Pieter Coecke van Aelst's The Last Supper was one of the most popular images of the sixteenth century. It freely combined the compositions of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper in Milan (1498) and Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving after Raphael's drawing of the same subject (circa 1510-20) with the enigmatic gestures of the apostles from the popular print by Albrecht Dürer (1523). The scene with Cain and Abel is taken directly from a print by another popular Renaissance artist, Jan Gossaert, called Mabuse (active 1503-32).
Small biblical scenes are depicted in the background, heightening the impact of the main theme. Through the window we see an archway (in typical Antwerp style) with the Entry in Jerusalem, an episode of the Passion that precedes the Last Supper. In the ornamented window we can see depictions of the Fall of Man. The medals represent the stories of David and Goliath and the Slaying of Cain. The whole iconography is focused on original sin and mankind's salvation through Christ's sacrifice.
The use of modern Renaissance motifs and the iconographic intricacy contributed to the composition's popularity. This can be measured by the many versions: an impressive forty-five are known today. A great number are dated, of which six or seven versions carry the early date 1528, making it an exceptionally productive year.
The most notable differences between the present version and most others are the simplified checkerboard pattern of the floor and the dog in the foreground that misses its playmate. It is therefore different from the Poznan version as recorded in the RKD, as that painting features a second dog and the more common tiled floor pattern. Other details exclusive to this version include faint lines on Judas' feet, possibly sandal straps, and the stripes on the green garments of the apostle seen from behind.
Minor variations and stylistic diversity in the group of forty-five Last Supper compositions indicate the collaboration of workshop assistants. Coecke is known to have had a large and productive workshop that was organized in a modern way. Coecke, as the maître entrepreneur, provided his assistants with inventions and supervised the production process. The Last Supper probably originated as a drawn model. The composition could then be transferred to a panel by means of cartoons, which was common practice in the first half of the sixteenth century. The paintings came in two standardized formats: 50 x 60 cm. and 60 x 80 cm., of which the large format seems to have been the most popular.
The present version, with all its details and similarities to Coecke's style, seems to be painted in close relation to the model of the master.
We are grateful to Drs. Linda Jansen for her assistance in the preparation of the above catalogue note.