Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
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Tadeusz Boruta

The University of Rzeszów

Abstract:

The article concerns The Last Supper by Maciej Świeszewski, one of the best known Polish paintings of recent years. The piece presents an eschatological feast. A sumptuous banquet table, whose rectangular shape represents earthly reality, along with the apostles, is placed in a nebulous, heavenly space of a New Jerusalem. In addition, the artist produces an interesting and meticulously studied image of Jesus. By giving him three faces, he creates an entirely new iconography. This original vision originates along the central axis of the composition and radiates to the rest of the painting. Starting from the top, the viewer comes across the vertex of a triangle. The triangle is white to represent the primordial neo-Platonic unity of God; as it descends, it gradually splits into the colours of the rainbow, the symbol of reconciliation, mercy and covenant between the Creator and his creation, as well as the presence of God. The banquet table, overflowing with the fruits of the earth, floating on the endless expanse of water is at once an ark and a sacrificial table.

The paintings by Maciej Świeszewski and Aldona Mickiewicz show the scene of the Last Supper in the symbolic light of Neo-platonic philosophy. In the former, a primal tear of God falls on earthly waters, creating new life and starting waves, which emanate from the centre to include the entire painting in symbolic circles of eschatological symbols. In the latter, the square of the table (representing the earthly) is covered with a tablecloth; in the vein of Renaissance architects, who tried to design an ideal temple, a circle formed by crumbs of bread and folds of the tablecloth is inscribed within it. The centre of emanation is the Eucharist, represented by the plate with bread and the wine-filled carafe. Aldona Mickiewicz thus creates a symbolic image of the community of the mystical Church. However, she is uncertain in her vision, stops at the description of the everyday, and openly shares her doubts. Her paintings are not statements but question marks asking about the essence of life. In her The Last Supper, she freezes the moment of rolling up the tablecloth to express her doubt as to whether it will unveil an empty, earthly table or the promised Kingdom of God. Świeszewski, on the other hand, is a visionary. It seems that his enormous erudition and, perhaps, personal faith allow him to steal a glance at the nuptial feast of the Triumphant Church – the wedding of the Lamb.

Keywords: neo-Platonism, the Eucharist, emanation, eschatological vision, Polish painting

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Few contemporary paintings have engendered as much emotion as The Last Supper by Maciej Świeszewski [Fig. 1]. Scores of articles, thousands of viewers, an outstanding novel by Paweł Huelle, and an academic study by Father Krzysztof Niedałtowski are but some of the surprising reactions to the work by this Gdańsk-based artist. Father Niedałtowski attests to the scope of its influence: “My friendship with the artist and the adventure with his painting have led me to undertake a serious study of iconography and table culture, and I studied the biographies of old masters who in their own time attempted the scene of the Last Supper. I discovered entire realms of human striving for the purity of intention and even spousal love for Christ.”[1] The Last Supper initiated a broader debate on the indispensable values and imperatives of the plastic arts; the debate flared up during the New Old Masters [Nowi Dawni Mistrzowie] exhibition at the Abbot’s Palace in Oliwa, Gdańsk, organized in 2007 to the script written by Donald Kuspit, an American curator and art theorist. On account of its large size (5×8 m), Świeszewski’s piece could not be showcased at the museum and was instead displayed in a church, but still served as a banner in the struggle for the presence of figurative art in our post-modern world.

Throughout the process of creation (which took ten years, 1995 to 2005, to complete) and soon after it was finished, the attention of the community and media was focused almost exclusively on the issue of “who is who”. The figures of local public life – politicians, artists, and businessmen – were cast in the roles of the Twelve Apostles. Who was depicted and who was omitted? Who represented Judas? Those were the most frequent questions at the time. Some critics attempted to discredit the value of the painting, but did not venture beyond the typical dispute between the “avant-gardists” and the “metaphysicians”, as excellently portrayed by Paweł Huelle in his novel The Last Supper. Hardly anyone reflected on the elaborate symbolic and allegorical structure of the painting or bothered to ask about its message. This was despite the fact that Świeszewski himself explicitly articulated his metaphysical needs in many interviews. Contemporary articles can hardly offer a credible explanation as to why precisely he sacrificed ten years of his life to this enormous painting.

