Scholars, kings, and artists have analyzed and admired Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper since it was painted over five hundred years ago. Biographer Anonimo Gaddiano wrote of di Vinci in 1540: "His genius was so rare and universal that it can be said that nature worked a miracle on his behalf...”
Born to an unmarried couple in 1452 in the Tuscan hill town of Vinci, Leonardo “of Vinci” apprenticed to one of the most well-known painters in Florence. At the age of seven, he started work as an assistant in the painter's workshop where he learned everything we see him exploring throughout his life: chemistry, physics, and geometry, along with drawing, painting, and sculpture.
All of the students of the workshop were apprentice employees of Verrocchio, and it is in a painting done in collaboration with his teacher that we first see Leonardo's genius. In The Baptism of Christ, the most expressive and life-like angel and some say the subtle shading of the figure of Christ, show the delicate beauty of da Vinci's hand. Even after da Vinci's father set him up in his workshop, he continued for years to work with his teacher.
From 1478 da Vinci was an independent artist. Around this time he may have worked with the Medici's because it was with a letter of introduction from Lorenzo de Medici that da Vinci arrived in Milan.
In Milan, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception commissioned da Vinci to paint Virgin of the Rocks and the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, ordered, for the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie's The Last Supper. Although easily one of the most famous works of art in the world, it isn't in a museum. The current location of this iconic work is still precisely where da Vinci painted it over five hundred years ago, in Santa Maria Delle Grazie Refectory dining hall.
The last supper as a subject in art dates back to early Christianity. The themes of betrayal, the first Eucharist and Christ's farewell to his apostles have been favorite themes throughout the Christian world, and nowhere more so than Italy.
Da Vinci's original painting is enormous—460 cm × 880 cm, 15 feet high by almost 30 feet wide. He painted it directly onto the plaster of the refectory wall in oil paint and tempera, a paint made of egg and pigment. A painting on a wall and of this size would normally have been done as a fresco-- painted onto wet plaster. But da Vinci didn't want to have to work at the speed of drying plaster. To allow himself more time for the many revisions that were a normal part of this process, he developed an experimental technique, applying two layers of plaster and allowing it to dry, then adding a layer of lead white as an underpainting. The underpainting of white added a brilliant luminosity to the original. But the experiment of painting onto the plaster rather than into it while wet was an unfortunate decision, as we shall see later.
The painting was finished the same year the building complex was completed. The only record regarding the painting from the monastery is a note from 1497, mentioning that the work was in progress. The project was famously delayed and took at least three years to complete. Da Vinci did not work on the fresco constantly, but took frequent weeks-long breaks. One story exists from the time that a prior at the monastery complained about the delay. Da Vinci responded that he was having difficulty finding the right model for the traitor character and that if the previous complained again, da Vinci would use his face as the model for Judas.
However apocryphal this story may be, what is true is that da Vinci based the features of each apostle on a real-life model. The face of the traitorous Judas ended up being based, not on the complaining prior at the monastery, but on research sketches, da Vinci made while visiting jails in Milan.
Until the 19th century, we, like the monks the artwork was created for, had to deduce from the well-known gospel stories in the Bible who is who in the painting. A discovery of one of da Vinci's sketchbooks revealed labels for the figures in The Last Supper. His notebooks, some twenty volumes and hundreds of pages in all, are a record of one of the finest artistic and scientific minds the world has ever produced. In these sketchbooks, we can follow his constant work on inventions, take a peek into his closet (he listed the contents of his wardrobe), and witness his exploration of anatomy, botany, patterns in geometry and perspective drawing. The thought process in these astounding notebooks is especially incredible because all the handwriting is backward as if written to be read in a mirror. The range of subjects in his sketchbooks--from ideas for machines to boil water using mirrors in sunlight to the flight of birds--demonstrates an intense intellectual curiosity about the natural world, many of which are on display in The Last Supper.
Most of the thinking we see in the sketches done during the time of The Last Supper seems to have gone into exploring how gestures, especially in the hands and face, might express a particular emotion. Hundreds of other sketches were probably done, but have been lost, since da Vinci didn't sketch in bound books, but on loose paper, which he bound into books later.
Viewing the painting, we witness the moment from the New Testament when Christ says, “Verily, verily I say unto you, one of you will betray me.” According to the gospel of Matthew, this final meal takes place shortly before Judas exposes Christ to the authorities who arrest him before he is crucified. It is a moment of epic betrayal.
Many other painters had depicted the last supper, including Andrea del Castagno. Castagno's version of the Last Supper is typical of the early Renaissance, using many of the same drawing techniques da Vinci implemented: the one point perspective, the windows in the background, the table separating the viewers from the subjects.
However, da Vinci brings the characters to life with natural positioning, overlapping, gestures, and by having the characters interact. What makes da Vinci's Last Supper a masterpiece is that he presents us with a moment in which we can explore, for the first time, the psychological drama of the event.
We witness the different degrees incredulity expressed by of each of the twelve apostles at Christ's shocking prediction. The faces and gestures reveal the thoughts of each person. In earlier works of the last supper by other artists, such as Castagno's painting in 1447, the composition depicting this story would be different. The apostles would be seated in a rigid row, separated from one another. The character's’ depiction in space and their emotionality would share one description: flat. Creating dimensionality not only of space but also of character, da Vinci pulls us to a place never seen before. And with this begins the High Renaissance.
At the time the painting was done, and the audience for whom it was created, priests and monks at a monastery, all the details and individual biographies of the apostles would have been well known--the people viewing the fresco would have had a deep knowledge of the gospels from which the details are taken.
