Hymn of the Last Supper by Edward Armitage. 1876. Oil on canvas. 39 x 72 inches (99 x 183 cm). Source: Pictures and Drawings Selected from the Works of Edward Armitage RA (1898).
Armitage painted his Hymn of the Last Supper in 1876, when he exhibited it at both the Royal Academy and the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition. As with much of Armitage’s work, the painting was large, an oil on canvas measuring 39 x 72 inches (99 x 183 cm). The original painting is now untraced but is known from its reproduction (shown above) as a photogravure in the portfolio of Armitage’s work, Pictures and Drawings Selected from the Works of Edward Armitage RA, published in 1898 following his death.
The Royal Academy archives contain a hand-written form that Armitage submitted when his painting was exhibited. This states that he completed it in March 1876, having made studies in 1875, when he also prepared the canvas using a very thick coating of solid white which he then allowed to dry for a year. It was to be exhibited with the following quotation: "And when they had sung a hymn they went out onto the Mount of Olives" (Matthew xxvi, 30).
When the RA exhibition opened, Hymn of the Last Supper was in the "place of honour," in the centre of the east wall of Gallery VII, and on either side of it were two other scriptural paintings by J. R. Herbert. This arrangement did not impress at least one contemporary critic who drew attention to the increasing unpopularity of religious art: "As though the hangers of the year would force down our throats the already too bitterly-digested truth of the fall of religious art in these modern days, they have flanked Mr Armitage’s performance by the Judith and St Mary Magdalene of Mr J. R. Herbert, RA, the expressionless inanity of which forms a suitable accompaniment to the unhappy centre-piece" (The Architect, 305).
A number of critics pointed out that Armitage was "hardly wise in challenging comparison with the old masters" (Illustrated London News, 450). "One would have thought that Leonardo de Vinci had exhausted this subject — or at least Raphael after him," wrote another (Liverpool Mercury, 6). Although Armitage followed the seating arrangement used by de Vinci, he chose to depict the moment after the departure of Judas, when the disciples sang a hymn before leaving for the Mount of Olives. It therefore differed from most paintings of The Last Supper, although as pointed out by The Academy, the scene had previously been painted some years ago by ‘a painter of less name, Mr [James] Smetham" (The Academy, 441.)
The Last Supper was a Passover (Seder) meal, when Matzah, or flat, unleavened bread, is eaten, artichokes are a traditional side-dish and cups of wine are drunk. Armitage’s painting also appears to show bitter herbs, dipping bowls of salt, and Charoset (a sweet brown paste of fruit and nuts), all of which have symbolic significance. Above the figures, on a beam, is the inscription in Hebrew, "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is" [than a stalled ox and hatred therewith, from Proverbs xv, 17].
Armitage always placed great emphasis on historical accuracy in his work and Academy Notes suggested that the costumes and accessories in the picture were all painted from authentic sources (53-54). However, Armitage’s attempt at realism resulted in much criticism, with the Art Journal concluding that the painting "represents a gathering of men so very unwashed and unkempt-looking that we can scarcely bring ourselves to regard it, certainly at first sight, as having anything at all in common with Our Lord and the twelve" (263). Others complained that "Mr Armitage has aimed at representing the Apostles as humble men of rough and toil-worn aspect and has succeeded in making them thoroughly ignoble" (The Annual Register, 399.) "His models are not only modern but vulgar. The countenance of the Saviour is commonplace; those of the Apostles singularly unintellectual and, curiously enough, all have thick crops of unkempt hair," wrote another (The British Almanac, 185-187.)
Detail: the artichokes.
The painting also attracted attention from a number of humorous publications, including Fun:
Exactly next in order [after J. R. Herbert’s Judith in the Tent of Holfernes], and about next in ability, comes The Hymn of the Last Supper (579), by Mr. Armitage, R.A. In addition to his other pigments, Mr. Armitage goes in for local colour, as evidenced by the basket of Jerusalem artichokes to hand. As an exponent of the signboard school of art, even as a portrayer on porcelain, wew think Mr. Armitage would have been an immense success; let us trust he will give these walks a good deal of his future consideration.