In order to come a little closer to the understanding of the painting, it may first be helpful to characterize the broader creative style of Maciej Świeszewski. His works are predominantly figurative; more importantly, they include multifigural compositions, which are otherwise rare in contemporary art. Critics often associate his work with surrealism, based on his preference for multiple, seemingly disconnected realist narrative forms, the intentionality of time and space, the rescaling of mutual relations between depicted objects, figures, elements of landscape and architecture, and the use of several perspectives in a single piece. His artistic vision is marked by an important strand of pathos, of which our contemporary culture, steeped in banality and entertainment, is fearful, but which I personally appreciate. Świeszewski’s surrealist language is not just a play with symbolic forms, a show of erudition or an intellectual riddle designed to entertain pretentious highbrows, but an earnest statement flowing from the deep existential experience of fear and doubt.

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Świeszewski himself made it clear when asked about the affinities between his artistic language and that of Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, and Bronisław Linke: “First of all, it is all about the peculiarity of form, imagination and creation, in a very literal sense. To me, their language represents the essence of creativity. It is unusual, unprecedented; it allows to forge new values and relationships, which, after all, defines creativity. Their world is unique in its richness and the remarkable craft with which it is realized. […] The catastrophic streak in my psyche also plays a part; this particular type of art and this vision of the world have haunted me ever since early childhood. They seem especially fascinating and close to my heart.”[2]

The catastrophic streak, combined with intellectual zeal and a heightened awareness of cultural history, has pushed Świeszewski’s art towards the grand narratives of history and religion. In particular, he turned to the Bible as the space in which both his metaphysical hunger and his existential angst can find full expression. Świeszewski usually works on cycles of paintings; even as their subject matter is treated in a free and unorthodox manner, their titles (Golgotha, The Tower of Babel, Ecce Homo, The Apocalypse) unambiguously point to the original source of inspiration. These pictures are a special kind of pictorial exegesis, in which personal and biblical themes intertwine with elements of other cultures and religions to create an autonomous, open space of contemporary human experience. If I were to choose one sentence to describe Maciej Świeszewski’s art, I would say he is an artist of the grand narrative.

The Last Supper is replete with diverse iconographic themes and symbolic allusions, the untangling of which would take up a large volume. The artist is conscious that an exclusive focus on these elements can obscure the broader message of the painting. The sphere of iconography resembles a building with hundreds of doors and windows; each invites the viewer to come inside in a different way, depending on his level of initiation and sensitivity. The artist does not want him to remain at the threshold and admire a single entrance; he would rather have him come inside and admire the whole, finding the key in himself, in the culture which nurtured him: “Certain symbols and archetypes are accessible to everyone; they are just given various symbolic expressions in the history of particular cultures, they are clothed, as it were, in different symbolic garb, and I want to make these symbols conscious and perceived. Every educated person should be able to experience the painting on a number of emotional and spiritual levels. This is not to say they should understand the fish symbolizes this or that; no one except me can say I intended to convey a certain message. What I set out to do was to create a metaphysics of meanings, a web of associations that would place my painting in a broader context. It is very important for me that people at different levels of spiritual and intellectual development find a point of unity in my painting, a place where it speaks to their imagination and sensibility.”[3]

Świeszewski’s painting is a response to the thirst for spirituality manifest in human beings and their art, the perennial thirst which our contemporary materialistic civilization has reduced to the mere function of social relations.

*

At the beginning of the 20th century, Wassily Kandinsky published a small book entitled Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Commenting on why he wrote it, he stated: “the purpose […] was to awaken the ability to experience the spiritual in material and abstract things”.[4] He also realized that “after the period of materialistic trials to which the soul had apparently succumbed, yet which it rejected as an evil temptation, the soul emerges, refined by struggle and suffering.”[5] Published in 1911, the book gained immense popularity in the artistic circles of the time as a perfect antidote against Marxist materialism, which then held sway over the minds of intellectuals and artists. In retrospect, Kandinsky’s observations seem especially important given that they were made by an outstanding modern artist at the time of nascent avant-garde movements (largely fascinated with materialism) years before Marxist ideology was embodied in the communist system.

