It matters that photographer Alistair Morrison has chosen Julie Waters to portray St John

Here is something extremely silly that you may have missed. Forgive me for bringing it to you attention. A photographer has “recreated” the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. There is nothing wrong with this per se. However:

Photographer Alistair Morrison said: “My first two choices were Robert Powell who had to be Jesus, recreating the famous role played in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, and Julie Walters, who was asked to play Mary Magdalene (there has been speculation about whether it was Mary Magdalene or John the Apostle who was seated next to Jesus) and they both readily agreed. Their enthusiasm and influence helped to bring together this outstanding group of actors.”

Now let us be really clear about this. The Last Supper is a well-attested historical event, to which all four of the gospels bear witness. There is no doubt from the gospel accounts (which are the only ones that should be credited) that it was John the Evangelist who reclined next to Jesus, and that Mary of Magdala was not present.

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The “speculation” to which Mr Morrison refers, and which has no basis in history or tradition, and which no serious historian or theologian has ever entertained, is of course the fevered imagining of multi-millionaire Dan Brown. Mr Brown’s fantasy that Mary of Magdala was, alone of the women, present at the Last Supper, and that John the Evangelist, alone of the Apostles, was absent, has no basis whatever. It simply makes no sense to see Mary there and John not – which is one reason why no one ever thought of this until Mr Brown did.

Morrison has now decided to photograph a reconstruction of a fresco as imagined by a contemporary novelist, further taking us away from historical reality, by having the John figure played by Julie Walters. St John was traditionally the youngest of the disciples, a beardless boy. Miss Walters is 63.

Does any of this matter? You bet it does. When nonsense like this is allowed to pass, myths are made, and myths have the habit of hardening into false histories. Moreover, behind this process is a pernicious philosphical heresy, which claims that history is anything you want it to be. There are no facts, only interpretations. What really happened is completely lost, can never be recaptured, still less reconstructed. What we are left with is a series of images, each one distorted, and the truth forever beyond our reach. Thus Morrison’s Last Supper, Dan Brown’s, Leonardo’s, or the way you or I see Leonardo’s – each is a valid interpretation, but there is no canonical interpretation that trumps any other. There is in fact no “Last Supper”, just an infinite variety of last suppers.

This is, of course, subjectivism, the mother of all heresies. In opposition to this, Catholics and all people who believe in reason must insist on there being objective facts and facts that can be objectively known. Morrison, like Brown, presents history as infinitely malleable. In a happier age, he and Dan Brown would have had some explaining to do. In our own confused age, both can doubtless gain an admiring audience.

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