‘Is It I’? A Maundy Thursday Drama

‘Is It I’? A Maundy Thursday Drama May 29, 2024

It was 1495, not long after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, that Leonardo Da Vinci now 50, yes that Leonardo of all the incredible inventions and the famous Mona Lisa, was asked to paint a wall in Milan in a convent church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and since it was the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza who asked and was doing the commissioning, even Leonardo could hardly say no.  But what Da Vinci did was hardly typical. He decided to paint Jesus and the 12 just after Jesus dropped the bombshell— ‘One of you is going to betray me’.  So what you see is the disciples asking Jesus and each other— ‘Is it I?’   You also see in the left hand part of the picture an elderly Peter asking the Beloved Disciple who sits next to Jesus ‘Ask Him who he meant’.  Da Vinci was not striving for historical verisimilitude.  The disciples did not sit at a long rectangular table and you will notice they each have small glasses and bite-sized bits of bread— there is no chalice, nor is there a big loaf being broken by Jesus and handed out.

But this provocative painting provoked Ernest K. Emurian, a Methodist pastor in Portsmouth Va. in the 1950s to create a play entitled ‘Is It I?’  It premiered in 1954.  It involves some very interesting reflection and speculation  about what each member of the 12 might have been thinking of himself when Jesus spoke of his betrayal by one of the 12.   We had this play performed March 28th on Maundy Thursday, and it was indeed a powerful drama, put on by the men in our church.

But my point today is drawing attention to this drama is to point out this– if we ask the ultimate cause of Jesus’ death, the answer is not Caiaphas or Jews in general or Pontius Pilate, but rather sin, and that means all of us– since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  I was sharing with my Jewish friend and NT colleague Amy-Jill Levine and she said good— she is more than tired of the medieval Passion plays that blame Jews in general for the death of  Jesus.  And frankly, each one of us should realize we do have some responsibility for why Jesus needed to die.

When I was last in Milan, I went to see Da Vinci’s painting which was under restoration. Part of the problem, as you will see below is that the painting was done on a wall that has undulations and in fact an arch!   Bad choice….


The image had faded badly, and has had to be restored more than once….

Art does not have to be historically representational to be historically suggestive in helpful ways, as this painting is, and in any case every painting is already an individual’s interpretation of a scene.

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