Kandinsky’s statement reveals a certain metaphysical hunger and a need to overcome the dualism of matter and spirit, which was first expressed in a more or less radical manner in ancient Greece. Without going into ontological considerations, it must be noted that overcoming dualism is critical for art and may even be said to constitute its essence. For this reason, scores of artists across the ages have turned, each in their own way, to the philosophy of Plotinus, whose Enneads were suitable for annexation both into Christian doctrine and the Gnostic systems arising over time. Plotinus conceived of being as an internally dynamic unity, in which new forms, hypostases, are continually created by way of emanation. The One, the highest entity, successively emanates lower realms: the ideal (spiritual), the psychical (the world-soul), and the material. Plotinus held that the material world is but a phenomenon of the ideal realm; the latter is reflected in matter as in a mirror. The human soul is composed of a lower, imperfect soul immersed in the flesh, and a higher one, which contemplates the world of the Absolute. The soul can travel downwards to spiritualize the flesh (and thus fall down), and back upwards, elevated by knowledge and virtue, and, more importantly, by art, which is the actualization of ideas. It is also to Plotinus that we owe the famous theory of the relationship between spirit and matter in a work of art, which seems to be taken for granted in our present time.

“Suppose then, two stony masses placed near each other, one of which is incomposite, and destitute of artificial form: but the other is fashioned by art into some divine, or human statue. […] The stone then which is disposed by art into the beauty of form, will immediately appear beautiful, but not because it is a stone; or the other mass would be similarly beautiful; it is therefore beautiful because it possesses the form which art applies. Matter, therefore, had not this form, but it existed in the thinking artist before it came into the stone.”[6]

The artist thus ranked extremely high in the hierarchy proposed by Plotinus; in his work, he actualized Ideas and was thus a reflection of the Creator.

It is no wonder then that the Neo-Platonic idea of emanation finds ample resonance in art. It lies at the heart of Augustinian illuminationism, which informs the theology of the icon; it inspired artists of the Renaissance and the Italian mannerism, whose ideas were in large measure influenced by Florentine Neo-Platonists affiliated with the Platonic Academy founded by Marsilio Ficino. Neo-Platonic influence on art continues practically to our day; it is manifest in figurative paintings which seek to express the existential experience of imprisonment in the body, as well as in symbolic still-lifes which speak of the evanescence of the world and at the same time extol its sensual beauty.

In their endeavour to express the relationship between spirit and matter, artists have also drawn on abstraction; in the 20th century, esoteric Neo-Platonic motifs can be observed in non-figurative art. Art still aims to express the truth about man; the experience of the body, with its beauty and harmony, but also with its gradual ageing and decay, is rephrased as the question about the spirit. Pictorial representations of man have traditionally struggled to express this universal correlate of the body, which forms the essence of humanity, and to which some refer as psyche, others – as the soul. The very essence of art can be seen in this quest for a visual form that would contain the bizarre, sometimes harmonious, but often contradictory and conflicted, union of the spirit and the body-matter.

In their works, artists express the Neo-Platonic themes of the soul falling into matter and being elevated back to the higher realm of the primordial One (circuitus spiritualis), the need for continual transformation, the feeling of being unfulfilled and insufficient, the situation of man as poised between heaven and earth. A good case in point is the work of Michelangelo. Every inch a Neo-Platonist, he strove to show the never-ending struggle between spirit and matter, which threatens to engulf it in his every work (be it in sculpture, painting, architecture, or poetry). His art differs from the icon in its specific experience and interpretation of Neo-Platonic philosophy. In the icon, reality is elevated to the level of the One and itself divinized; Michelangelo, on the other hand, focuses on the battle of the spirit against matter, which prevents it from attaining these higher realms. Despite the physical abundance of matter in his works, such as large masses of marble and ubiquitous flexed muscles, Michelangelo succeeds in capturing a genuine, internal dynamics of the struggle of the spirit with its bodily circumstances. He shows the dramatic quality of fall and liberation.

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The painting of Maciej Świeszewski, and in particular The Last Supper, his opus magnum, is also part of this perennial quest to express the mystery of humanity in its openness to transcendence. In taking on the subject against which the greatest masters have pitted their creative talent, Świeszewski, like his predecessors, enters the realm of Neo-Platonic influence. The philosophy of Plotinus, no matter how closely studied, helps elucidate the antinomy of the soul/psyche and body/matter inherent to human experience. Neo-Platonic elements are deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian foundations of European culture, in various religions, and many forms of esotericism and idealism.

