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“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci depicts the scene of the Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles, as told in the Gospel of John. Da Vinci focused on representing the anxiety and confusion, as he imagined, would have occurred among the Twelve Disciples at the specific point, when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him.

This masterpiece covers one end wall of the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan. The room was used for communal meals of the Convent and was commissioned as part of a plan of renovations to the church and its convent buildings by Leonardo’s patron Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.

Leonardo began work on The Last Supper in 1495 and took three years to portray the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him. All twelve apostles have different responses to the news, with various degrees of anger and shock. The apostles are identified by the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci from left to right, as follows:

  • Starting at the left, Bartholomew, James and Andrew form a group of three, all are surprised.
  • Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John form another group of three. Judas is taken aback by the revelation of his plan; he is clutching a small bag, signifying his payment for betraying Jesus. Peter looks angry and is holding a knife pointed away from Christ. The youngest apostle, John, appears to be overcome.
  • Jesus is in the centre, where the perspective and lighting draws attention to Jesus, whose right cheek is at the vanishing point for all the perspective lines.
  • Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip are the next group of three. Thomas has raised index finger foreshadows his disbelief of the Resurrection. James the Greater is upset with his arms raised. Philip appears to be seeking an explanation.
  • Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon are the last group of three on the right. Jude Thaddeus and Matthew are turned toward Simon, to find out if he has any answers.

Stiudium do Ostatniej Wieczerzy
A study for The Last Supper from Leonardo’s notebooks. This study shows nine of the apostles identified by names.

In common with other depictions of the Last Supper from this period, Leonardo has seated the diners on one side of the table, so that none of them has his back to the viewer. The painting has several echoes to the number 3, which represents the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. The Apostles are seated in groupings of three; there are three windows behind Jesus, and the shape of Jesus’ figure resembles a triangle with three sides and three points.

Da Vinci was experimenting with new techniques, and due to the methods he used and to a variety of humidity and environmental factors plus war damage, very little of the original painting remains today despite numerous restoration attempts. Fortunately, two early copies of The Last Supper are known to exist, presumed to be work by Leonardo’s assistants. These copies give us today with useful insights into the detail and luminosity that the original Da Vinci would have had.

Giampietrino-Last-Supper-ca-1520

A contemporary copy of The Last Supper, ca. 1520, by Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli who is thought to have worked closely with Leonardo when he was in Milan. 

Da Vinci’s masterpiece is one of the world’s most recognisable images. It has inspired many copies; however, the original in the exact place where Da Vinci painted it, continues to be an awe-inspiring experience.

Did you know?

  • In 1652, a doorway was cut through the painting and later bricked up. This change to the wall can be seen in the arch-shaped structure near the centre base of the picture, where the feet of the Christ would have been.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers turned the area into a stable and exposed the wall to further damage.
  • During World War II, in 1943, the refectory was struck by bombing, and some of the walls and ceiling collapsed into rubble. The protective sandbagging in front of the painted wall prevented the painting from being hit by bomb splinters.
  • Da Vinci’s masterpiece has been subject to many restoration attempts. Multiple restorations took place in the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s.
  • Art historians suggest that the figure of Apostle John appears feminine due to Leonardo’s fascination with blurring the lines between the sexes. A characteristic found in Da Vinci’s other paintings, such as St. John the Baptist.

Speculation about the symbolism in The Last Supper

The Last Supper has attracted speculation by writers and historians centred on purported hidden messages or symbolism found within the painting. Some of the speculations include:

  • The meaning of the spilt salt container near Judas’s elbow.
  • The symbolism in da Vinci’s choice of food. There is a dispute on whether the fish on the table is herring or eel since each carries its own symbolic meaning. In Italian, the word for eel is similar to the word meaning to indoctrinate. In northern Italy, the word for herring is also used to describe someone who denies religion.
  • An Italian musician created a melody from the notes that were allegedly hidden in the scene. The composition is based on the position of hands and loaves of bread which can be interpreted as notes on a musical staff.  The notes need to be read from right to left, as was characteristic of Leonardo’s writing.
  • Others have translated what they see as mathematical and astrological indicators in the artwork as a message from the artist and his purported predictions.
  • The novel, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown in 2003, proposed that the person to Jesus’ right (left of Jesus from the viewer’s perspective) is actually Mary Magdalene.
  • Similar speculation about Mary Magdalene can be found in the following books: The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett in 1997 and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh in 1982

Explore

Reflections

  • What would the monks eating in the dining hall, 500 years ago, soon after the painting was completed, have thought of this image?
  • Where there any objections voiced to the decision to cut off part of this painting to create a doorway?
  • How would you feel, if you ate at this dining hall?
  • Why has this painting created so much speculation about the symbolism in the artwork?
  • After multiple restorations that took place in the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s, how much of the detail is original?

 The Last Supper

  • Title:               The Last Supper
  • Italian:           Il Cenacolo or L’Ultima Cena
  • Artist:             Leonardo da Vinci
  • Created:         1490s (Julian)
  • Periods:          Renaissance
  • Media:            Resco-secco
  • Dimensions:  460 cm (180 in) × 880 cm (350 in)
  • Museum:       Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci

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“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”
– Leonardo da Vinci

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Photo Credit 1) JOM; 2) Giampietrino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons