John Byrne spent a long time looking for Jesus.
Having been commissioned to complete Dublin’s Last Supper, the nine-metre-long artwork on Millennium Walk, he was gutted when his original Christ dropped out.
“I originally had a Punjabi Jesus,” the artist says. “Unfortunately, he got a job at the Indian embassy and was forced to cut his long hair and beard.”
Desperate to find his saviour, he eventually spotted Trinity student Kulpreet Singh around the corner in The Winding Stair, casually sipping a coffee.
His project was safe.
In 2003, Byrne, who hails from Belfast, had completed his film Would You Die for Ireland?, in which he conducted a series of interviews with passersby, asking them the titular question.
In December that same year, the artist was approached by curator Clíodhna Shaffrey, who had the artist in mind for a different type of project. Byrne was intrigued.
Hoping to create a centrepiece for the Italian Quarter, developer and independent TD Mick Wallace commissioned Byrne for an artwork loosely based on an Italian theme. Yet the biblical Last Supper was something Byrne had no interest in taking on.
“I had originally thought of doing a triptych, something involving bicycles,” says Byrne. “The Last Supper had been done to death, and so I spent a long time trying to run away from the subject.”
But the image kept coming back to him and in February 2004, he set about finding his apostles. “I spent a month or more looking for people to model,” says Byrne. “It was based on people’s likeness to the da Vinci characters so I’d go around and ask people, ‘Would you like to be this person?’”
With the Renaissance masterpiece always on the brain, the artist was determined to give a “modern feel” to his own Dublinesque version.
To mimic da Vinci, Byrne dressed his models in contemporary garb but made sure their clothes had a medieval style about them. The only exception was Judas, who can be seen sporting the formalwear of the businessman or banker.
Having gathered his apostles and dressed them, Byrne set about capturing the scene.
The artist decorated the length of the table with classical items of food and drink, yet, in keeping with his patron’s well-documented love of football, placed a Juventus jersey in the far right corner.
After the initial dress rehearsal, the models gathered together at a studio in Cow’s Lane where, in just one day, Byrne photographed the various components.
“The finished work is actually an illusion,” says Byrne. “You’ll notice the shadows are all the same because we generally shot in groups of one or two people, the biggest group was three.”
Finding the backdrop for the scene proved difficult until Grainne Shaffrey, sister of Clíodhna and an architect, suggested Byrne check out the down-at-heel church St. Marks, located on Cork Street.
“It was perfect actually,” says Byrne. “The altar was weathered, so we decided to use the recess of the church as the backdrop for the artwork. You’ll notice the odd nettle here and there, which gives it a painterly quality.”
Byrne shot about 20 snaps of each component, which were then scanned in at high resolution before being shipped off to Belgium.
Having uploaded the images onto DVDs, Byrne enlisted the help of Belgian firm Polyvision.
“I was really nervous sending along the images,” says Byrne. “Each time I sent one, I’d called to make sure they’d received the DVD alright.”
Using the same materials as the London Underground signs, Polyvision transposed Byrne’s carefully constructed photographs onto nine large panels of vitreous enamel. They arrived back in Dublin on wooden palettes, without a scratch.
In late July 2004, under Byrne’s supervision, a construction team fenced off the area and set about installing the panels. Now they’re stuck up there securely, “unlikely to fall down anytime soon”, says Byrne, and they can last up to 50 years exposed to sunlight.
Over a decade after completion, the artist is glad to have, as he puts it, “a reference in the city”. Yet not everyone has looked kindly upon the scene.
A few years ago, an elderly gentleman stood up from his café chair and proceeded to hurl a bucket of varnish across the artwork. A panicked waiter from one of the nearby restaurants called Byrne immediately to inform him.
“Luckily, the artwork is graffiti-proof,” says Byrne. “It came off easily enough, with no lasting damage. I guess some people see the work as a form of blasphemy.”
This aticle is part of our Brushing Up series, highlighting artworks around the city. If you have spotted art around Dublin, whether hanging on a pub wall or standing in a park, and want to learn more about its backstory, email us at [email protected]