Albrecht Durer's The Last Supper: Meaning & Analysis

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Last Supper is one of the most common themes in religious art, but it was used differently by various artists. In this lesson, we'll look at the Last Supper of Albrecht Dürer, and see how he treated this important theme.

The Last Supper and the Renaissance

Religion was very important to Europeans during the Renaissance, the period of artistic and social innovation spanning the 14th through 17th centuries. It's unsurprising that Renaissance art is full of religious themes. If we know anything about religion, it's that people don't always agree. Religious art can also be political, containing discrete messages in the interpretation of subjects like the Last Supper. In Christian traditions, the Last Supper was the final meal shared between Christ and his disciples before his crucifixion. It's a big moment theologically and a common theme in Renaissance art. This is rarely better exemplified than in the 1523 woodcut made by German artist Albrecht Dürer.

Albrecht Dürer

Before we dive into the meanings behind Dürer's ''The Last Supper,'' we need to know a little bit more about the man and his era. Albrecht Dürer was born in 1471, and by his death in 1528 had become one of the most influential artists of the Northern Renaissance, or the Renaissance of Northern Europe. His medium of choice was woodblock printing, an art form unique to Northern Europe at this time. In fact, he is considered the first European master of this technique.

Albrecht Durer

What makes Dürer's ''The Last Supper'' intriguing is his relationship with another German named Martin Luther. Luther was a priest who in 1517 published a list of complaints against the Catholic Church called the Ninety-Five Theses. These complaints grew into a revolution against Catholic dogma known as the Protestant Reformation. As early as 1518, Dürer began sending gifts to Martin Luther and even asked to make a woodcut portrait of the reformer.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

Dürer's ''The Last Supper''

Understanding this history, we can look at Dürer's works in a more specific way. The theme of the Last Supper was a common motif in religious art, used widely by Catholic painters like Leonardo da Vinci. This made it a powerful space to interject a few new ideas about religion. Most art historians view Dürer's famous work as an expression of early Evangelical/Protestant ideas in a still-predominantly Catholic Europe. It is important to remember that reformers were often seen as heretics, at times executed for rebelling against the Church. Thus Dürer's inclusion of Reformation themes should not be taken lightly.

The Last Supper by Albrecht Durer

A Closer Look

Where can we see the Reformation in this woodcut? Let's start with the figures themselves. Christ is in the center, surrounded by his eleven apostles. But wait: Christ had twelve disciples. Some one is missing. While traditional scenes of the Last Supper focus on the moment in which Christ announces that one of the twelve will betray him, this one takes place a bit later. Judas, the betraying disciple, has already left. Christ is instructing the remaining disciples on spreading the faith after his crucifixion, telling them that others will recognize them by their love for each other. This scene comes from John 13:34 in the Christian Bible. John 13:34 was also the focus of Martin Luther's introduction in his translation of the Bible, published just one year before Dürer's woodcut in 1522.

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