But the thirteen figures are grouped in a new way, overlapping, and then they are grouped into smaller subgroups. Christ, the main figure is isolated, backlit and the point to which all lines in the painting lead our eye. He is the center of the painting and the drama.
The painting is balanced, with the figure of Christ providing the stability of an equilateral triangle. He sits below an arch, which if completed would make a circle, a halo, around his head. In Greek geometry, well known to da Vinci, the circle represents heaven, the triangle earth. Here Christ is subtly celebrated as heaven on Earth; God made man
Starting from the far left of the painting Bartholomew, James, and Andrew all show surprise. In the next group of three, Judas, the traitor, is turned away from us, observing the drama of Peter and John. Judas is “holding the bag” --the bribe he will receive for his betrayal. He is the only one leaning on the table and is the person positioned the lowest in the composition. Judas's left arm and Christ's right arm create a “V,” the most dramatic shape in the composition and one echoing the triangle-shape of the Christ figure. Note that Christ and Peter are reaching for the same servings of bread.
Christ himself is at the center of the painting, the window, the table, the world. Using one-point perspective, a technique that had been developed in Florence by a previous generation of painters, da Vinci forces our focus to be on the figure of Christ. Evidence shows that da Vinci pounded a nail in the wall and most likely tied a string to the nail to provide a guide for his underdrawing. The tapestries on the sides of the room, the coffers of the ceiling, the arrangement of the plates, the stripes on the tablecloth and the shapes of the figures--using one-point perspective, all lead us to the central figure of Christ.
By being the only figure in the composition that doesn’t have any other figures overlapping him, our eye is further convinced of the true subject of the painting.
Not only are we witnessing the moment when Christ reveals that he will be betrayed, but we also observe the very moment before the first Eucharist. This is the moment when Christ tells the apostles that the wine is his blood, the bread his body and that when they drink wine and eat bread, henceforth, it should be done in memory of him. In The Last Supper, we see Christ reaching for the glass of wine and the bread, significant symbols of this sacrament considered most holy by the paintings original audience. It is a climactic moment.
Next to Andrew, Peter twists a knife, foreshadowing that he will sever the ear of a soldier when he tries to protect Christ from arrest. Peter is the founder of the Catholic Church, the “rock” upon which the church is built. For the Catholics who would have been using the dining room in the Rectory, Peter is considered the first Pope.
The youngest apostle, and thus beardless (in the novel The da Vinci Code the author Dan Brown puts forth that this is a woman, Mary Magdalene) John swoons at the mere thought of the treachery.
The next figure on the other side of Christ is Thomas, his raised finger foreshadowing the doubt he will later express at Christ's resurrection. Then, when Thomas expresses disbelief at Christ visiting after being raised from the dead, Christ invites him to explore his wounds with his finger, the very finger we see lifted here to Christ's face. Having seen da Vinci's perfectly proportioned drawings, we can speculate that Thomas's somewhat outsized finger was repainted in one of the eight restorations by a less virtuoso draftsman.
James the elder, arms outspread, gestures in the classic manner of “Seriously?” Phillip is distraught, pleading. In the gospel, when Christ predicts the betrayal, Phillip asks, “Lord, is it I?” To which Christ replies “He that dips his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me.” In the painting, only one apostle, Judas, reaches for same pieces of bread as Christ.
At the far right, Jude and Mathew turn to Simon, seeking an explanation.
Under the table, the drama continues. Judas's foot is the only one that points ominously straight down. We have lost any messages that may have been conveyed by Christ's feet, as a door was added to the wall in 1652, a time when the painting, or at least messages from Christ's feet, were thoughtless precious.
The dimensions and perspective of the painting give us the feeling that the room where Christ and his apostles are sitting down to eat is an extension of the refectory dining room. The windows on the far side of the “room” look out over a typical Italian landscape. Hills in the distance are blue, and as the landscape recedes, the hills become gray. This aerial perspective technique was widely used by artists during the Renaissance to create an illusion of depth.
In The Last Supper, da Vinci used aerial perspective and other techniques widely used during the Renaissance. By bringing in psychological drama, depicting emotion via gesture, da Vinci drags us into the high Renaissance and European art begins to shift. The beauty of the composition combined with the emotion of the storytelling is new. By the time the painting neared completion, it was already being copied.
The painting was immediately beloved, but almost from the day it was finished, it started falling apart. The placement of the painting on an exterior wall increased the devastating effects of humidity. The oil-and-tempera-over-lead-white experiment never properly adhered to the wall. The humidity of the cave-like dining room along with poor restoration techniques hastened the deterioration, and fifty years later, in the 1500s it was deemed “ruined.” Since then the original fresco has suffered vibrations of a bomb destroying parts of the refectory in 1943, severe postwar air pollution and crowds of respiring tourists.
Because of the degrading effects of heat and moisture released by humans, visitors now are limited to groups of 20 and are only allowed visits lasting fifteen minutes.
The painting underwent a significant restoration that finished in 1999. The aim of this last conservation effort was not to replicate da Vinci's original work, but rather to prevent further degradation and to undo some of the previous damage done by so-called restorations. This last conservation attempt to bring the painting back to its previous glory lasted over twenty years. Currently, the image is 42.5% da Vinci's work, 40% the work of previous restorations, and 17.5% has been completely lost.
A turning point in art and an international classic, da Vinci's Last Supper, reached iconic status five hundred years ago and continues to inspire.
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