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Dori Watts
Professor Heiniger
World Masterpieces
April 26, 2015
Heroics in the Arabian Nights and the Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and the famous Arabian Nights seem incomparable, but
they share many qualities. Both tell the story of a hero through techniques each admirer
interoperates differently. Emotion, frameworks, heroics, and foreshadowing are key points
addressed by both masterpieces. The visual techniques in da Vinci’s painting reflect many of the
literary methods in the Arabian Nights.
The Last Supper tells an important story in Christianity – the crucifixion of Jesus. One of
the most important things that happened at the last supper (capitalized?) was Jesus saying “one
of you will betray me” (Mark 14:18). The scene is supposedly the reaction to these words. Judas,
the betrayer, is seen holding a bag of silver because he was paid by the Romans to be disloyal to
Jesus. Jesus was then crucified to save the sinful people of Earth. However, he was then
resurrected to demonstrate the forgiveness of God. Jesus was clearly the hero in the story the
painting portrays because he sacrificed himself for the sake of others.
The Arabian Nights tells how a woman, in times dominated by the man, proved herself a
hero through storytelling. It all started out with a man who murdered his wife for being
unfaithful. He ran to his brother’s palace in distress only to discover his wife also having an
affair too. So, they killed her and the slaves involved in the orgy and ran away. The two brothers
ran into a gin with a woman in a glass box. When released, the woman forced the men to have
sex with her then stole their rings to keep as a souvenir. When they returned to the kingdom, the
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king declared all women unfaithful and useless, then demanded to marry and kill one each day.
Then Shahrazad came along with a plan to save the women of the nation. She married the king
and stayed alive by beginning a story each night and not finish it, so the king would be forced to
keep her alive in order to hear the end. It is the legend that she was married to him for one
thousand and one nights, hence the title of the collection of stories. Shahrazad is the hero of this
extensive collection of tales because she risked her life to save others through her bravery an
One of many techniques in the painting is the use of body language. Aside from how it
looks, it helps viewers understand the history because the body language conveys many instances
of foreshadowing. Judas is a main example: because he is holding silver, it is known that he is
the one who will betray (“Leonardo, Last Supper”). Also, his neck is in a strange position, which
foreshadows that he will later hang himself out of guilt (“Leonardo, Last Supper”). Jesus,
however, is separated everyone, which shows he will die alone. Another neat aspect: all of the
disciples are separated into group of three, which represents the idea of the holy trinity. The body
positions portray the personality of the members at the table as well. For example, John, directly
to the left of Jesus, is calm, and Peter is ready to defend Jesus, seen with a knife behind his back
(“Leonardo, Last Supper”). Da Vinci uses body language to help tell the story of the hero
without using words.
Like in every painting, the spaces in the Last Supper are intentional and meaningful.
First, there is only enough room for Jesus and his disciples in the scene, meaning viewers are not
invited to the dinner. However, it feels as if onlookers are in the room, observing. The ceiling
and walls show the extensive yet skilled use of perspective lines. They lead to the head of Jesus,
again pointing out that he is the most important person at the table. The spaces also help unite the
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earthly and divine – Jesus is alone in the center but still with twelve other people (“Leonardo,
Last Supper”). It seems simple, but it holds infinite significance in the scene. Da Vinci used the
spacing in an innovative way, showing the Last Supper to be simple but incredibly important.
The Arabian Nights utilizes spaces, too. They are used to separate social status,
civilization and animalistic qualities, gender, and the real and imaginary realms. Most stories
involve kings. They almost always live in palaces, which separate them completely from the
people. Shahrazad includes these in her stories to show the king that he needs to better
understand his people. Shahryar discovers his brother’s wife having an orgy in the palace
courtyard. This separates the civilized from the uncivilized, because a queen having an orgy with
slaves was considered borderline animalistic. When Shahryar and his brother came across the
gin, he was carrying a woman in a glass box with four locks on it. This symbolizes the way
women were treated – property of men. The glass aspect provided no privacy for her because
anything she did the gin needed to know about. The four locks represent her belonging to him
because it ensures she can never escape. In the story of the merchant, he owes his life to a demon
who resides in a spooky woods. This separates the real and imaginary places. Monsters and scary
creatures live in undesirable places, like the dark woods. Each space plays a critical part in its
respective story, making it an important theme in the Arabian Nights.