The very theme of The Last Supper is neo-Platonic to the core. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine identifies the scene shown in the painting as the moment of establishing the Eucharist. This is when transubstantiation occurs; the matter of bread and wine changes into the flesh and blood of the Son of God and the guests partake of the divinity of Christ.

How does Maciej Świeszewski show this particular moment? From the very first glance, one is struck by the unearthly atmosphere which radiates from his enormous painting. The composition is immersed in an all-encompassing shade of light blue. Blue is the sky, blue is the water, which takes up the lower section of the painting, as is the tablecloth covering the sumptuous table. Given that Christ is also clad in a sapphire blue garment and the geometric centre of the composition is occupied by a light blue plate, which reflects his face, it is almost certain that the dominant colour is meant to symbolize the emanation of God into every dimension of being, space and time. The artist thus shows the theosis of the Earth and the Universe at large.

Looking at depictions of the Last Supper from previous centuries, one has the impression of entering a world logically ordered in accordance with the principles of Alberti’s perspective. This specific geometric ordering of space is justified by the fact that the scene takes place in a small room and the characters are sitting around a rectangular table. More important, however, is its symbolic dimension. In the Cenacle, the essence of the Church is constituted as a community formed around the Eucharist, which recreates Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, anticipates the eschatological nuptial feast, and constitutes the promise of resurrection : “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6: 54). The mathematical logic of the composition symbolizes the divine, eschatological dimension of the ecclesial community. It has yet another rationale – the scene was often painted for refectories, often as a monumental mural painting, which, thanks to well-painted perspective, gave monks an impression of being seated among Jesus and the apostles in the Cenacle.

The special eschatological dimension is also evident in The Last Supper by Maciej Świeszewski. The boundary between the earth and sky is erased. The sumptuous banquet table, whose rectangular shape represents earthly reality, along with the apostles, is placed in the nebulous, heavenly space of a New Jerusalem. The eschatological, and therefore iconic, dimension of the scene, which is placed outside regular time and space, helps understand why the figures and objects in the painting cast no shadow. The artist resorts to chiaroscuro only to the extent that it is needed to give his objects a tangible shape, make them solid and concrete. According to the Christianized neo-Platonic vision of history, our world is divinized through the incarnation of the Son of God, purified of all imperfection with his spilled blood, and eventually restored to the divinity of the One. In Świeszewski’s painting, the economy of redemption and salvation is depicted along the central vertical axis of the composition.

“The centre of the painting was calculated with precision; it is occupied by the eye of Christ’s reflection. The central axis is defined by the body of Christ. It begins as a rainbow, blends into light and the figure of Jesus, and then moves towards His tear and a small sphere containing a human embryo, the symbol of rebirth. It is not completely clear how Christ should be imagined and thus the painting is like a brief flash of recognition. Jesus is given four different faces: the middle one is an ideal face, as if taken out of a veraicon (an icon modelled on the towel with which saint Veronica wiped the face of Christ). To the left, a shadow emerges; it is the face from one of the greatest masterpieces of painting,Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden. The face on the right was borrowed from another painting by the artist, Baptism in the Jordan. The one reflected in the plate, on the other hand, comes from Hans Memling’s The Last Judgment…”[7]

The artist presents an interesting and meticulously studied image of Jesus. He hides behind images borrowed from ancient masterpieces, and yet succeeds in creating an iconography of God, which is at once entirely new and firmly grounded in theology. This original vision originates along the central axis of the composition and radiates to the rest of the painting. Starting from the top, the viewer comes across the vertex of a triangle. The triangle is white to represent the primordial neo-Platonic unity of God; as it descends, it gradually splits into the colours of the rainbow, the symbol of reconciliation, mercy and covenant between the Creator and his creation, as well as the presence of God. In the Bible, the rainbow appears in the sky after the Flood as a sign of the covenant God makes with Noah and his offspring (Gen. 9: 9–13). This is an important context for understanding The Last Supper. The banquet table, overflowing with the fruits of the earth, floating on the endless expanse of water is at once an ark and a sacrificial table. This interpretation is reinforced by the dove with a green branch shown in the centre of the painting, which symbolizes the Holy Spirit and foretells the proximity of the New Earth. The ecclesial dimension of the painting is again manifest. The nave of a church is a symbolic ark in which the community of the faithful finds salvation from the flood of earthly life and safely sails towards the “promised land” of the Kingdom of God.

