seat is all telling…”those of you that are the least……”

  19. Daniel says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. After reading your blog, and several others about the same subject, I decided to create a video that would talk about the seating arrangement of the Last Supper at a triclinium. You might be interested in watching it. You can see it on my blog at: http://redeemer-of-israel.blogspot.com/2012/04/setting-of-last-supper-triclinium.html

  20. Lady Crystal says:

    Daniel: Thank you for posting the link to your video. It was very powerful and really showed us the love and compassion of Christ and how many chances he gives us to make things right. But even if we chose not to do whats right Jesus still loves and forgives us. Some people just don’t realize how much God loves us. Even when we were doing wrong and turning our backs on God, he still gave us Jesus and gave us a chance to do what’s right. I’m speechless!

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