The Last Supper

copyright © 1994 Joseph Tiberino
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The gang's all here and Tiberino picked up the tab
by Clark DeLeon THE SCENE
Thursday, March 31st, 1994, The Philadelphia Inquirer

One of the dumbest, no-brainer, duh-you-don't-say observations I ever heard came from my own lips a couple of years ago, during my first tour of the artwork displayed in the West Philadelphia's Piazza del Tiberino, the outdoor artist's compound sandwiched between four rowhouses on Spring Garden and a red brick victorian twin on the 3800 block of Hamilton.

On display in the piazza, more commonly known as Joe Tiberino's back yard, are his original paintings with names like Christ on South Street and Multiple Crucifixions of Man and Madonna and Child. There are a crown of thorns in oil here, a stigmata in acrylic there, and, standing in the center of the compound, the curving wooden pulpit that once dominated the front of St. Agatha's, the nearby Catholic Church building that has since gone condo.

After synthesizing all this, I blurted the following sage observation: "You know, you have a lot of religious images in your work." "You think so?" replied Tiberino in a voice so deadpan that it took me a week to fully appreciate just how big a dope I had sounded like.

To say that religious themes run through Joe Tiberino's paintings is like saying that water from the Schuylkill runs through Philadelphia. Religion is the deep and winding river that shapes and defines Joe Tiberino's art and life.

And he takes the word of his religion into cathedrals and dives alike. One of his earlier paintings, Christ in the Park, depicted Jesus at an anti-war demonstration in 1969, hung in the Philadelphia Museam of Art next to a painting by Andrew Wyeth. His most recent canvas currently hangs in Dirty Frank's bar next to a framed drawing of the Crucifixion by Tiberino's 10-year-old son, Gabriel.

It was only a matter of time before Tiberino took on the task of painting the Last Supper, and when he did, he decided to invite guests for dinner. It took the Philadelphia-born and trained artist seven months to complete this 12-by-8-foot canvas depicting a contemporary Jesus, dressed in a striped rugby shirt, breaking bread with his 12 original followers plus assorted women, children, bouncers, panhandlers, minstrels, caterers, and dog. There are 22 human figures in the painting. "The figures are life-size or slightly larger than life," Tiberino said yesterday while discussing the piece with some of the diciples gathered in front of the canvas hanging on the barroom wall at 13th and Pine Streets.

Disciples? Apostles, actually- some of the less than saintly men Joe asked to sit as models for the Apostles in his depiction of the Last Supper. "It took me a long time to cast the characters I wanted for the Apostles," Joe said to the dopey newspaper columnist whose likeness represents one of the more obscure Apostles, St. Bartholomew the Beer Pourer. Other Apostle models include a priest, and accountant, a retired public school pricipal, a critical care nurse, a Jehovah's Witness and a college administrator.

Unlike the tense scene at the moment of betrayal in Leonardo DaVinci's famous rendering, Tiberino's Last Supper shows a cheerfiully rowdy crew chowing down on turkey, shish kabob, pizza- pizza?!- and bread rolls. "I don't think the guys realize what's about to happen," Tiberino said. "To them, it was just another seder, not the last."

The central figure of Christ, the only figure not based on an actrual person, is haloed by a window frame and has just called for his Apostle's attention. Jesus appears to have St. John in a playful headlock and could have just finished giving the youngest Apostle a noogie. Doubting Thomas, brilliantly cast as Philadelphia Community College English teacher Van Youngman, looks on in disbelief.

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