Hand servants

More on The Last Supper panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament painted by Dieric Bouts for St Peter’s Chuch, Leuven. Its Dean at the time the painting was produced was Dominic Bassadonis who also served as Chancellor of Leuven’s Old University, founded by Pope Martin V in 1425. The University’s four boarding schools were named: the Castle, the Falcon, the Lily, and the Boar (or Pig).

College crests… The Boar or Pig, the Lily, the Castle, the Falcon… Louvain Monumental

Each school had its own coat of arms or emblem, as shown above. These are referred to in The Last Supper painting, “assigned” to hands of the four apostles alongside Jesus. From left to right they are St Andrew (castle), St Peter (falcon), St John (lily) and St Thomas (boar or pig).

Hand signs… Castle, Falcon, Lily and Boar (or Pig)

Probably the most difficult to distinguish, but more meaningful, are the hands of Thomas. The four fingers of his left hand form the boar’s head, the thumb its ear. Thomas’ right hand covers his left for a reason. He had doubted the resurrection of Jesus and refused to believe unless he could touch the wounds of the risen Lord.

The French translation for boar is sanglier. However, Bouts splits the word in deference to Van Eyck’s use of word play in his paintngs. Jan is seated next to Thomas. When sanglier is split into two words – sang and lier – a new meaning evolves: blood and bond. So Thomas’ right hand represents a seal over the wound made in Christ’s hand when he was nailed to his cross – a reminder of a new covenant bond with God, sealed with the blood of Jesus. It was at the Last Supper that Jesus shared the cup of wine with his disciples and said to them: “This is my blood, the blood of the new covenant, to be poured out on behalf of many.”

There is another narrative that connects to both the boar sign and the issue of blood. In Judaism, physical contact with blood or a boar (pig) is considered unclean and requires the person to be ritually purified. Above the figure of Thomas at the door entrance is a receptable for washing. A basin and towel are also under the cupboard beside Van der Weyden.

For the hands of Thomas to represent uncleanliness at the table is a pointer to the teaching of Jesus when the Pharisees complained about his disciples breaking traditions by not washing their hands before eating food, and what is understood by a man being clean and unclean (Matthew 15 : 1-20). Thomas’ doubt was not washed away by ritual cleansing but by being invited to touch the wounds of Jesus.

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