Another commentator who called himself "a Rustic Ruskin" wrote a lengthy criticism that included the following:
Mr Armitage seems to have got together a dozen navvies, dressed them up in various coloured robes, hired for the purpose from a theatrical costumier, and put together without the least regard to the harmony of colour; then to have darkened their faces with burnt sienna, ruffled their hair, in order to give them an antique and Eastern appearance, to increase the effect of which he has stuck carelessly on the head of one a semi-turban, on another a black hood, and a black and white napkin on a third; the rest are bareheaded. He has then placed them at the conventional school tea-party table, covered with the equally conventional white diaper table-cloth, and these he has the astounding folly to put before the world in the characters of our Lord and His Apostles. [The Real and Ideal, the Beautiful and the True, or Art in the Nineteenth Century, 142-45]
Many column inches were devoted to criticizing Armitage for his inclusion of an orange tree and a lemon tree because "oranges and lemons were unknown to the Greeks and Romans ... Mr Armitage could easily make his orange and lemon trees citrons and it happens that the citron is largely cultivated in India in pots, and might thus have been used in the decoration of the room of The Last Supper" (The Athenaeum, 151-52.) In a separate article, the same writer continued:
It is the earlier Italian painters who begot the popular belief that Oranges and Lemons were known in the Mediterranean countries in classical and Scripture time. They were novelties in Europe in the time of the early painters, and appealed powerfully by their novelty, and perfume, and flavour, and beauty, to their imaginations, and they introduced them everywhere in their pictures rather as mystic trees of “heaven’s eternal year,” than such as have their habitat and seasons here on earth. ... But in Mr Armitage’s picture the Oranges and Lemons mean only thoughtlessness and ignorance – thoughtless painting down to the ignorance of the nursery-maids who pervade the Academic groves and painted arcades of pleasant Kensington. It is an aggravation of the artist’s error that the Orange and Lemon trees in this picture are shown in ripe fruit, whereas neither Oranges nor Lemons would be yet even in flower in the month when the Last Supper was first celebrated. [The Gardeners’ Chronicle, 303.)
Some of the above criticisms relate to the declining appeal of religious art, although Armitage’s decision to depict the Apostles looking weary and somewhat unkempt clearly offended many contemporary commentators.
In contrast to this, Armitage exhibited a second picture at the 1876 Royal Academy Exhibition entitled Phryne. This was not a scriptural painting, but was an example of what was termed Academic art, and it received a very different reception from the critics. The painting is again untraced and there are no known reproductions, although the Art Journal provides the following description: Phryne
stands her stately height on a smooth wave washed boulder, with a grey, marble-looking rock behind her, and the calm blue sea beyond. She decks her hair, with fine seaweed and holds in her right hand some broad ribbon-like leaves which she has also gathered from the rocks. 
Their critic described the painting as "really a charming piece of anatomical study, and one of the grandest paintings of the year" (250). The Graphic (415) thought Phryne a fine Academic figure and The Saturday Review suggested it was "the boldest and best treatment of the nude; the figure is not unworthy of Ingres, as known... in La Source (553).
Later, at least one critic took a rather more favourable view of The Hymn of the Last Supper. Reviewing the reproductions of Armitage’s work contained in Pictures and Drawings, in 1898 The Athenaeum concluded there was much to admire in The Hymn of the Last Supper, which presented itself ‘with an unexpected sweetness and almost a holy charm. The twelve are singing with one accord, seated at one side and the ends of a long table in De Vinci’s fashion. Their faces illustrate the fruits of long study, profound sympathy with the theme, and a very various inspiration. This picture was painted in 1876. Its whereabouts we do not know" (230-231).
Some examples of The Last Supper in different media
- Mosaic in St Barnabas, Pimlico
- Stained Glass by C. E. Kempe in St Barnabas,Pimlico
- Stained Glass by Ninian Comper in Christ Church, Esher
- Tile painting designed by William Butterfield in St Augustine's, Queensgate, Kensington
The Academy. 6 May 1876: 441.
Academy Notes. 1876: 53-54.
The Annual Register. Vol 118. 1876: 399.
The Architect. 13 May 1876: 305.
Art Journal. 1876: 250, 261 and 263.
The Athenaeum. No 2544. 29 July 1876: 151-152.
The Athenaeum. 13 August 1898: 230-231.
The British Almanac. “The Exhibitions of Pictures in 1876.” 1877: 185-187.
The Gardeners’ Chronicle. 2 September 1876: 303.
The Graphic. 29 April 1876: 415.
Illustrated London News. 6 May 1876: 450.
Liverpool Mercury. 12 September 1876: 6.
Pictures and Drawings Selected from the Works of Edward Armitage RA. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company Ltd., 1898.
The Real and Ideal, the Beautiful and the True, or Art in the Nineteenth Century. Samuel Tinsley, 1876: 142-145.
Royal Academy Archives, Method of Procedure form, RAA/LIB/4/1.
“The Royal Academy Exhibition.” Fun. 23 (7 June 1876): 249. (Courtesy of the Suzy Covey Comic Book Collection in the George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida). [Excerpt added by GPL.]
The Saturday Review. 29 April 1876: 553.
Created 12 November 2019