Cleansing Fire

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Basic Christian Iconography: the Last Supper or Eucharist

December 2nd, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

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The icon of the apostles at table with Jesus is recognized as symbolic of the Last Supper and the Eucharistic Liturgy. In this post we will consider the origins of this imagery.

The meal scene originated from pagan forerunners during the earliest centuries of Christianity. However, the banquet scenes we find in the Christian catacombs from the early centuries are problematic as to what they actually represent. More than likely early Christian “meal” scenes conveyed the same primary meaning as the pagan ones: a wish that the deceased might have enjoyment in the afterlife. As with many pagan images they were not incompatible with Christian sentiments. Later, however, they took on a more specifically Christian interpretation.

People are quick to see in the catacomb meal scenes a representation of the Last Supper or the Mass. That the scenes have some Eucharistic layer of meaning is probably true but that they literally represent the Last Supper or the Eucharistic liturgy is questionable. The meal scene is more likely a metaphor for an eschatological –heavenly– banquet. The pagans utilized similar compositions to illustrate the domestic comfort enjoyed by the deceased in his or her earthy life. It may have been suggestive of a hope for similar enjoyment in the afterlife (murky as their understanding of the afterlife was). The Mass, of course, is understood, among other things, as a foretaste of the sacred banquet in heaven so it’s easy to see the broad implications of the shared image of the meal scene.

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The most common composition deployed in representations of the meal scene shows seven persons seated at a semi-circular table, all on the far side. The number seven is usually symbolic of completeness in biblical numerology and so to some people, in fact, may be suggestive of the complete roster of twelve apostles at the Last Supper. However, it may also be symbolic of all who are called to the mystical supper including, of course, the deceased person whose tomb it is. The table usually holds loaves of bread (five or seven loaves or baskets, sometimes more) and containers of wine –and plates of fish. The presence of the fish –and seven baskets of bread– invites various interpretations, especially among those who find problems in identifying the meal image with the Eucharist or with the narrative of the Last Supper.

The presence of images of fish on the tables has led to various interpretations of the meal scenes. Some see them as references to the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, others, perhaps the post-resurrection meal of grilled fish shared by Christ with seven of his apostles (John 21:9 – 13). Other scholars see a depiction of an agape meal, due to the often animated poses of some figures.

We saw in the inscription by Bishop Abercius we looked at in a previous post in this series a metaphorical interpretation of the fish as Christ. A late appearing Jewish feast included the eating of a rather large fish at a special meal in anticipation of a future messianic banquet. (Robin Margaret Jensen, “Understanding Early Christian Art”, New York, Routledge 2006, p 57). Possibly, then, the images of plates of fish in the meal scenes of the catacombs provide a messianic layer of meaning but point more to a future sacred banquet than to the Last Supper narrative or a Eucharistic liturgy as conducted in the first few centuries.

Some hold that the meal scenes may be nothing more than a representation of the traditional funerary meal (the “refrigerium”) held at the grave site by family and friends at the time of burial and on the traditional ninth day after of a person’s death. This was a common practice in antiquity and there was certainly nothing about it Christians would have found offensive. (Although Saint Augustine of Hippo found it necessary to suppress the continued traditional celebratory meal practice of recent converts whose grave side meals got a little out of hand.) It was common for the food at such meals to be shared with the deceased by way of basins and tables to hold food, or pipes to conduct libations into the grave. Archaeological evidence reveals that fish was sometimes one of the foods offered to the deceased. It is reasonable to assume that Christians would have continued the tradition as a simple pious act of familial devotion. It is not likely the stone or marble tables found at some graves were altars used for Eucharistic liturgies.
It is possible the meal scenes had many shades of meaning — surely including a Eucharistic one—but, given the funerary context, it is more likely they symbolized a hoped-for celestial banquet.

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