What: The Last Supper
Who: Leonardo da Vinci
When: roughly 1495-1498
Where: Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy
Hello, and welcome back to Carivaggio.
Today we are going to explore another infamous painting - The Last Supper.
I have been overwhelmed with requests to discuss this work so I wanted to give it a shot. It is not an easy one, but definitely one worth decoding.
It took me a while to muster up the courage to write about this work. Like The Mona Lisa, it is a work that is universally known and shrouded in conspiracy. However, it is less likely that the average person has seen this work with their own eyes. Most people are not even aware that this piece is located in a monastery in Milan.
It is the fresco to challenge all frescoes; the composition to defy all others. As the most recognizable religious artwork of all time, it holds too deep a history for any of us to grasp - Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.
If you would like a little background on Mr. Leonardo please refer to my post about the Mona Lisa.
The Last Supper was painted around 1495-1498, but was not worked on continuously.
The last supper was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, to decorate a church that he intended to transform into a mausoleum for his family. However, the church was never turned into a mausoleum and the fresco sits in the refectory (dining hall) of the monastery. The last supper was a common scene painted in refectories so the nuns could eat with Jesus in his last moments.
Above the fresco, in the little arches, sit the Sforza coat of arms.
The painting is a Fresco. We all learned about fresco in my post about Caravaggio's Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, but for those who are new here we go.
A Fresco is a wall or ceiling painting technique where the artist applies the paint to a wet plaster - fusing the wall with the artwork. The artist paints quickly over the wet plaster in small sections. However, since Leonardo preferred working slowly and with oil paint, traditional fresco did not align with his methodology. Leonardo used a mixture of gesso (a sort of thick white paint), pitch and mastic. Although effective for Leonardo, this fresco technique was not sustainable or water resistant. Because of this, and a variety of other structural and environmental factors, the painting has severely deteriorated over time. Little of the original painting is left and has required extensive restoration to keep it stable.
(APOSTLE GUIDE- please appreciate this image, I wrote in the names myself)
Ok, back to the painting.
We are not looking at one frozen moment, but rather a series of moments that led up to the capture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus has revealed that one of his apostles will betray him. Phillip (see guide above) stands up and says "Surely not I, Lord?". Jesus then replies "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me" (Matthew 26:23). Keep this in mind as we continue on.
There has been a great deal of discussion about the food da Vinci has chosen to place on the seder table. There is some speculation that it is herring. In the Northern Italian dialect the word for herring is "renga", a word also used for someone who denies religion. This may represent Christ's prediction that the apostle Peter would deny ever knowing or being close with Jesus Christ. This was of course was true, as Peter denied any knowledge of Jesus three times before his revelation.
Take a look at the composition of each of the figures. The all form groups of threes.
Left to right:
Bartholomew, James and Andrew.
Peter, Judas, and John.
Thomas, James, and Phillip.
Matthew, Jude, Simon.
Let us discuss some of the key figures ( the painting is extremely deteriorated so the close up images will be a bit fuzzy)
If you will notice Leonardo chose not to put halos on the heads of any of the figures but its especially absent on Jesus. It is not exactly known why he did not depict these figures with halos but it could be that Leonardo believed in nature over the divine.
Christ is relaxed and composed. A stark contrast to the reaction of the Apostles.
To the left of Jesus we see the figure of John who was known as the beloved apostle. John was thought to be the youngest of the apostles and is depicted with a sweet unassuming face. There is some speculation that this figure could be Mary Magdalene - an idea discussed in the Da Vinci Code book but this idea has never been historically backed up.
His clothes are a mirror image to those of Christ.
Although hard to see, this figure is Judas. He is depicted in shadow - stunned by Jesus's revelation. He is clutching a bag of some sort of small bag. This could be the silver he was given as payment to betray Jesus.
It is very hard to see in this image but he has also knocked over a shaker of salt (as noted by my annotation). This could represent a number of things but historians believe it comes from the saying "betray the salt" meaning the act of betraying one's master. It could also represent bad luck, loss, or Jesus as the salt of the earth. You will notice that Judas's head is lower than all the other figures in the work. Maybe alluding to the low nature of his actions.
As we know, Jesus has revealed that someone will soon betray him. As stated above, Christ states that "The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me". Notice how Jesus and Judas are simultaneously reaching for the same dish. This marks Judas as the betrayer.
We will not talk about all the figures in this post today, but I do want to point out Thomas. He looks to Jesus with his index finger raised. A representation of Thomas's doubt. This foreshadows the doubt of Christ's resurrection (see figure 1) and a later interaction that Thomas will have with the resurrected Christ. He is a skeptic who refuses to believe without evidence. I like this detail as it is connecting this painting to a greater narrative in art history.
Ok now lets broaden the scope a bit.
The meal takes place in a dark room with three windows. Through the small windows, we can see what seems to be a representation of the Milan countryside. Here, Leonardo uses linear perspective. Linear perspective is an old painting technique rediscovered in during the Renaissance. In this technique the artist uses a series of lines that come together at one vanishing point. This creates vast depth and dimension on a flat surface. The vanishing point is at Jesus's right temple. Although the use of linear perspective seems very useful and organized, Leonardo had a great challenge with this piece as he did not want the other angles of the work to be distorted. I believe this painting to be somewhat of a failed experiment by Leonardo. The paint and the perspective have certainly not stood the test of time like the Mona Lisa has (although painted at a sort of similar time). This painting was really a puzzle for the artist and still remains complex for the viewer.
Today, the painting remains in a fragile condition. In 1652 a hole was cute in the wall creating a doorway. It subsequently removed the feet of Christ. The monastery was even bombed during WWII causing the roof to collapse. The painting survived but sustained severe damage. Heavy restorations took place over the course of 20 years and was finished in 1999. Many people believe that the restoration caused the work to lose its integrity.
Of course, you can go see the work as it still sits in the monastery refectory, but you can only spend 15 minutes with the work until you are shuffled swiftly out. They also limit the number of visitors so if you intend to visit Milan in the near future please book ahead of time.
This work is a masterpiece. It will forever remain that way. Usually at the end of my posts I will give my own analysis of the work, but honestly I am not worthy. Although this work has hidden images and deep rooted meaning, it does not mean anything other than what it depicts. It is a bible story in the hands of Leonardo da Vinci. A master of science, engineering, mathematics and so many other pragmatic practices. The only questions this work leaves me asking is whether or not Leonardo found truth in what he was painting. I stated that many historians say that he believed in nature as his God, but maybe painting was his way of expressing his belief. In my eyes, Leonardo da Vinci was divine himself. He breathed life into his works, feeding them with immortality. Much like Jesus Christ, Leonardo da Vinci will never cease to resurrect, inspire and live on.
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See you next time,
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Michelanglo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1601-1602, Sanssouci, Potsdam. Related to Thomas raising his index finger in reaction to Christ's declaration of his betrayal.
*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia.