On the western wall of Greystone chapel within Folsom state prison hangs a mural painting. A reconstruction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s "Last Supper," painted by a Folsom inmate nearly a century ago. The faces, those of other convicts the inmate artist was serving time with, adorn the bodies of the twelve disciples who surround the central Jesus figure as they react to the news of his imminent betrayal.
The mural, cracked, torn, and tattered, hangs as a testimony to the cracked, torn, and tattered life of the prisoner who painted it, and to those of the prisoners who gaze upon it. Its theme of participatory and shared suffering while perhaps ignored, repressed, mocked, laughed at, and scorned by those elements of society with the material luxury to do so, is a source of comfort, meaning, and integrity to those inmates of Folsom and all the rest of a struggling humanity who know no such luxury.
While the Da Vinci original is an idealized replication of what was most likely a very unsettling event, perhaps its iconic beauty and its visually soothing aesthetic serve a purpose not easily served: how to give expression to the inherent beauty and utter sublimity that awaits the other side of suffering.
How does powerlessness become empowering? How does death create life? How does poverty create an unheard-of wealth beyond measure? How does a marginalized, outcast Jew from Nazareth become the symbol and way to a new life in God for his marginalized and outcast followers?
How does a criminal, a prisoner, an incorrigible drain upon the financial resource of the peaceful citizens of California, recreate a centuries-old painting and thereby bring comfort, meaning and integrity to the tens of thousands of misguided, dejected, and marginalized souls who have come to gaze upon its splendor within the walls of Folsom State Prison?
Such is the mystery that defies all reason. Such is the peace that surpasses all understanding.
Josh Gilmore is a prisoner at Folsom Prison and a Centering Prayer practitioner, and a member of the Prison Contemplative Fellowship. He is an important part of a Sunday morning Centering Prayer group. He has written several pieces for the book Finding God Within: Contemplative Prayer for Prisoners.