For the stories to live on for centuries, they had to be pleasing and memorable to the
audience. Repetition was a big part in oral tradition to appeal to the listeners. “Repetitive
designation creates…an effect…of casual foreshadowing and allows the audience the pleasure of
recognition at that later moment when the object reappears and proves significant” (Pinault 1718). The audience likes to feel smart, and repetition makes it easy and natural to follow the story.
“Taken together the phrasing and rhyme-form recall the oral performance within which the
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Nights evolved” (Pinault 15). The way it is written reflects its oral history. The popular version
today edited by Daniel Heller-Roazen is a great source because it took stories for both oral and
written sources: “This particular composer drew on both written sources and the oral
performances of professional storytellers. The two influences…should be…in mind when
evaluation [the Arabian Nights]” (Pinault 12). The techniques used for centuries, like repetition,
are what have kept the tales alive and studied today.
Although the Last Supper is known around the world, it is in terrible condition.
Humidity, dust, and the materials used by da Vinci himself have made it impossible to remain
well-kept (“Leonardo, Last Supper”). The two major renovations that have been done to keep it
preserved for hundreds of years are to keep da Vinci’s genius techniques alive. His use of space,
vanishing point, and the body positions help tell the story behind the scene. Techniques used in
the Last Supper and the Arabian Nights have kept the masterpieces alive for centuries because of
their thoughtfulness and effectiveness.
The frameworks in the collection of stories are intricate and strategic. Shahrazad, a gifted
storyteller, uses frameworks for many reasons, one being as a life saver. The longer and more
complicated the story, the longer she stays alive because the king desires resolutions to each tale.
Apart from that, each story come with a moral. Common morals include freedom, showing
mercy, and fairness. In one story, the king may be unknowingly absorbing three to four morals
because of the frameworks. Shahrazad is not only trying to stay married to the king, but teach the
king to stop his unfair behavior toward the women in his kingdom. For example, the Story of the
Fisherman and the Demon includes five more tales in it: the Tale of King Yunan and the Sage
Duban, the Tale of the Husband and the Parrot, the King’s Son and the She-Ghoul, and the Tale
of the Enchanted King. The overall summary of the story is that a poor fisherman finds a genie
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who tells him to fish in a nearby lake that is actually a kingdom. The king finds out and sets out
to find out the mystery and saves the kingdom. In the end, the fisherman ends up rich and
everyone lives happily ever after. The purposes of the stories within the Story of the Fisherman
are to touch on morals. In this case, the fisherman was explaining the genie why it was unwise to
trust him, so he told a story that he heard about a man who trusted too much and it backfired.
Frameworks were used as a storytelling technique to fulfill a purpose Shahrazad set out to
achieve – to save women and teach the king a lesson of respect.
Similarly, there are many instances for framing in the Last Supper. Jesus is framed by a
window behind him, which helps him stand out more. Interestingly, he is also surrounded by
triangles – there is one formed on each side of him and Jesus himself is a triangular shape. This
reflects the idea of the holy trinity, which was popular in da Vinci’s time (“Leonardo, Last
Supper”). Leonardo is a Renaissance artist, and in that time period, Christianity was spreading
throughout Europe, making it a popular topic in art. This again highlights the importance of
Jesus because he is in the center of the painting and the framing makes him stand out. Framing is
also evident on the ceiling, in the windows, and the long dinner table. This clearly parallels the
framework in the story: there is the crucifixion of Jesus, Judas’s betrayal, how the bread and
wine is in use, and how each disciple is involved. The framing used in the painting help viewers
understand the complexity of the story behind the scene.
