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The Institution of the Eucharist
Ercole de' Roberti
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Jesus sits at the head of the table, surrounded by his disciples, holding up a piece of bread, which he blesses: this is the Last Supper. Ercole’s skill at painting detail on a small scale is clear: each disciple has a different facial expression, and the transparent glasses, the carafes and the morsels of bread on the table are painted like a tiny still life.

This small panel has an unusual dual function. It was the central panel of a predella – the lowest part of an altarpiece – but evidence of a keyhole suggests that it was also the door of a hidden container housing the bread eaten at Mass. The image is appropriate for such a container, often known as a tabernacle, because at the Last Supper Jesus taught his disciples to eat bread and wine in memory of him, a rite that later became the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. To the panel’s right was Ercole’s The Israelites gathering Manna.

Key facts
Artist Ercole de' Roberti
Artist dates active 1479; died 1496
Full title The Institution of the Eucharist
Series Two Panels from a Predella
Date made probably 1490s
Medium and support Egg on wood
Dimensions 29.8 x 21 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1882
Inventory number NG1127
Location in Gallery Room 54
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Two Panels from a Predella

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The Institution of the Eucharist and The Israelites gathering Manna were once part of a predella – a row of scenes along the base of an altarpiece – made for the church of San Domenico in Ferrara. The main panel showed Christ after his death, lying on his grieving mother’s lap, surrounded by mourners. Two of these figures are portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara. The altarpiece may have been made to commemorate the death of the Duchess, who had a particular interest in the Corpus Christi (‘body of Christ’), especially its celebration at the Eucharist. The predella probably concealed a container for the bread of the Eucharist, disguised by the image of the Last Supper, which also functioned as the container’s door. The story of the Israelites gathering manna – a heavenly ‘bread’ that fed them during their travels in the wilderness before reaching Israel – was often interpreted as a forerunner of the ‘heavenly bread’ of Christ’s body.

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