The Last Supper

Albrecht Dürer.
The Last Supper.
Woodcut. Nuremberg, 1523. (AFW5031)

One of Dürer’s last woodcuts, the Last Supper of 1523, has been interpreted in terms of the theological debate over the conduct and meaning of the Eucharist during the early years of the Reformation. Many critics see the print as an expression of Protestant utraquism, in which the laity received both the bread and the wine at Communion, whereas the Roman tradition offered only the bread. Some also interpret the loaves, the wine decanter, and the empty platter in the foreground (which lacks a Passover lamb) as symbols of the commemorative, non-sacrificial nature of the Protestant Eucharist.

Far more significant and telling, however, is the fact that Dürer changed the central focus of the Last Supper narrative. Instead of depicting Christ’s charge that one of the twelve apostles will betray him, we see that Judas has departed and Christ is giving his New Commandment, “that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34). This innovative subject matter, which avoids Eucharistic controversy, illustrates the key biblical passage to which Luther devoted the greatest emphasis in the preface to his 1522 New Testament translation.