March 2, 2024

“The Last Supper” and “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” are paintings from the High Renaissance period, roughly between the 1490s–1520s, that depict biblical figures. It is a reference point used by most people in the West to imagine what these figures may have looked like.

However, these depictions may not be accurate.

“Based on these pieces, and many other pieces in Christian art throughout the centuries, I really do not think that art has done an accurate job of portraying what the figures in the Bible looked like in their time,” said Ian Bell, senior applied theology major.

These biblical figures are centered in Christianity, a faith that originates in the Middle East. Paintings like “The Last Supper” notably depict Jesus and his disciples as Europeans with fair skin tones. These depictions are different from the appearances of actual Israelites and Middle Eastern peoples, from where these biblical figures are meant to be derived.

“Since people of Jewish descent and heritage did not make religious figures in visual arts in antiquity, we actually do not know what key biblical figures looked like for sure,” said Dr. Jeff Cate, professor of New Testament. “But there are plenty of noticeable features in famous biblical paintings that are at odds with what we do know about culture in biblical times and places.”

“The Virgin and Child with St. Anne,” created between 1500 and 1513 by Leonardo da Vinci, may be a prime example of the inaccuracies of Biblical figures. The art piece features St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and an infant Jesus. St. Anne is shown looking toward Mary, who is sitting on her lap and Mary is herself looking into Jesus’ eyes. Jesus is shown holding onto a lamb, which may symbolize his passion.

The white European portrayal of these figures makes “The Virgin and Child with St. Anne” inaccurate because they would have had features of Middle Eastern descent rather than European features. Another issue is that St. Anne is not technically referenced in the New Testament canon. St. Anne receives credence in the non-canon Gospel of James.

Another and perhaps most famous piece by da Vinci, “The Last Supper,” also contains inaccuracies. Created between 1495 and 1498, the piece portrays the scene described in Matthew 26:21-28, where Je-sus is gathered with his disciples the night Judas betrays him. Besides the ethnic inaccuracy of the figures in this piece, there is also a cultural inaccuracy. Israel was under Roman occupation during the time of Jesus, and due to the Hellenization of the land, Greek culture and customs were imposed on those under Greek and Roman occupation.

Matthew 26:20 (ESV) says that Jesus and his disciples reclined at the table to eat. Reclining in this period would refer to laying down on one’s side and dining around the table.

“The Last Supper” depicts Jesus and his disciples sitting upright, presumably on chairs, entirely on one side of the table. Although the scene attempts to emphasize the dramatic events of the last supper according to Scripture, it still needs to portray biblical accuracy.

“Da Vinci’s famous ‘Last Supper’ painting (1495-1498) has blue skies out the wi-dows even though the Passover Seder would have been after sundown,” Cate said. “And not only are all 13 individuals on one side of the table, as if using a selfie stick, but they are also in chairs at a table, when typical Jewish meals at that time were eaten at a low table while reclining on one’s side.”

There are more famous High Renaissance art pieces that depict biblical figures inaccurately. “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo shows Adam as a European man, God as a bearded man and the angels as babies and humans.

It is uncertain what Adam may have looked like due to a lack of visual description of his appearance, and God is said to be without a physical form.

“The Agony in the Garden” by Raffaello Sanzio, meant to depict Matthew 26:36-46 and other similar verses, is also inaccurate. It not only depicts ethnic inaccuracies, but the time of day is also incorrect. Scripture says that this moment in Jesus’ life would have occurred in the middle of the night since it takes place right after the last supper.

“We can see these two pieces of art, ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘The Virgin and Child with St. Anne’ by Da Vinci, are very westernized in how individuals dress,” said Dorothy Koopsen, junior Christian behavioral science major. “I believe we have to remember that da Vinci’s main goal was to make a beautiful piece of art. His main goal was not necessarily accuracy of the true events.”

Ethnic and cultural accuracies in art and media have become somewhat of a demand in the 21st century, as people have brought awareness to inaccuracies portrayals of other ethnicities and cultures through protests and boycotts. Regardless, art is always meant to be beautiful and impactful.

“I believe something far more important is for the audience to remember that art is supposed to be beautiful, inspiring and have a new take on the events they are depicting,” Koopsen said. “Art is not the word of God, it is not authoritative, and we should not view it that way.”

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