It's the Last Supper for Ragnar, and everyone might be Judas.

By Darren Franich
December 17, 2015 at 01:24 AM EST
History Channel
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History’s Vikings is returning Feb. 18, but for fans who can’t wait, EW is excited to share an exclusive look at the new season: A Last Supper-inspired piece of key art featuring the show’s cast. Vikings creator/writer-of-every-episode Michael Hirst offers an in-depth look at the artwork. Click on the image above for a full-sized view, and read Hirst’s tantalizing teases for the season ahead, below:

History Channel

A picture of the Last Supper portraying pagan Vikings in the role of Christ and his apostles may seem, to some, very controversial. But I would say, if nothing else, it emphasizes the centrality of belief systems and spirituality in the show. We are addressing that conflict between Christianity and paganism.

So many Renaissance artists painted a version of the Last Supper because of art starting to perform a new function. The depict human and emotional dilemmas using this motif, the image of prophesied betrayal. All the figures in these paintings are concentrated around the words: “One of you will betray me.” I think that’s the key to understanding this image that we have from the show. It’s exactly the same issue that’s being confronted.

Looking at this, there are at least four people in this picture who’ve already betrayed Ragnar. And there are two people who are going to betray him again.

We start with Ragnar, the central, Christlike character in a study of prophesied betrayal. He sits on a throne, looking straight out of the picture.

It’s interesting that his oldest son Bjorn doesn’t even have a place at the table. Does that suggest that he might be excluded from the succession? He seems to be whispering earnestly in his father’s ear. Could be he whispering a warning about who might betray Ragnar?

Lagertha sits on Ragnar’s left. So Bjorn is standing behind his parents, and this makes a family triangle. This is the central relationship which goes right back to the beginning of the show, and has continued through four seasons, one way or another, to remain central. Lagertha is also looking straight ahead. She is not visually engaged with any other character in the picture — not even Kalf, who loves her, and saved her life in Paris. This reinforces the image of Lagertha as a very strong and independent-minded woman.

She is surrounded by three powerful men — her ex-husband, who is now a king; her current lover, who is an earl; and her son, who is already a famous warrior. But the picture seems to be saying that she doesn’t need them or depend on them. She is already her own woman.

By contrast, Kalf is staring at her fixedly and unashamedly. He is a man in love. He is not engaged with anyone else, even Ragnar. So perhaps it suggests he may not be the one who is going to betray Ragnar.

Queen Aslaug, Ragnar’s wife, sits on the right side of him, a position sometimes occupied by Judas Iscariot in Renaissance paintings of the Last Supper. Her body language is very interesting. She is turned, almost deliberately, away from Ragnar — suggesting, at least, that their marriage is cold and loveless.

Sitting on her knee is her crippled son, Ivar. It was Ivar who Ragnar left outside to die as a baby, but who Aslaug saved. It’s clear she still has a very close and protective attitude toward the boys. She is still, in fact, protecting him from Ragnar, by turning her back on the king.

We might remember she has already betrayed Ragnar by sleeping with the wanderer, Harbard. And, at the end of season 3, she coldly ordered the murder of the Christian convert. Could it be that her role in the dramas ahead will be darker and more unexpected?

Floki, sitting next to her, seems to think so. His finger is pointed, almost accusingly, at Aslaug. Perhaps he is wondering what she will do next. Or just, perhaps, he is wondering if he is going to develop some relationship with her, now that she seems to have turned more Viking. This interpretation is bolstered by the way young Ivar is staring at Floki, with clear fascination.

We remember, too, that Floki has also effectively betrayed Ragnar by murdering the beloved monk Athelstan. We know that, now the secret is out, Floki will have to pay for his betrayal. That may be why Floki seems also to be looking across Aslaug, and also at Ragnar. Their relationship has always been complicated. But at the same time, Floki has always loved Ragnar and, in a sense, killed Athelstan out of jealousy.

To the right of Floki are a strange couple. King Ecbert of Wessex, and Judith, the wife of his son, Aethelwulf. They have become lovers. Unlike Ragnar, who does not enjoy power, Ecbert wears his crown. He has large personal and political ambitions, and he doesn’t mind who he betrays to bring them about. He, too, has actually already betrayed Ragnar, by doing a deal with him, and giving his land for a farming settlement, then ordering the slaughter of his settlers behind his back. And that may not, in fact, be the last betrayal.

Judith watches him out of the corner of her eyes. He is not to be trusted. She too, of course, is a betrayer, having betrayed her husband to sleep first with Athelstan, and then with her own father-in-law. But like all the women in the picture, she is actually strong and independently minded. And although watchful, she is clearly neither timid nor afraid.

On the far side of the table are another strange couple: the Viking Warrior Rollo, Ragnar’s brother, and Gisla, the daughter of the Frankish Emperor. The Emperor has done a deal with Rollo, giving him titles, land, and the hand in marriage of his daughter, if Rollo will betray Ragnar again and protect Paris against his next attack. Gisla does not look sure about the whole enterprise. She is not looking at Rollo at all.

Nor, it has to be said, is he looking at her, but he sure is looking shifty. He looks like a betrayer, and unlike, say, the apostles in Da Vinci’s famous painting, who are all making gestures of innocence and incredulity, Rollo doesn’t seem to mind being exposed as a betrayer at all.

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