It seems that the intention of the artist was to combine the Old and the New Covenant. In the iconography of the Last Judgment, the rainbow is often shown as the throne of Christ, who judges the living and the dead after the Second Coming. When interpreting the painting in the context of the Apocalypse (Rev. 4: 2), we must also recall the establishment of the Old Covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel: “Moses and Aaron […] saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank” (Exod. 24: 10–11). In Świeszewski’s novel iconography, the presence of God is intimated in a half-abstract manner through the whiteness of the triangle, which suddenly begins to glow with the colours of the rainbow. The shade “of lapis lazuli” below serves to clothe the threefold image of Christ. The faces that Świeszewski borrowed from the paintings by Rogier van der Weyden allude to the baptism of Jesus at the beginning of his mission and to the last stage of his life – his passion and death on the cross. They remind us of these biblical events and the words uttered by the Holy Spirit at the baptism in Jordan: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3: 17), as well as the centurion’s exclamation under the cross “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matt 3: 54).These events provide the temporal frame for the earthly revelation of the divine nature of Christ and the history of salvation, and at the same time represent the sacramental dimension of the Church.

The third, central image of Christ, Świeszewski explains, is borrowed from the iconography of the veraicon, which is “not by human hand made”. Below, a mirror reflection in the plate shows the face of the Messiah taken from The Last Judgment by Hans Memling. These two images represent the two poles of the true image of Christ. One was imprinted on Veronica’s veil for humanity to contemplate, the other will be revealed after the Second Coming at the end of times.

A close analysis of the borrowing from Memling’s triptych indicates that it is not a precise mirror reflection. Because the rim of the plate lacks creases and the dove is not reflected at all, it is justified to assume that the artist meant to portray the material body of Christ as food, and thus to remind us pointedly of the meaning of the Eucharist, which is realized in transubstantiation and the New Covenant established during the Last Supper. In this context, the quotation from Hans Memling’s The Last Judgment serves to underscore the eschatological dimension of the feast (John 6: 54).

The scene depicted by Maciej Świeszewski is the Last Supper at which the New Covenant is made and the feast of the leaders of Israel after the establishment of the Old Covenant. It is also an eschatological nuptial feast (Rev. 19: 7–9; Luke 22: 16–18), the wedding of the Lamb and the Bride (the Church).

On the central axis of the painting, the artist placed yet another object, which could be seen as the fifth image of Christ: a human embryo, the symbol of rebirth, enclosed in a transparent sphere immersed in water. A tear of God falls on it. Is this not a symbolic image of the moment of incarnation? The loving God takes pity on man, assumes flesh, and sacrifices himself for the sins of the world. The relationship between the Creator and his creation is marked by love. When read from top to bottom, The Last Supper shows God’s emanation descending down to the mystery of human life in the form of a tear and then rising back to the primordial One. At the top centre of the painting, in the middle of the rainbow triangle, Świeszewski painted a bee: “For Neo-Platonists, the bee is a symbol of the soul, because it leads a pure life and always remembers it will one day return to the higher realm”.[8] A little down on the same axis, a beautiful butterfly is fluttering its way upwards. The process of pupation makes it the perfect symbol for the human soul and resurrection.

