When we think about Jesus' Last Supper we imagine Leonardo da Vinci's famous 15th century artwork. One of the most recognizable paintings in human history.
What most people don't know is the very first depiction of Jesus' Last Supper can be found in Calabria, Italy in the ancient city of Rossano in the Cosenza Province.
The Codex is one of the oldest gospels in the world, made more precious by its superb illuminations, masterpieces of Byzantine art. It is part of an independent cycle of illuminations about the life of Christ: the oldest surviving in a Greek manuscript.
It is considered a masterpiece of evangelical literature. It is made up of 188 folios (376 pages) of parchment, containing the gospels of Matthew and almost the entire gospel of Mark, of which only verses 14-22 are missing.
The overall structure of the manuscript testifies that it was made up of two books of the four gospels, preceded by an index of its chapters. We can reckon that the surviving part represents about half of the entire manuscript.
Folios are made of purple-dyed vellum, with some lack of colours due to different factors such as humidity.
The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis is in the international list of rare manuscripts. The “Codex Purpureus Rossanensis Σ” is also known as the Rossanensis. It owes its name "Purpureus" to the reddish colour of its pages.
The text of the Gospels was written in Capital biblical, a kind of graphical forms dating to II A.D, becoming more used in the III century up to the IX Century.
The illuminations of the Codex are fourteen, twelve of them represent events from the life of Christ (the resurrection of Lazarus, the entry into Jerusalem, Jesus confronting the high priests and the cleansing of the temple, the parable of the ten virgins, the last supper and the foot washing, the communion of the apostles, Christ in the Gethsemane Garden, the healing of the blind born man, the parable of the good Samaritan, the trial in front of Pontius Pilate, the choice between Christ and Barabbas) one is the title page of the canons, and the last is a portrait of the evangelist Mark, which occupies the entire page.
All the illuminations were painted on a less thick parchment, despite the one used for the gospels, a different purple dye was applied to it. The thick parchment was a solid base for the colours, while the more opaque paints were used to avoid that the illuminations could be seen through the other side of the folio. The manuscript is structured in a way the either the illuminations and the texts are grouped separately.
The Codex Purpuresus Rossanensis has an extraordinary importance on the biblical, religious, artistic, paleographical and historical side. A documentary heritage which is the symbol of a region, Calabria, a crossroad between eastern and western culture.
The Codex was created in a Byzantine scriptorium, in Syria as claims the majority of scholars. Other theories are still under discussion, but the geographical area was, without any doubt, part of the Eastern Roman Empire. The reddish color of its pages is typical of the imperial Byzantine family.
The Codex is dated between V and VI century by the majority of historians of Byzantine art and paleographers. How it arrived in Rossano is still uncertain, probably during the diffusion of the Byzantinism in Calabria and in the south of Italy, connected to the spread of Monachism.
The Codex arrived in the VIII century, along with the basilian monks, from Constantinople or Egypt or from Islamic north Africa.
New theories claim that the Codex arrived in town when Rossano became Diocese, in the X century, which also marks the moment of highest splendor for the city.
The presence of the Codex is documented with certainty from 1831, when Scipione Camporata, reordered and numbered with a pen the illuminations, a few years before the mention by the Neapolitan journalist Cesare Malpica (1845) and the introduction to the scientific community by the Germans Adolf von Harnack and Oscar von Gebhardt (1883)
Probably traces of its presence can be recognized in a complaint against the Archbishop Mons Adeodati (1697 - 1713) accused of having burnt Greek texts with illuminations, belonging to the Cathedral. Actually the Archbishop was following the rules given by the counter reform, aiming at renewing liturgy, but traces of burn in the last pages of the Codex, make one think that it suffered during such fires.
Today that Codex has been recognized as a World heritage by UNESCO, and inscribed in the section memory of the world on October 9, 2015.