“Is that hand wielding a dagger?”

The dagger held by the disciple Peter in The Last Supper mural painted by Leonardo da Vinci begs the question: Why is it pointing in the direction of Andrew who seems to be pleading “not guilty” and showing a clean pair of hands in response to the charge made by Jesus that someone at the table would betray him?

image source: Haltadefinizione

Is there some kind of mystery attached to this particular feature, or was Leonardo simply layering the dagger with another narrative.

What may not be so obvious, particularly because of the mural’s deterioration over the centuries, is the location of a second dagger, tucked behind a piece of bread at the right hand corner of the table next to Simon the Zealot. No other knives are on the table.

image source: Haltadefinizione

Leonardo has identified Simon as belonging to a splinter group of Jewish Zealots known as the Sicari who concealed knives in their cloaks, and at public meetings used them to attack anyone sympathetic to the Roman occupation of Judea. Hence SImon’s wide sleeves.

It’s no coincidence that Leonardo emphasised the dagger and Peter’s sleight of hand. Peter’s original name was Simon Peter. Jesus changed the name to Cephas, meaning rock. So we have a Simon on the left, and another on the right.

This is an indication that Leonardo mirrored or balanced elements on each side of Jesus the central figure. He adopted a similar approach for one of his first ever paintings, The Annunciation. 

Leonardo was also likely referring to an association with a Franciscan friar and mathematician he lodged with in Milan for a few years, Lucca Pacioli (pictured right). The friar is said to have published the first work in Europe on the double-entry system of book-keeping where every entry to an account requires a corresponding and opposite entry to a different account. On one side, Simon Peter’s knife; on the other, Simon the Zealot’s.

Simon died a martyr. His body was sawn in half, which explains the sliced piece of bread next to the knife.

I shall present more on other narratives Leonardo embedded at this end of the table, and what else Peter’s dagger is pointing to, in a future post.

More hand signs

More on the relationship between the two figures portrayed as the disciples Simon the Zealot and Philip in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts.

I previously mentioned that Philip represents the painter Jan van Eyck, and Simon the Zealot is Petrus Christus, who worked under Jan before taking over his studio after Van Eyck died in 1441.

When the contract to produce the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament was drawn up and signed in March 1464, it stipulated the assignment of two theologians to assist the painter Dieric Bouts. Johannes Varenacker and Egidius Bailuwel were associated with the Old Leuven University and are featured in the top left panel of the altarpiece.

Bouts has also portrayed Varenacker in The Last Supper panel, in the guise of James the Less sat at the table corner opposite Philip. The figure also represents an older version of Jan van Eyck. So there are two representations of Jan at the table – as Philip, and as James the Less. There is a specific reason for Bouts doing this and likely that Varenacker played his part in constructing the links, hence the reason for portraying the theologian a second time in the altarpiece and in this particular section.

But the combined figure of Van Eyck and Varenacker portrayed as James the Less isn’t just speculation on my part. The connection is confirmed by an associate of Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, in his Adoration of the Kings panel of the Monforte Altarpiece.

Johannes Varenacker and Jan van Eyck in multiple guises

The humble figure of St Joseph is a representation of Varenacker shown with a depiction of Christ’s Shroud on his shoulder, a pointer to Van Eyck’s fascination for what is now known as the Turin Shroud. Notice Joseph has cap in hand as also Varenacker and Van Eyck in the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament.

One of the New Testament references connected to the figures of Simon and Philip is from John’s gospel. The passage about the miracle of the loaves describes how five barley loaves and two fish were enough to feed 5,000 people who had sat down to eat on a hillside (6 : 1-15).

Verse 5 reads: “Looking up, Jesus saw the crowds approaching and said to Philip, ‘Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?’”

Such was the size of the crowd that Philip answered “ Two hundred dinari would only buy enough for a small piece each.”

Another disciple, Andrew, whose brother was Peter, said a small boy had five barley loaves and two fish but it wouldn’t be enough to feed everyone, estimated at 5,000 people.

Sitting next to Philip in The Last Supper panel is the mentioned Andrew (in red) alongside his brother Peter (in green).

Philip and Simon the Zealot are portrayed with their mouths open. They are in a conversation which represents the question asked by Jesus and Philip’s answer. Simon in the role of Christ (as in Petrus Christus) is portrayed “looking up”.

Simon the Zealot and Philip, aka Petrus Christus and Jan van Eyck… multiple hand signs.

When taking the loaves, Jesus gave thanks – a blessing – before giving the bread out to the people. Simon’s (Christus) right hand is raised in blessing. It also represents the tail end of a fish, as does the joined hands of Philip, in regard to the two fish presented with the five loaves. The three-hand, dove-like formation represents the descent and action of the Holy Spirit in blessing the offering.

On the table are six pieces of bread, not five. However, two are half-cuts, the pieces in front of James the Less and Simon the Zealot, or Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus. In the case of the latter pairing this points to the two painters sharing in some way, perhaps Jan passing on his knowledge and experience to the younger artist, or even his studio after his death.

The juxtaposition of the knife and half-cut bread placed in front of Simon refers to the Zealot’s type of death and martyrdom when his body was reputed to have been sawn in half. It also points to the breaking of bread (Christ’s body) during the celebration of the Eucharist. The knife is positioned on a trajectory pointing to the figure of Jesus blessing the communion wafer in his hand with the words: “This is my body which will be given for you.” (Luke 22 : 19)

Elements of the Philip and Simon pairing (Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus) are reflected in two figures on the opposite side of the table, with the large dish echoing the famous mirror feature in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait painting. Already mentioned is the elderly depiction of Van Eyck sat at the corner of the table. Next to him is Matthew, the tax collector.

More on how these two figures connect with each other, and with those opposite, in a future post.