According to neo-Platonic philosophy, “this whole universe is a divinum animal; it is enlivened and its various hierarchies are interconnected with each other by a ‘divine influence emanating from God, penetrating the heaven, descending through the elements, and coming to an end in matter’. An uninterrupted current of supernatural energy flows from above to below and reverts from below to above, thus forming a circuitus spiritualis”.[9]

In an interview, Maciej Świeszewski confessed: “In the picture, there is a bottle, and on it – a label illustrating the problem of squaring the circle. This is the key to my painting. The idea of God and the image of Christ are not unlike trying to square the circle – the harder you try, the more profound the mystery becomes. Like the masters of old, I looked for inspiration in mathematics and geometry, in the golden ratio. I read Pythagoras, Plato, and the Kabbalah.”[10]

Based on close analysis of the image on the label, I concluded that it reflects a theme which, like the problem of squaring the circle, refers back to the mathematical and mystical inquiries of the Pythagoreans, but centres around a slightly different issue: inscribing the circle in a square. The ability to do so was of great consequence to the art of building an ideal temple, which was expected to embody the neo-Platonic idea of interaction between the circle and the square. The purpose was to cover a cuboid structure with a dome in a harmonious manner. The base of a cube is a square, which symbolizes material, earthly reality delimited by time and space (four seasons – four parts of the world). The dome represents Heaven. It is based on a circle, which symbolizes perfection, infinity, and the unity of God. When the circle is inscribed in a square, their union represents the emanation of Spirit into lifeless matter; in the Christian re-reading of Neo-Platonism, it is interpreted as the presence of God in the world, the theosis of all creation. The idea of building a temple based on these symbolic and theological ideas found the clearest expression in the Renaissance, but was first put into practice as far back as the Byzantine Empire.

It also radiates from Maciej Świeszewski’s painting. The Last Supper includes numerous more or less hidden geometric shapes: circles, triangles, pentagrams, rectangles. The artist is perfectly aware that geometry carries within itself an enormous potential of divine order. The compositional harmony it makes possible helps the viewer distance himself from the earthly and steal a glance at the eternal. It is not my intention to detail the symbolism of this geometry; let me just point out that the painting seems to be composed of two perpendicular planes, on which mathematical figures are drawn. In the plane of linear perspective (the earthly reality), we see the rectangle of the table and the circles of waves forming on water under the impact of God’s tear. However, most of the figures are constructed not in the plane of illusion, but in the plane of the painting’s surface. In contrast to the former, the latter are mostly hidden. In order to find these triangles, pentagrams and circles, it is necessary to trace the rainbow, the trajectory of butterflies and insects, the distribution of fish, and to locate the small blue spheres which seem to go around in orbits like constellations of stars and planets. In accordance with neo-Platonic notions, the divine (cosmic) order penetrates into earthly reality. Their union takes place in the geometric centre of The Last Supper – in the image of Christ (borrowed from The Last Judgment by Hans Memling). The orbits of the circles of the Universe are drawn from this single point of origin, and the image is placed on the surface of a plate, whose circular shape is outlined in the plane of the earthly. The centre where the divine and the human interpenetrate each other is to be found in the Eucharist, which is presented by Świeszewski both in its earthly and eternal dimension.

*

When compared to other renditions of the subject, Maciej Świeszewski’s The Last Supper shows a number of analogies with the Leonardo da Vinci’s painting in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan [Fig. 2]. Both paintings place the apostles on one side of the table (facing the viewer); figures are similarly grouped, and a solitary Jesus is placed in the middle of the composition. The parallels are not surprising. In terms of iconography, the fresco of Leonardo da Vinci is nothing short of canonical and has always exerted enormous influence. Analogies can also be drawn with the cosmic atmosphere of The Last Supper by Salvador Dalí. Moreover, I discovered an ideological affinity between the painting by Maciej Świeszewski and a work by Aldona Mickiewicz. This came as a surprise. When these two versions of the Last Supper are juxtaposed, it is easier to say that they are completely different than to point out what makes them similar. One could even be said to be antithetical to the other. The extravaganza of colours and light in Świeszewski’s painting stands in stark contrast to the dark and nearly monochromatic palette used by Mickiewicz [Fig. 3, 4]. Where Mickiewicz chooses an ascetic still life, Świeszewski offers a multifigural composition, richness of forms and objects, erudition, and elaborate symbolism.

