“Mystical Supper” by Rolland Luke Dingman
Of thy Mystical Supper,
O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant
for I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies,
neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas
but like the thief will I confess thee;
Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom.
Westerners recognize this scene as the Last Supper while in the East it is known as the Mystical Supper. Holy Thursday is known in the Eastern Church (both Catholic and Orthodox) as Great Thursday.
The word mystic in the Eastern title of this icon comes from the Greek word mystikos and signifies sacrament, communicating through the title that Christ instituted the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist at the last supper with His apostles.1
The group is shown all seated on the same side of a semi-circular table, the common arrangement, at the time, utilized for large dinner groups. Servers brought the dishes to the table from the empty side of the table. Sometimes tables were rectangle or “U” shaped with the diners seated to the outside. It was usual for the host or the guest of honor to sit on the left end of the table as seen from the entrance door. Some icons show that arrangement. More commonly, Christ is depicted seated in the center of the group with the twelve apostles evenly flanking Him. St. Peter sits, appropriately, at the right hand of the Lord. St. John, the “beloved apostle” appears to be gesturing toward the bread and wine –the Body and Blood; the Sacrament- and Christ lovingly places His left hand on John’s far shoulder, gently pulling him toward Him. In some icons, St. John is shown reclining his head on the Lord’s breast.
All of the figures, except one, are shown full face; we can see both eyes. Only Judas, the betrayer, is shown in profile with only one eye visible to symbolize his dishonesty.2 In some icons Judas is seated at the table on the side opposite the apostles and Jesus. In others, his face may be darkened by shadow. In still others he is the one reaching for a bag of money.
The long wall and towers in the background are suggestive of the Jerusalem Temple –the show bread of Jerusalem Temple was a type of the Bread of Everlasting Life instituted on Great Thursday3 and the sacrifices of the Temple were a type of Christ’s sacrifice. The curtain is meant to indicate that the supper scene is taking place indoors.
Finally, Christ appears in the traditional pose of Christ Pantokrator (Omnipotent, All Powerful) Ruler of the universe.
The Mystical Supper icon is usually over the royal doors of the iconostasis screen in most Orthodox or Eastern Catholic churches. In front of this icon is where the faithful come to receive the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy (Mass). Beyond the icon, at the altar, is where the mystery of the Holy Eucharist is celebrated.
1 The Mystical Language of Icons, Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005) p74