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The Eye Made Quiet: Symmetry, Uniqueness and "The Last Supper"

Drew Trotter

Untitled

While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.

~ William Wordsworth

I love the symmetry I find in life, and I love its representations. The jangled, disordered musings of Jackson Pollock for all their beauty and interesting “patterns” have never been mine. Give me Leonardo da Vinci and “The Last Supper” every time.

And yet, and yet. My love for symmetry cries out for verification. In a world where uniqueness dominates, how can I so highly value the conformity of symmetry? Even God in His majestic creative power has built a diversity into the world that regularly surprises us, breaks our molds, our patterns. Am I opposing our King to hold balance and reflection in such high regard?

Of course the question is silly. God has built beautiful, orderly patterns into everything around us without violating the principle of the uniqueness of beauty. The sun comes up with such regularity we can time and explain the sunrise in staggering detail. And of course such regularities are, like Heraclitus noted long ago about the river, always the same and always changing. One gets both the diversity of unique beauty and the unity of regular science in every sunrise.

And so Leonardo’s masterpiece. Of course Jesus is dead center with six apostles to his left and six to his right. Despite what Dan Brown says, he points with the upturned left hand to the bread and with the downturned right to the cup. Even the apostles are grouped in threes, with Peter, Judas and John—the central characters perhaps in the apostles’ side of the drama, which is drawn from John 13:21ff.—forming the threesome to Jesus’ right. Of course the four panels to the left and right of the group, the three windows in the back, the paneled ceiling, the table with its pairs of legs intersecting the lines on the floor with perfect harmony, give the picture an atmosphere that is remarkably stable and symmetrical in every detail.

And yet, there is Peter’s knife—presumably the one with which he cuts off Malchus’s ear (John 18:10)—clearly in his hand, but being held at an awkward angle, an instrument of disorder. For its use, he will be rebuked by the Master. And there is Judas’s bag of money, clutched tightly in his right hand, while with his left he reaches for the bread of life, however tentatively. Woe to the world for stumbling blocks!

How these details, so small and insignificant in the painting as a whole, give color and life to it! But how meaningless they would be, if not in the context of the order Leonardo has given us, where things do not fall apart and the center does hold.