Many features that serve to keep the group of stories remembered, like repetition, are
useful because they evoke emotion in the audience. “Recurrent vocabulary, repeated gestures,
accumulations of descriptive phrases around selected objects: such patterns guide the audience in
picking out [what is] important in the flow of the narrative” (Pinault 22). Yes, these help the
readers understand, but it also helps them form an emotional bond to the heroics displayed in the
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story. Tales effectively portray Shahrazad’s bravery and courage; the audience loves her because
she did something unimaginable for women at the time. This makes for the emotion of
empowerment for the women – Shahrazad was their hero. The hero of the story forms a bond
with the audience, helping the stories carry on through centuries.
Emotion is also inspired in elements in the painting like lines and gestures. It is evident
that Jesus is the hero because he is calm, unlike those surrounding him. The disciples are clearly
in distress. This induces mystery – viewers wonder what happened to create that reaction. The
many questions left unanswered make onlookers hungry for more information, which is why the
techniques are genius. Da Vinci’s mural make viewers curious, which is why it has been
preserved for centuries.
Literary devices in the stories help the imagery flow and become vivid in the reader’s
mind. In the Arabian Nights, metaphors and similes are used constantly to keep listeners
interested. EXAMPLE/S. Another example is hyperbole. Each story gets increasingly intense.
This is mostly to keep the king interested, but in each story, there is a reason as well. For
example, in the Story of the Merchant and the Demon, three merchants told stories and were
each granted one third of a man’s life who was owned by the demon. However, for the demon to
pity each man enough, his story had be more sad and memorable than the last one. The first man
told the tragic story of how his wife was turned into the deer he has with him. The next man, who
was accompanied by two dogs, told of how the dogs were his brothers. The stories were
heartbreaking enough for the demon to pity them. These literary elements add to the emotion and
interest of the listeners, creating a memorable experience.
Another theme in the Arabian Nights is the significance of gender. The overarching story
is of a man who felt he was treated unfairly so he feels it necessary to murder women. In today’s
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society this would unmistakably not be acceptable. That is where Shahrazad earns her merit. In
her time, it was common practice to not have a place in society. Many women grew scared and
simply followed the norm. However, Shahrazad recognized the severity of the situation and took
matters into her own hands. She took a major risk by marrying the king knowing he was
expecting to murder her as soon as possible. She stuck to a plan of storytelling and succeeded.
The heroics she demonstrated were truly breakthrough, and that is why she is remembered today.
In the Last Supper, gender roles and feminism are not a theme. However, it is evident that
women were still viewed as unimportant during the Renaissance. At the table, there is Jesus and
his twelve male disciples, who were seen as the most important people at the time. The story in
the Bible is followed in the painting, but it did not have a whole lot of female heroes either, and
it was worshipped all around Europe during the Renaissance. Therefore, these ideals are what
people looked up to. Gender roles are not a theme specifically in the painting, but it gives an idea
of what the society was like in the time it was created.
The painting and the stories in the Arabian Nights are two different mediums that come
from different time periods and different cultures. But, the themes present in both can be
relatable. The heroics present, the emotion involved, and the mystery behind them relate the two.
They are both memorable for these reasons, and have lasted for centuries.
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Works Cited
Da Vinci, Leonardo. Last Supper. 1498. Tempera and oil on plaster. Santa Maria Della Grazie,
Harris, Beth, and Zucker, Steven. “Leonardo, Last Supper.” Online video clip. Khan Academy,
2015. 25 April, 2015.
Heller-Roazen, Daniel. The Arabian Nights. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.
“Leonardo, Last Supper.” Khan Academy. 2015. Web. 25 April, 2015.
Pinault, David. Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights. Leiden, the Netherlands: E.J.
Brill, 1992. Web.

Watts Dori Watts Professor Heiniger World Masterpieces April 26