The Last Supper
John the Youngest Disciple
John the Youngest Disciple
John's writings seem to date from around AD90 - and since the lifespan of humans back in Biblical days was rather short, John would have had to be quite young when he was hanging around with Jesus and crew. For this reason, John is usually assumed to have been the youngest disciple, and is the only one shown without a beard.
From a Visitor -
I can't say I necessarily agree with the idea that it is Mary M in the Last Supper. The reason the Christian world thinks that the person on Jesus' right is John (the Apostle, not the Baptist) is due to two things. First, at one point in the evening Peter leans over to John and asks John to ask Jesus something. This would seem to indicate that John was closest to Jesus. Secondly, the figure in dispute does appear to be either female or a very young man. Some might object, saying obviously its a young man or obviously its a woman. In my experience, a (not even necessarily) young man with long hair can often be mistaken for a woman, especially if he has yet to fully mature (ie facial hair/stubble, squarer jawbone/cheekbone, etc). Looking from a distance can make it even worse as can a very decayed painting. As for why John is thought to be young, as far as I am aware its purely based on conjecture and (Catholic) tradition. John is the only one of the original 12 Apostle's for whom even Catholic tradition cannot place a date of his death. Secondly, the five writings of John were written in the order Gospel of John, Book of Revelations/Apocalypse (which just means "revelations" in Greek, not "horrific, destructive end of the world"), and the 3 epistles. The Gospel of John, though the first of his writings was written long after the death of Christ and even after the other 3 accepted gospels (he pointedly avoids repeating what they already contain). The epistles are estimated to have been written then, sometime around AD 92-93 which means a good 60 years had passed since Christ died and John (considering the life expectancy of that time) couldn't have been much older than 20-25 and some would argue he had to have been more like 15 or so to have lived to AD 93.
But of course, there's always two sides to any story and the side that I am partial to (for reasons outside of just the Biblical text) is that Christ promised John that he could tarry until He came again. There is a short passage at the very end of the Gospel of John which is a bit confusing but seems to indicate this. Peter, speaking to Jesus of John says, "What shall this man do?" Jesus responds, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" John, who is narrating this whole event then says that from then on, it was said that he (John) would never die. He then sets the record straight and says that Jesus never said he wouldn't die, just that he would tarry till He (Jesus) came. It then becomes quite clear why Catholic tradition would indicate that John had to have been very young because (excuse the conspiracist flare here) if they were to believe that John had in fact been allowed to live indefinitely until the coming of Christ (which I believe) then their claim to authority dissolves completely. The basic Catholic authority claim is based on the idea that Peter, the first head of the church, passed the authority on to Linus who passed it on to (can't remember the name) who passed it to Clement and so on down to John Paul II. Linus was in fact a bishop in Rome, mentioned by Paul in his epistle to Timothy but being a bishop certainly doesn't make you Pope or head of the church (Paul was writing to Timothy who was a bishop, why wasn't he made Pope?). Also, Paul wrote many epistles but the titled Romans, is not written to any leader in Rome, but rather to the Romans in general. Paul spent almost all his time in what was then called Asia and is now basically Turkey, not Rome. And John when he wrote the book of Revelation addressed it to the seven churches, not one of which is Rome. John outlived Peter (he makes reference to Peter's crucifixion in his Gospel) so then John, the last living Apostle by the hand of Christ should have been leading the church. So to avoid all that, we get the tradition that John had to have been very young and is then traditionally painted as very young.
Leonardo was not a supporter of the Church, but neither was he a reformist or protestant in the sense that he sought to join some other church, he simply had his own beliefs on the these matters. He therefore would have most likely been aware only of the Catholic tradition of John as young and other paintings where John is depicted as such and would have painted him that way. So either Leonardo knew about Mary as Jesus' wife and took great pains to paint her in but disguise her as John to satisfy any Catholic who saw the Last Supper (which takes a fair amount of conspiracist blood to believe) or else he was just painting what he had always been taught because that's what they asked him to do. Then again, maybe if he knew of Mary, he knew the full story behind John and one of the older men is John. So who then is the missing apostle? Maybe Leonardo got his Bible stories confused and left out Thomas? Maybe one of the two brothers was late? In the end however, I still feel more inclined to think that its John not Mary.
My Response -
Yup I agree that John was a youngster, probably not even old enough to grow a beard during the final days of Jesus' life. Which sort of dovetails in with the theory that Leonardo, being a gay man and quite fond of the young male body, was quite happy to make this particular one very beautiful and effeminate. So that makes it really hard to figure out if the person in question is a "beautiful boy" or a "feminine female". If you look at other paintings that Leonardo has done you run into the same issue. We simply may never know for sure. Leonardo was a complex man, maybe he wanted that figure to represent both of the people and blended their features.
I can't buy into the theory that Leonardo was just doing what he was told. He was an amazingly intelligent man, loved to research things, love to put hidden meanings into his works, he wrote backwards for fun. He was an avowed humanist and had had great personal pain in his life because of the church meddling in it (including being tossed into prison). So I think when he got his opportunities to stir the pot up a bit, he took them :)
From a Visitor -
Did you know, of all the 12 disciples John, who's actually Mary in the book, is the only disciple not to die a horrible death? Every one else was either crucified, hanged, or run through with a sword or spear, but "John" died of extreme old age somewhere in Greece.
My Response -
I don't think John was Mary - I think it's just the painting that had Mary in place of John. There was an actual John disciple in addition to Mary who was Jesus' companion. But in any case your point reminds me of the story that goes around every 4th of July on the web about the founding fathers of the US, how they took this amazingly important stand for the rest of us and then most of them had their entire lives destroyed by the English as a result. They stood up knowing that it was going to be rough, but they felt it was worth it. It really should make the rest of us give pause. Here we whine and complain about how rough our times are, how we have crime and poverty. But when you look through history - how about the Black Plague in the 1300s that killed off half of Europe? How about the days of the Romans when most people were malnourished and starving while they worked the land of their masters? We really have it amazingly well and we *still* complain ...