The Last Supper’s Upper Room in Early Christian Art
The traditional location of the Upper Room, a site featured in the New Testament Gospels, is today placed on the southern end of Mount Zion in Jerusalem close by the Church of the Dormition and the traditional house of Caiaphas. Thousands of Christian pilgrims visit the site each year, venerating it as the place where Jesus had his last supper with his disciples (Mark 14:14–15), where he reappeared to them after his death (inferred from Luke 24:33, 36; John 20:19, 26), and where the first community of believers gathered together to await the arrival of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:13).
Historians and archaeologists have debated for more than a century whether the traditional location is historically accurate and exactly what the current building represents.1 Some suggest that the current Upper Room structure (with the Tomb of David below) is the surviving remnant of the southeast corner of a Byzantine church constructed in the late fourth century specifically to commemorate the events associated with the Upper Room in the New Testament. This church was known as Hagia Sion (Holy Zion), and, throughout its history, featured many Christian relics and commemorative shrines.
Others think that the oldest remains of the traditional Upper Room on Mount Zion are from a stand-alone building that predated the Byzantine church beside it. How long the Upper Room might have existed before the construction of Hagia Sion is debated. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the original building was constructed by the early Jewish-Christian community of the first or second century C.E.
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A number of early Christian reproductions of Jerusalem reveal a distinct structure beside the Hagia Sion church. There is good reason to identify this as the Upper Room.
Perhaps the most important and one of the earliest artistic depictions of the Upper Room appears in the mosaic from the Church of St. George in Madaba, Jordan. Long appreciated for its early (560–565 C.E.) representation of the Holy Land, the mosaic features a detailed map of Jerusalem. The city is shown with the north side facing left. Running across the mid-section is the Cardo Maximus (main street) created by the Romans after the second Jewish revolt in 132 C.E. At the southern end (right side) are two sacred structures identified by their red roofs. The larger building to the left is universally identified as Hagia Sion. The smaller structure with the sloping roof immediately to its right might represent the Upper Room. These two buildings are located exactly where the Upper Room is today: on the southern end of Mount Zion. (Mount Zion was enclosed by Jerusalem’s walls at the time the mosaic was created.)
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Some scholars suggest this smaller building is a diaconicon, that is, the right wing of a cruciform basilical church. However, there is no corresponding left wing (prothesis) to form the crucifix shape.2 Also, it is clearly disconnected. Another suggestion is that the building is a monastery. Yet, no other monastery on the mosaic is depicted with a red roof, only churches. Further, there is no evidence of a monastery there in the sixth century. The best interpretation is that the structure represents the Upper Room.
Around the time the Madaba mosaic was being fashioned, another mosaic was completed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Once again, we can see the Cardo Maximus of Jerusalem, this time extending beyond what is likely the Damascus (or St. Stephen’s) Gate in Jerusalem’s northern city wall. Within the walls are a number of structures. The front buildings, again with red or red-tinged roofs, probably represent the fourth-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in its two parts: the round rotunda of the Anastasis (Resurrection) and the rectangular Martyrium to its right. Behind these structures, however, stand what is likely the Hagia Sion church and the Upper Room to its right, notable for its sloping red roof—just as it is depicted in the Madaba mosaic. In the Santa Maria Maggiore mosaic, these two buildings stand at the southern end of the city opposite the northern gate, right where they appear in the Madaba mosaic.
Another sixth-century depiction of what is likely the Upper Room can be found in the so-called Rossano Gospels, an illuminated manuscript from Calabria, Italy. In typical fashion, Christ is shown about to enter Jerusalem riding a donkey amid adoring crowds. The gate which Christ approaches appears to be in the southern wall of the city, contrary to a number of other depictions in which the gate is located in the eastern wall near the Temple. Above the wall in this illumination, more well-wishers reach out the windows of a two-story building. The overall effect suggests that the gate is located on Mount Zion and the building (or the lean-to extension on the left) is the Upper Room (note the red roof). Behind this is likely the domed Anastasis of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre toward the north.
