JOOS van Wassenhove
(active c.1460-80)

The Institution of the Eucharist

Oil on wood, 331 x 335 cm
Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino

The most important and most perfect work of Joos van Wassenhove (Justus of Ghent) by far is The Institution of the Eucharist (The Communion of the Apostles), painted for the high altar of the Brotherhood of Corpus Domini. The picture was based on a painting by Fra Angelico that Justus may have seen at St Mark's convent in Florence, in which the disciples leave the table to kneel at Christ's feet. Yet, despite this influence, the finished work shows just how far Justus's style remained purely Flemish, virtually untouched by all he had seen during his time in Italy.

The scene is set in the chancel of a church built on the Latin plan, its apse supported by a row of composite columns. On each side of the painting is an opening through which distant houses and towers are visible. These panoramic views are reminiscent of Ghent or of Bruges. Christ is seen standing three-quarters on to the viewer, in front of the table. He holds the paten in his left hand, as he offers the consecrated bread to St James the Less. Around him, those disciples who have received the host appear happy and at peace, while the faces of the others express their eagerness to partake of it too. The unfortunate figure of Judas stands to one side in the shadow, as if trying to avoid Christ's gaze. In the foreground stand a plate and pitcher that will later be used to wash the disciples' feet.

In the background, to the right, is a lively group made up of Duke Federico, two of his courtiers and Caterino Zeno, the ambassador of the Shah of Persia. The presence of this latter figure seems designed to indicate that the Holy Eucharist is a universal sacrament and that Christ has become incarnate in order to save all men, whatever their origins. Just behind this group a young woman can be made out, carrying the young Guidobaldo in her arms. Two angels hover above the protagonists, held in perfect balance by their tensile wings. One of them is praying, while the other simply expresses his emotion as a witness to the sacred event below.

There is a remarkable contrast between the group of the apostles, on the one hand, and that of the Duke and his followers, on the other. Justus demonstrates his great talent as a portraitist in the means he finds to express both the ardent faith of the former and the noisy activity of the latter, highlighting their facial expressions by the movement of their hands. He also plays on the contrasts between the simple, even poor clothes of the apostles, and the rich and luxurious apparel of the Duke and his companions. As for Christ, he is shown wearing a grey-blue robe. His disciples are in tunics of various colours - green, light red, yellow and brown. They have fair hair, save for one who is dark, and Judas, who has red hair. This admirable counterpoint of colours is complemented by the greeny blue of the wings of the two angels, that stands out against the dark brown of the apse. It is rare to find a painting from that period that so felicitously combines the demands of both spiritual feeling and realism.