Ackland, Margaret - VM - Rod Pattenden
Last Supper by Margaret Ackland
The Last Supper
by Rod Pattenden
Many historical depictions of the Last Supper emphasize the presence of only twelve followers. Leonardo da Vinci’s version of this event would be one of the most reproduced images in history, yet its intention was to make present the elements of the Eucharist to a small community of Dominican monks in Milan. Artists over the years have sought to do the same by presenting this meal in terms of their own context and culture.
In this painting of the Last Supper by Australian artist Margaret Ackland, we do not see the neat and ordered rows of holy apostles but a chaotic crowd caught in the drama of the moment. It is evening and people lean forward into the candlelight that pools around the elements of the meal. Men, women and children gather to listen to the words of Christ.
We are drawn into the drama as we look closely at those around the table. Our initial surprise is to find we cannot discern the face of Christ except as it is reflected in the faces of his followers. These faces express a range of feelings – from a sense of peacefulness to one of deep anxiety. Other faces look out at us as we become part of the picture. It is as if we have walked in late. Some people have been distracted by our entry and ask us through their eyes why we are there.
There are faces of men, young and old, and also a considerable number of women and children. This painting reminds us that women and children are not often portrayed in images of the Last Supper, yet it seems entirely consistent with what we know about Jesus who welcomed women among his disciples and frequently blessed children.
A small child peers out at us from the right hand side of the work with an innocent gaze. The woman to the left of Jesus catches us with a look clearly more confronting and questioning. Across the table from Christ is the figure of a breast-feeding mother, symbol of sustenance and comfort, serving to amplify and make present the symbols of this meal of nourishment and hope.
The inclusion of two figures crying in silent grief is not explained. Perhaps they are doorkeepers or watchers or even angels. Perhaps they anticipate the costly sacrifice of love as they hear the words of Jesus – ‘this is my body’.
The meal of celebration that sustains the church is one which gives birth to the fullest expression of community. It is not a place of privilege and exclusion, because it celebrates God’s generous and inclusive love. This painting offers one artist’s vision of what sort of meal would look like.
Margaret Ackland: Last Supper, 1993.
This visual meditation was published in: Ron O’Grady (red.): Christ for All People. Celebrating a World of Christian Art, Asian Christian Art Association, 2001 (WCC Publications – Geneva / Pace Publishing – Auckland / Novalis – Toronto).
Margaret Ackland (1954) is represented in a range of Australian collections including Artbank, the Holmes a Court Collection and Deakin University. She has won and been a five time finalist in the Portia Geach Portrait Prize and a Blake Prize finalist.
Rod Pattenden is a Uniting Church minister, chaplain at Macquarie University and an artist, art historian, and educational facilitator interested in the connection between spirituality and the arts. He has written and lectured widely on these aspects of the arts and creativity in Australia and overseas.
Rod Pattenden is also chairperson of Australia’s Blake Society. This society named after the visionary artist and poet, William Blake, is an independent organisation that administers an annual Exhibition and Prize for contemporary religious and spiritual art. The aim of the Blake Society is to encourage contemporary artists to explore the spiritual in art.
Ron O’Grady, the editor of the book in which the meditation about Margaret Ackland was published, is actively involved in the Asian Christian Art Association, which was founded in 1978 to encourage the visual arts in Asian churches. See www.asianchristianart.org.
ArtWay Visual Meditation September 19, 2010