A quick study of body of Christ in western art history reveals a complex set of theological issues relating to who Jesus was and how he is depicted. Just as the gospels offer different and complementary perspectives on the person of Jesus, painters also portray Jesus in different sorts of ways. One common way of representing Jesus’ body that I find especially intriguing is the “Last Supper” image. In typical last supper images, we find Jesus in the midst of friends (and one traitor) sitting down for a meal. His body, as is the case in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, often faces the viewer and the food is served. The Last Supper is an image of hospitality, but it is also an image of confrontation because on the table before Jesus is the bread and wine: reminders of the suffering he is about to endure.
I know of no other image that captures both the hospitable and confrontational nature of Christ’s Eucharistic body better than Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat’s Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper). The installation, which is shown above, is a collaborative effort of these two great American artists. Basquiat and Warhol collaborated on a number of projects in the 1980s. In 1986, Warhol was also commissioned to make a series of paintings of the Last Supper by art dealer Alexandre Lolas, and the works that came from this commission are quite well known. Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper), perhaps not the most well-known Last Supper painting by Warhol, is the best of them all.
The piece consists of ten punching bags over which Warhol and Basquiat painted images of Jesus’ face, as well as the repeated work ‘Judge’ and the occasional crown. The images of Jesus are based upon Leonardo Da Vinci’s well-known painting of the Last Supper. The paint itself, coarsely and starkly applied, grabs the viewers attention and is suggestive of the gestural activity of physically applying paint. By painting upon punching bags, Basquiat and Warhol more effectively draw the viewer into a participative role with the installation because punching bags are objects that people typically use in a very aggressive sort of way. Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper) is so poignant because it puts the viewer in an awkward position: do I hit Jesus or not? We arrive at the punchline (pun intended!) when we recognize that the word ‘Judge’ has a double meaning. Does Jesus sit in judgment upon us who would make him our punching bag, or are we judging Jesus with our physical assault? I find that this image puts me in a kind of paralysis: caught within the paradox that Jesus is both the Judge of the universe, and also the one who came to be judged.
How do you respond to Warhol and Basquiat’s painting? Does it challenge, or cause you to reflect upon, the way you think about Jesus and your relationship to him? How might this painting challenge or shed light upon the Christian Eucharist?