A wooden lintel, perhaps carved in the sixth century (though the date is disputed) and found in Egypt, has been identified as originating in the Hanging Church (al-Muallaqa) of Cairo. The carving shows Christ atop a donkey (which looks more like a galloping steed!). The architectural feature on his left suggests Christ has already entered the city. Some scholars have identified this structure as the Hanging Church with the columns to the right indicating the interior aisle.3
Another interpretation posits that the crowds are standing along the colonnaded Cardo Maximus of Jerusalem. The building to the left of Christ has a slanted roof like that of the Upper Room depicted in the Madaba and Santa Maria Maggiore mosaics. The structure has a door on the bottom floor and a window on the second. Behind the building is a curved arch, possibly representing the gate (Zion Gate) leading to the cardo. Recent archaeological investigations have shown just such a road passing through the walls on Mount Zion.
The Rossano manuscript and the Al-Muallaqa lintel represent an early stage in the artistic depictions of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem via a southern gate. Later representations from the Middle Ages are more elaborate but keep similar features. An example is Pietro Lorenzetti’s fresco from the 14th century that contains a two-story structure inside the city walls, which I identify as the Upper Room. Birds (perhaps doves) are seen above the gate as well as above and in front of the structure itself, perhaps indicating the place where the Holy Spirit alit upon the early church community.
Behind the Upper Room is an octagonal structure (the Hagia Sion had long been destroyed by this time). If it is meant to be the Dome of the Rock, then the city gate is perhaps meant to be on the east side of Jerusalem near the Temple Mount. The Islamic influence might be responsible for the roundels along the top of the Upper Room. At this time, the Mamluks had appropriated many Christian buildings. If this structure is not meant to represent the Upper Room, it is difficult to surmise what building the artist had in mind.
Earliest of all of these artistic representations is a sculpture from a fourth-century sarcophagus, once featured in the defunct Lateran Christian Museum in Rome. On the right of this scene, Christ either heals the woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:25) or comforts Mary Magdalene after his resurrection (Matthew 28:9–10; John 20:17). But it is with the buildings behind them that we are concerned.4 It is possible that either the building next to the fig tree (note the lean-to structure on the left side) or the small two-story building in the middle represents the Upper Room. If the scene on the right is, in fact, meant to depict the risen Christ with Mary Magdalene, then its proximity to this latter building may reflect the belief that Christ appeared to his disciples in the Upper Room.
Taken together, these artistic representations give compelling evidence that the Upper Room once stood adjacent to the Byzantine church of Hagia Sion and likely existed before the latter was constructed—and certainly existed afterward. Historians and archaeologists cannot afford to dismiss this evidence. All of the testimonies—archaeological, literary, and artistic—must be taken into account before a complete and compelling history of the Upper Room can be written.
David Christian Clausen is an Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and teaches courses in early Christianity.
1. For more on the Upper Room, see David Christian Clausen, The Upper Room and Tomb of David: The History, Art and Archaeology of the Cenacle on Mount Zion (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016)
2. The only potential example of such an unbalanced Byzantine church is the Church of the Forty Martyrs of Cappadocia in Nokalakevi (or Nakolakevi, aka Archaeopolis), Georgia.
3. Helen C. Evans and Brandie Ratliff, eds., Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th-9th Century (New Haven: Yale University Press/New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012), p. 71. These authors date the lintel to the eighth century, but the date on the carving is damaged and must be inferred. László Török, Transfigurations of Late Antique Art in Egypt AD 250-700 (Leiden: Brill, 2005), p. 358, considers the sixth century a justifiable date.
4. According to the late scholar John Henry Parker, the buildings depicted in the sarcophagus are the same as those in the background of a fourth-century mosaic at Santa Pudenziana in Rome. See John Henry Parker, Tombs in and Near Rome: Sculpture among the Greeks and Romans, Mythology in Funereal Sculpture and Early Christian Sculpture (Oxford: J. Parker, 1877), p. 310. Other scholars have suggested that the buildings represented at Santa Pudenziana are the churches in Jerusalem. It is my belief, however, that the mosaic at Santa Pudenziana depicts neither the Hagia Sion nor the Upper Room, but rather the three churches built by Constantine.
This post originally appeared in Bible History Daily on April 8, 2020.
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