The Last Supper (1495-8)
Title: The Last Supper (Il Cenacolo,
or L'Ultima Cena)
For the meaning of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
Posters of Last
Created during the period 1495-98, Leonardo da Vinci's mural painting known as The Last Supper - a masterpiece of the Italian High Renaissance and one of the best-known works of Christian art - illustrates the scene from the last days of Jesus Christ, as described in the Gospel of John 13:21. Flanked by his twelve apostles, Jesus has just declared that one of them will betray him. ("Verily I say unto you: one of you will betray me.") The picture depicts the reaction of each disciple to the news. Although on the surface it looks like a straightforward piece of Biblical art, it is in fact an exceptionally complex work, whose mathematical symbolism, psychological complexity, use of perspective and dramatic focus, make it the first real example of High Renaissance aesthetics. The picture measures 15 feet × 29 ft, and occupies an end wall in the dining hall at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Sadly, in order to give himself the opportunity of making changes to the painting as he went along - something that is not possible with regular wet fresco painting - Leonardo first sealed the stone wall surface and then painted over it with tempera and oils, as if it were a wooden panel. As a result, the work began deteriorating almost from the moment it was finished - writing a mere 70 years later, the biographer Giorgio Vasari described it as "so badly done that all that can now be seen of it is a glaring spot" - and has been the subject of a recent 20-year restoration campaign. Even so, the work remains one of the greatest Renaissance paintings.
More Analysis of The Last Supper
The identity of the individual apostles in The Last Supper is confirmed by The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. From left to right in the painting, they are depicted in four groups of three, and react to the news as follows:
In short, the painting captures twelve individuals in the midst of querying, gesticulating, or showing various shades of horror, anger and disbelief. It's live, it's human and it's in complete contrast to the serene and expansive pose of Jesus himself.
Jesus himself is the dynamic centre of the composition. Several architectural features converge on his figure, while his head represents the vanishing point for all perspective lines - an event which makes The Last Supper the epitome of Renaissance single point linear perspective. Meantime, his expansive gesture - indicating the holy sacrament of bread and wine - is not meant for his apostles, but for the monks and nuns of the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery.
In most paintings of The Last Supper, Judas is the only disciple not to have a halo, or else is seated separately from the other apostles. Leonardo, however, seats everyone on the same side of the table, so that all are facing the viewer. Even so, Judas remains a marked man. First, he is grasping a small bag, no doubt symbolizing the 30 pieces of silver he has been paid to betray Jesus; he has also knocked over the salt pot - another symbol of betrayal. His head is also positioned in a lower position than anyone in the picture, and is the only person left in shadow.
Leonardo employed new techniques to communicate his ideas to the viewer. Instead of relying exclusively on artistic conventions, he would use ordinary 'models' whom he encountered on the street, as well as gestures derived from the sign language used by deaf-mutes, and oratorical gestures employed by public speakers. Interestingly, following Leonardo's depiction of Thomas quizzically holding up his index finger, Raphael (1483-1520) portrayed Leonardo himself in the The School of Athens (1510-11) making an identical gesture.
The painting contains a number of allusions to the number 3, (perhaps symbolizing the Holy Trinity). The disciples are seated in groups of three; there are three windows, while the figure of Jesus is given a triangular shape, marked by his head and two outstretched arms.
Laid out on the table, one can clearly make out the lacework of the tablecloth, transparent wine glasses, pewter dishes, pitchers of water, along with the main dish, duck in orange sauce. All these items, portrayed in immaculate detail, anticipate the still life genre perfected by Dutch Realist painters of the 17th century.
Leonardo's meticulous crafting of The Last Supper, along with his skills as a painter, draughtsman, scientist and inventor, as well as his focus on the dignity of man, has added to his reputation as the personification of intellectual artist and creative thinker, rather than merely a decorative painter paid to paint so many square yards a day. This idea of the dignity of the artist, and the importance of disegno rather than colorito, was further developed by Michelangelo and others, culminating in the establishment of the Academy of Art in Florence (Accademia dell'Arte del Disegno) and the Academy of Art in Rome (Accademia di San Luca).
Da Vinci Code and Other Books
Testifying to the enduring appeal of this masterpiece of religious art, Leonardo's Last Supper has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories and endless arcane theories, such as those outlined in The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown, and The Templar Revelation (1997). The figure of the apostle John, for instance, is often cited as that of Mary Magdalene. Leaving aside the incredible notion that a painting devoted to Jesus and twelve apostles could omit an apostle without some convincing explanation, John's girl-ish figure was not an uncommon sight. For example, the Last Supper (1447) by Andrea del Castagno (1420-57), and the Last Supper (1480) by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94) - who incidentally taught Michelangelo - both portray John with a feminine looking figure with long fair hair. Furthermore, it was quite common in quattrocento painting for new or young converts to be depicted with feminine forms. In short, most of this type of populist speculation remains unconfirmed by scientific study.
If you're looking for paintings or posters by other High Renaissance artists, try these resources:
See also: How To Appreciate Paintings.
For more masterpieces, see our main index: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART EDUCATION