Stanley Spencer – The Last Supper (1920)

“All the things that happened in the Bible, happened in Cookham”, English artist Stanley Spencer once said. Cookham, a small rural village on the banks of the River Thames where Spencer had grown up and spent most of his life, and the peaceful countryside area surrounding it were the backdrop for most of his religious paintings. With its red-brick houses, farm animals and small shops, in Spencer’s art Cookham appears as a homely Holy Land, populated by simple-shaped figures performing divine acts with the same casualness with which ordinary folks go about their day.

Stanley Spencer - The Last Supper 1920
Stanley Spencer – The Last Supper (1920), oil on canvas

One would think that in depicting the Last Supper, a biblical moment so iconic and forever embedded in our collective memory, Spencer might have felt intimidated. But, uninhibited by the great artists before him, nor overwhelmed with the religious significance of the scene, he painted The Last Supper with the childlike ease and wonder he painted all works. Taking place in the Cookham malt house, the setting for several of Spencer’s artworks, the painting shows Jesus with his disciples sharing the last meal together before the crucifixion. The uncommon shape of the table they’re sitting at allows us to see the disciples – six on each side – stretching their limbs, cross-ankled, with large, lumpy toes poking out from under the drapes of their robes. The rows of legs playfully create a winding pattern leading to Jesus breaking bread, while another figure hovers over the loaf. There are also small bowls with morsels of bread in front of each Apostle and at least one of them is already eating.

Now all of this might seem very whimsical to you. Is the disciple to Jesus’ right a very curious person? Is the one to his left too hungry to wait to eat with the others? And why are they all stretching their legs like that? Aha! Spencer got you intrigued, amused and eager to dust off the ol’ Bible.

Let’s start with the figure hovering over the bread. It looks rather feminine, with the way in which their hair is blowing, like in a shampoo commercial. Most likely that is St. John, who is often depicted in art either sleeping or reclining on Jesus’ shoulder. You can see him doing so as early as the 13th century, like in this illustration.

When Jesus breaks bread, he tells his disciples that one of them will betray him.  John, “leaning back against Jesus, he asked, ‘Lord, who is it?’. Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.“(John 13:25-27). Based on this, I would say that the man to Jesus’ left is Judas, looking rather hungry.

As for the stretched out legs, to be frank, I initially thought that the Apostles were simply admiring their toes, maybe even wiggling them as they remarked on how clean they were. According to the Bible, before sitting at the table Jesus had washed their feet. Yet Spencer’s own explanation might surprise you. When asked by the daughter of Catherine Martineau, a neighbor, why the disciples’ feet were crossed, he replied: “They’re a bit bored, you see, having heard Jesus’ words all before.” Hmm, I’m now wondering whether the Apostle to Jesus’ left is actually yawning…

But that is Spencer for you! Is he pulling a joke or is he tackling weighty religious matters? The line is clearly blurred between the earthly and the divine. These Biblical figures are brought down to earth, their larger-than-life mythological appeal cast aside, as they look and act like ordinary folk. The roundness and simplicity of the shapes, the comfort suggested by the pillows to the left and the Apostles’ relaxed postures, and the unusual setting for this iconic religious scene give the painting a playful and homely charm. Why, maybe all Biblical events did happen in Cookham, after all.

And if you thought that Spencer stopped at this Last Supper, you’d be sorely mistaken. Two years later he approached this subject again, this time making it look like a surreptitiously captured snapshot of the disciples taking their seats at the table.

Stanley Spencer - The Last Supper 1922
Stanley Spencer – The Last Supper (1922), oil on panel


Related: Max Ernst – The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child (1926)

18 thoughts on “Stanley Spencer – The Last Supper (1920)

  1. Ah, now you’ve raised my curiosity about Cookham and more paintings by Stanley Spencer. I do like the shapes and simplicity used in this depiction… there’s something so ‘accessible’ about it.

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  2. It was very interesting to see another interpretation of this famous Biblical moment, as the one I see around the most is Da Vinci’s. My first thought was in agreement with yours -that Judas may be the one on the left. I also wondered if the one on his right was the woman who anointed his hands and feet? I think your idea of John might make more sense though! 🙂

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    1. I am the same way. If someone mentions the Last Supper, da Vinci’s painting instantly comes to mind. It must be difficult to tackle this subject when that’s the point of reference.

      Whether it’s John or a woman, they still look like they’re hovering over the bread. I’m really enjoying this whimsical mystery.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed reading this. I love Stanley Spencer’s paintings, they stay with me, because he’s clearly telling a story. I am puzzled by the number of hands that surround Christ and the bread..there seem to be too many of them for the people present, unless he’s trying to convey action.

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  4. I can’t argue with your logic for identifying Judas but I’m going with the guy to the left with the beard. Other than Jesus he’s the only one with a beard, and he looks sleazy, and if it’s not the butler then it’s always the guy with the beard.

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  5. I love this (re)interpretation of the classic Last Supper Story. Accessible is the right word, almost like a party in a restaurant of the modern times.
    The table had me wondering what if some one had to a bathroom break or just sneak out for a moment, the disturbance it would , haha .One is tied to the painting.
    I agree with you , that surely looks like a yawn. And maybe the way the legs and arms/elbows are it looks like a stretch being taken after one gets bored from having sat at a place for long . Who knows.

    Thank you for sharing another painting and explaining it so well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Rahul! I love your hypothetical situation: what if someone needs to stand up and go to the bathroom? Haha, that would be hilarious. It begs for another painting exploring this conundrum, which would be yet another reminder of these Biblical figures’ humanity.

      That’s true, once you take into account Spencer’s explanation that the disciples were bored, suddenly they appear differently in our eyes – like they’re uneasy somewhat, trying to find a more comfortable position.

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  6. I love the quote, and the art is very curious. I don’t find it easy to access. There are many things to like about it, such as that I can see in all the bowls. There’s a lot of cleverness and sophistication. I think because the heads are so small in relation to the canvas, I want to see it up close to see their expressions. It’s interesting and I like that it throws me off.

    In the “Last Supper” department, when I was 18, I think, I looked through the entire Janson’s History of Art book, and on that day my stand-out favorite painting was Emil Nolde’s “Last Supper”, of all the possible images. I guess I was at the right age for over-the-top Expressionism. I even did an interpretation of it:

    On to the next post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had seen your Last Supper before and had no idea it was inspired by Nolde. That’s really cool. Personally I find the whole subject very intimidating. (Even writing about it is a stretch for me, considering I’m not religious.) It’s like one of your captions: “What kind of fool artist dares draw JESUS!?” A very bold one!

      By describing Spencer’s art as accessible I mean that his subjects come across as relatable – they look friendly and down-to-earth, like your next door neighbors or folks you might meet in a pub.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I wasn’t questioning your notion that his work is “accessible”. I hadn’t realized you’d used that word. Rather, I was just saying that I find his style difficult for me. Just to clear that up. I find his sentiment in the quote very accessible and appealing. His painting style is very angular, and the people have small heads. I tend to the opposite.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for clarifying, Eric. I’ve seen that in African art too – really small heads compared to the bodies. I wonder if there’s a reason for these sorts of choices. My last post is on Alice Neel and she was intentionally enlarging the heads because she thought the face was the most important body part, the most expressive.

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