Zombiefilter: What is up with this Flemish painting?
August 17, 2010 8:52 PM   Subscribe

Zombie Flemish Art filter: I saw this painting in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, Belgium. What the hell is going on?

"These are my brains, which are for you... do this in remembrance of me."

The placard underneath of this painting said it was a 16th century Last Supper by Pieter Pourbus. So, MeFites... what's up with Zombie Steve in the corner there? Inquiring minds are dying to know (and combed the entire gift shop in the vain hope of sending postcards to all our friends).
posted by deludingmyself to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
At a guess, Judas – the ginger in the foreground, in the black tunic – is getting his comeuppance. Judas was so often represented as a redhead that "judas-coloured" is an expression for red hair.
posted by zadcat at 9:04 PM on August 17, 2010

a guess: dude standing up is Judas, holding a sack with thirty pieces of silver - 'zombie' is Satan, egging him on?
posted by stray at 9:04 PM on August 17, 2010

Zombie is probably Death coming for him. Death was a pretty standard figure, as in the danse macabre.
posted by zadcat at 9:06 PM on August 17, 2010

Zadcat, I can figure out that the guy front and center with the sack of coins is Judas. I'm asking about the figure in the right hand corner. Satan's our best guess - but is this a particularly unusual portrayal? Can anyone else think of a last supper with the devil in it? And why the chicken feet?
posted by deludingmyself at 9:07 PM on August 17, 2010

I have studied some art, but am certainly no expert. I can venture a (some-what) educated guess though.

Paintings from that part of Europe (the lower countries) during the early 16th, late 15th century often contain disturbing religious imagery. See Bosch as the prime example. These images are almost always allegorical.

This painting is obviously the Last Supper. The Zombie figure is looking directly at Judas, almost preparing to embrace Judas. (Judas, of course, has just betrayed Christ to the Roman Authorities, is clutching the bag of 30 silver coins, and is fleeing the scene).

What Judas has done is to damn his eternal soul. The idea of eternal damnation was very real and very scary to the original audience of this painting. Judas is not slipping out with some extra money to go have fun, he is walking directly into the arms of unspeakable damnation, a zombie.

That would be my guess.
posted by Flood at 9:08 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think, although I'm talking off the top of my head and years out of school, that that would be Judas' conscience personified as death with nifty demonic features coming to get him. See how Judas is leaving, denying Jesus and having his cloak grabbed there by one of the apostles? They're just past the this is my blood you drink part of the supper where Jesus announces that he knows who betrayed him. Instead of sitting quietly as you see in the Leonardo or many other Last Suppers, Judas is storming out, which is not an unheard of theme, since, let's face it, it's much more dramatic. So there is Judas leaving (the servant removing his chair is also interesting, a literal you have no seat here anymore) but there hurrying to embrace him is his nemesis: the devil, his conscience, his own evil, flesh denuded, hairy footed demonic twin coming in to escort his ass to hell.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:12 PM on August 17, 2010

Also, this painting was done in the middle of the most heated years of the reformation and counter reformation when religious art, driven by a church that felt itself under siege, was all about the straight up smack you in the head totally unsubtle style of symbolism. The wages of sin were highly specific by the 1540s, thus the scary demon guy coming right in to the dining room.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:23 PM on August 17, 2010

With regards to the chicken feet, Pourbus was drawing on medieval conventions. The Devil usually pops up in medieval art with more goaty characteristics, but the Devil in the [significantly older] Codex Gigas has bird-like claws. Actually, just a Google search of "medieval devil" gets you plenty of bird-footed devils.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:25 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

John 13:2 "The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus."

It's the Devil prompting Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus. The Devil has often been depicted with chicken feet, it is one of the standard motifs.
posted by Kattullus at 9:29 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

And on preview, as to what you're asking about the feet, chicken feet or animal feet are a theme in a lot of folklore: it's how you recognize the devil, the witch, the otherworldly. Apparently they can hide a lot but not always their feet. The skull head is a symbol of death more than it is of the devil. Satan himself didn't come for Judas, after all, Judas waited a while before he couldn't stand it any longer and committed suicide, or, conversely, wandered the earth forever damned trying to redeem himself. This guy is going to be his companion for the rest of his life.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:29 PM on August 17, 2010

Someone is about to throw thirty pieces of silver away, but not before doing a spot of betraying, that's just fine according to Satan
posted by the noob at 9:33 PM on August 17, 2010

There's some very interesting implied triangulation repeated throughout the painting; for example, by Christ's gesture, echoed by the satan's gesture; the positioning of St John of the Apocalypse at the heart of the savior figure, the thirty pieces of silver at the heart of Judas' figure. The chair, the gestures of the apostles. The artist seems to be riffing on the triangle quite a bit. Lots of allegorical choices implied in placement and symbol.
posted by effluvia at 9:38 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was thinking, "Well, it's the last supper. There's Judas and a..zombie FRENCH MAID?!!

Nice morning jolt. Thanks.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:05 AM on August 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

I am quite interested in the significance of the clothing/headpiece of death. It is so significantly different from the rest of the characters, not only in color but in style. Any medievalists care to take a stab at these choices?

It certainly seems as if the clothing is ragged but what is the collar doing on the shirt? Seems almost military or noble. I'd love to get a closer look at this IRL!
posted by Sophie1 at 6:37 AM on August 18, 2010

If the figure with the silver cup is St. John of the Apocalypse, it seems that we have the other three gospel authors---Matthew, Mark, and Luke at our Left, Christ's right---Matthew seems to be writing with his butter knife there. Not sure who the blond bathed in light could be. St. Peter seems to be holding an oyster shell, which might be a pilgrimage reference to Galilee, as pilgrims wore the shell after their visit. I don't think they are keys in his hand.

The headress---I thought it was Belgian lace, but now seems to by a kafiyeh, the traditional headress worn by Saracens, so would be a (cringe) Christian infidel. Christ, then, is the light source, the other emerges from the dark.

I like the pairing of the blood cup and the silver cup. Very interesting artist, thank for bringing this to the green.

I also tip my hat to Matt Groening, Bart Simpson's daddy. I see he's from a rich cultural tradition. Don't have a cow, man.
posted by effluvia at 7:59 AM on August 18, 2010

Apologies for the addenda post, but it occurs to me after the fact that the painter's triangulation could extend here to the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Muslim.
posted by effluvia at 8:08 AM on August 18, 2010

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