Despite these apparent differences, both paintings share the neo-Platonic idea of emanation. To a degree, both artists drew inspiration from the altarpiece by Dirk Bouts in the church of Saint Peter in Leuven [Fig. 5]. The centre of the altarpiece is occupied by a silver plate, which defines the central axis of the composition. In Maciej Świeszewski’s painting, the plate reflects the image of Christ borrowed from the triptych by Hans Memling; in Aldona Mickiewicz’s, its place is taken by a crumb of bread. Aldona Mickiewicz has actually painted two versions of the Last Supper. Both are alike in composition and indeed the only difference between them lies in the number of bread crumbs (six in the 1986 version, twelve in 2003) and an image of an empty plate added in the latter version, whose roundness visibly stands out from the painting as a symbolic source of light and emanation. The laconic language of Aldona Mickiewicz narrows the story down to the moment just after the meal, when the guests have left and the table is being cleared. This is suggested by the rolled up edges of the tablecloth. A simple everyday action builds up the tension of the scene and adds dramatic suspense. The artist captured the moment at which the sensual connection with the Eucharist hangs in the balance – one second and nothing will remain except an empty tabletop symbolizing earthly reality.

The symbolic narrative of Aldona Mickiewicz, like a Heideggerian clearing in the truth of being, allows to unveil momentarily the transcendent dimension of life. A metaphysical dimension is revealed behind the common meal and the surrounding mundane activities; the material reality of the everyday is divinized in the spirit of neo-Platonic philosophy. Chrystological allusions are rife. Bread and wine, symbols of the Eucharist, unambiguously place the scene in the Cenacle. The positioning of the plate in the centre of the table on the cross-shaped folds of the tablecloth underlines its passional dimension. The white tablecloth stained with wine (blood) and bread crumbs resembles a shroud, which points to death – but also to resurrection. The rolled up edges of the tablecloth also allude to eschatology, in particular, to the iconography of rolling up the universe common in the depictions of the Last Judgment. At the end of times, angels roll up a symbolic scroll – the earthly reality of space and time – and unveil the timeless realm of the Kingdom of God.

The paintings by Maciej Świeszewski and Aldona Mickiewicz show the scene of the Last Supper in the symbolic light of Neo-platonic philosophy. In the former, a primal tear of God falls on earthly waters, creating new life and starting waves, which emanate from the centre to include the entire painting in symbolic circles of eschatological symbols. In the latter, the square of the table (representing the earthly) is covered with a tablecloth; in the vein of Renaissance architects, who tried to design an ideal temple, a circle formed by crumbs of bread and folds of the tablecloth is inscribed within it. The centre of emanation is the Eucharist, represented by the plate with bread and the wine-filled carafe. Aldona Mickiewicz thus creates a symbolic image of the community of the mystical Church. However, she is uncertain in her vision, stops at the description of the everyday, and openly shares her doubts. Her paintings are not statements but question marks asking about the essence of life. In her The Last Supper, she freezes the moment of rolling up the tablecloth to express her doubt as to whether it will unveil an empty, earthly table or the promised Kingdom of God. Świeszewski, on the other hand, is a visionary. It seems that his enormous erudition and, perhaps, personal faith allow him to steal a glance at the nuptial feast of the Triumphant Church – the wedding of the Lamb. In this dimension, his painting is reminiscent of John van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb in Ghent.

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Translated by Urszula Jachimczak


[1] K. Niedałtowski, Zawsze Ostatnia Wieczerza, Warszawa 2006, p. 225.

[2] „Do piękna człowiek musi dojrzeć”. Rozmowa z Maciejem Świeszewskim przeprowadzona przez Janusza Janowskiego, in: Maciej Świeszewski, Gdańsk 2006, pp. 8–9.

[3] Z Maciejem Świeszewskim rozmawia ks. Jan Sochoń, in: Maciej Świeszewski Ostania Wieczerza 1995–2005,Warszawa 2006, p. 52.

[4] M. Billa, Wstęp [Introduction], in: W. Kandyński, O duchowości w sztuce, Łódź 1996, p. 8

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Plotinus, Ennead V.

[7] Kod Macieja Świeszewskiego. Z Maciejem Świeszewskim rozmawiała Aleksandra Kozłowska, Gazeta.pl (published on 18.09.2005).

[8] D. Forstner, Świat symboliki chrześcijańskiej, Warszawa 1990, p. 295.

[9] E. Panofsky, Neoplatoński ruch we Florencji, in: idem, Studia z historii sztuki, Warszawa 1971, p. 190

[10] Kod Macieja Świeszewskiego… (ft. 7).

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