“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.
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.