The glance of the observer falls immediately on the slave’s arm stretching out as she offers lupins. Her gesture almost obscuring the table behind her. The table, placed in its diagonal position, allows the Holy Spirit to spread throughout the canvas. The Last Supper, preserved at San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, is remarkable not only for its pictorial wisdom but more so for society’s sacredness that the Reformation tried to convert. Even if she is the last character in the foreground at the bottom of the stage just before the dog under the table, she’s telling the most significant story. One hand is giving, the other taking.
Tintoretto would not be the greatest Venetian painter if he only painted still life paintings with drinkers at trattorias; his entire work suggests a dialogue between ancient times and present day. The basket is not just a place to snoop in, as the beautiful striped cat does, but is also the container that the disciples of Jesus used to collect leftovers so that nothing would be lost from the multiplication of the loaves.
The basis of the miracle is the Christian secret is: you have to give in order to receive.
Only those who have something can give and, as we can see in the painting, only two people make such a gesture out of love: Jesus and the Slave. This dialogue, with its origins from the Christian Era, is clear in the reading of Lc 22, 27: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.». This short dialogue, perpendicular to the ranks of the apostles, indicates the correct key to the reading Tintoretto’s piety: the faith of the common, of the superstitious and of the simpletons.
The two guardians of the garden of widows, Vasilisa and Luker’ja, are supported by the same faith, making them co-protagonists of the tale of Čechov’s The student.
To those who accused him of being plaintive, dark and cold, Čechov replied: “I, the Pessimist? Do you know which is my favourite among the recounts? The Student…”.
Besides the biography and the immediate literal references, like Crime and Punishment and the impressionism of Turgenev, what makes the revolution of Ivan Velikopol’skij (a student of the clerical academy) indelible is his passage from tragedy to comedy, from famine and cold to satiety and warmth.
The religious fasting on Fridays is not enough to bear the reflections on chief world systems, especially when the religious form hides an intolerance towards reality, namely the pessimism inflicted upon Čechov.
Fasting during Good Friday is not enough to understand the meanings of chief systems when poverty is added to hunger and sadness to cold. And «all these horrors had always existed, existed then [in the time of Rjurik, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great] and they would always have been there, and even if another thousand years had passed, life would not have improved». This is the tragedy, the Obscure Night. In Čechov, like in Tintoretto, the reality is not a sketch that captures a snapshot of barbarism, but it’s always the beginning and endpoint of true knowledge; wiser than King Solomon: the light of good tidings!
Čechov was kept by the same mad love for the Gospels as his illustrious predecessors but he couldn’t repeat what had already been said by Dostoevsky in the Karamazov, nor be just a student of Tolstoy and his resettlement of the four Gospels. The reason is that only those who are capable of loving as Chekhov did, can write as Chekhov did. Only those who are able to write a book like The Island of Sakhalin can say that they have understood the human being without prejudice.
Ivan, the student, is a modern-day Peter in love, who is afraid and who denies his love. He is a young man who follows the Light from afar and cries bitterly. Yet, near the fire and the garden of the widows, the two women do not condemn his despair but let him warm up; so that this gesture of love can make him relive ancient times when the earth still rejoiced in His presence.
Now, just as in Tintoretto’s time and in that of Chekhov, only the storytelling and the listening remain. And when a student of theology meets a woman willing to listen and sob, like the tall and fat Vasilisa, then pain and suffering turn to joy. That is why “if the old woman had started to cry, it was not because his story had been moving, but because of Peter’s affinity towards her, and because she, with all her being, participated in what had happened in Peter’s soul.”
This is the comedy, Chekhov’s response to pessimism, the sense of the effort to read history because history does not repeat itself. It is rather the story that continues uninterruptedly: “The past is linked to the present by an uninterrupted chain of events that spring from one another. He seemed to have seen, shortly before, the two leaders of that chain: as soon as he had touched one of the two extremes, the other had vibrated. “
The transition from cyclic nature to uninterrupted continuity is the distance that separates pain from joy, tragedy from comedy: the offering of lupins as a modern eucharist, the listening and commotion as a new apostolate, in a continuous and uninterrupted gesture of love that eradicates violence.