The Last Supper

Pieter Jansz. Pourbus
1523 – 1584

The Last Supper

Painted circa 1562

Oil on panel: 64 13/16 x 78 1/16 inches, 162.1 x 195.2 cm

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Provenance

  • David Reder, Antwerp, c. 1935;
  • Duprez sale, Brussels, 6th December 1938, lot 51, as Adam van Noort , illustrated pl. 20 (presumably unsold);
  • David (and Jacob) Reder, Brussels;
  • Confiscated by the Einsatzstab Reichstleiter;
  • Rosenberg (after May 1940) and transferred to Germany;
  • Munich Central Collecting Point (no. 21497);
  • Returned to Belgium, 25 August 1949 (ORE No.A395) and restituted to
  • David (and Jacob Reder), 16 December 1949;
  • Sotheby’s sale, Amsterdam, 26 November 1984, lot 56, as Adam van Noort;
  • With Douwes Fine Art, Amsterdam;
  • Sotheby’s sale, Amsterdam, 14 November 1990, lot 48, as Adam van Noort;
  • Private collection, Belgium, from 1991.

This magnificent and monumental depiction of the The Last Supper is a significant addition to the oeuvre of Pieter Pourbus, the most prominent painter to work in Bruges in the second half of the sixteenth century. Until recently, the painting had been incorrectly attributed to the Antwerp painter Adam van Noort (1561–1641), partly due to the art historian Leo van Puyvelde, who published the picture in 1938, alongside other depictions of The Last Supper by that artist. However, as confirmed by Dr. Paul Huvenne, on stylistic grounds the painting is archetypal of the work of Pieter Pourbus and compares well with his Last Supper in Bruges Cathedral (1562).[1] In terms of composition, the closest comparative is the central panel of the Triptych of the Brotherhood of the Sacrament of Saint Saviour’s Church, Bruges (1559), which still retains its original double-sided wings.[2]

The composition of our painting, representing the Last Supper of Christ amongst his disciples, adopts the visual vocabulary of the Italian Renaissance and combines this with the Netherlandish tradition of portraiture, a genre in which Pourbus was gifted. In the late middle ages, religious paintings often contained portraits of living people performing a religious function. In this instance it may well be that the benefactor who commissioned the work is included seated at The Last Supper in company of the apostles and Christ. Certainly the life-like features of the figure seated second from the left are modelled with a realism somewhat removed from the other more stylized faces. Taking into account the considerable size of the panel, it is not inconceivable that the benefactor may have intended to mount it as an altarpiece in his private dwelling or a future funeral chapel, to commemorate his devotional life.

On the upper left is a view of the city of Jerusalem where Christ instructs his apostles how to find their way to the room where the Last Supper will take place, ‘Go ye into the city, and there shall meet you a man bearing a pitcher of water: follow him.’[3] The scene on the upper right shows Christ washing the feet of the apostles, ‘He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.’[4]

An important feature of this painting is the extensive presence of under-drawing, much of which is visible to the naked eye. Further analysis using infrared reflectography reveals that Pourbus loosely sketched the essentials of his composition using a dry, carbon-based material. He drew free-hand, except for some parts of the architecture, such as the pillars, where he employed a ruler. While the artist used extensive under-drawings he did not strictly follow them: for example, under the main plate at the front of the table one can see an outline under-drawing of a knife which has not been included in the finished version of the painting. The supper itself has been carefully chosen by the artist for its symbolism. There is bread for the body of Christ, wine for his blood in a goblet and centrally placed amphora, and a rack of lamb to indicate his ultimate sacrifice for mankind as the ‘lamb of God.

 

[1] Paul Huvenne, Pierre Pourbus. Peintre Bourgeois 1524–1584, exh. cat., Bruges, 1984, no.7, pp.167-169.

[2] When open, the left wing panel shows Melchisedech’s Offering and the right wing Elijah Fed by the Angel. See Paul Huvenne, ibid, no.6, pp.160-166; Maximiliaan P. J. Martens ed., Bruges and the Renaissance. Memling to Pourbus, exh. cat., Bruges, 1998, no.105, pp.204-205.

[3] Mark (14:12-16)

[4] John (13: 1-15)

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