“Art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language that all may understand“, a sentence more accurate than this couldn’t be written. Even though Somerset Maugham wrote this line centuries after The Last Supper was created, it is certain that the man who painted The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci, felt the same.
1. Leonardo Da Vinci- The Man Who Painted The Last Supper
Before we proceed further, let’s clarify that we are, in fact not talking about the Oscar-winning actor Leonardo de Caprio here. There’s no shame in confusing them, to err is, after all, human. He’s a great artist in his own right but not the subject of the article.
Leonardo da Vinci- That’s a name that you’ll find in all your history books. His work included contributions to science and the magic he created in his paintings which was an invaluable addition to Italian art. He was a man of many talents and the definition of a polymath.
From The Last Supper to Mona Lisa, this man had a whole bag of famous paintings under his name, and to fathom his genius seems impossible.
1.1. His Childhood
Leonardo da Vinci was born in the middle of April 1452 to Caterina and Piero da Vinci, out of wedlock. His parents then went on to marry different individuals and through these marriages, Leonardo had about 16 half-siblings. He was a gifted child in the area of art and hence he was only given a basic education in reading, writing, and mathematics.
When he turned about 14 years old, he became a Garzone (the fancy word for an errand boy) in the workshop of Andrea del Verrochio.
1.2. His time in Andrea del Verrochio’s Workshop
Leonardo da Vinci learned a lot in this workshop in Florence. From working with metals and wood to learning sculpting, drawing, and modeling, this was a pivotal period (one of many, though) in his life. He also met other artists like him, learning the arts.
According to Giorgio Vasari (an Italian Renaissance Master), when Leonardo and Verrocchio worked together on The Baptism of Christ, Leonardo’s way of painting one element of it was so much better than his master’s, that apparently, Verrocchio never painted again.
Leonardo didn’t leave Verrocchio’s workshop until 1477.
1.3. Leonardo da Vinci in Florentine
His earliest known work is the ink drawing of the Arno valley a river in Italy. By this point in his life, he had begun to receive independent commissions to create paintings as is evident from the commission he received in 1478 to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of Saint Bernard.
In the March of 1481, he received another commission to paint what eventually became The Adoration of the Magi. But in one way, we’re the same, I guess- he too moved on from projects without completing them.
Leonardo, instead of completing these commissions, went on to offer his services to the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, who eventually became Leonardo’s patron.
The next year, in 1482, Leonardo da Vinci was on his way to Milan as an ambassador sent by Lorenzo Ludovico il Moro.
2. The Milanase Period
He was in Milan for less than 10 years, from 1482 to 1499. This was where he was commissioned to paint The Last Supper for the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
2.1. Few Facts About the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie
It served as the burial site for the Sforza family, as decided by Duke Ludovico Sforza. He wanted the church to serve as a family mausoleum.
An allied bomb during World War II attempted to destroy the church. But by some divine intervention or just bad aim, the Last Supper in the refectory walls was left undamaged. Subsequent preservation work has ensured that it stays that way for a few more centuries.
According to legend, Napoleon also used the refectory where the original painting was hung, as a stable.
Now that we know all about the man who painted the Last Supper, let’s dive into the painting.
3. The Last Supper- A Momentous Mural
It is labeled as one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. It’s printed in all the art history books that could exist. It’s almost impossible to believe that such a masterpiece could be created by one man. But I’m just an ordinary person, trying to comprehend the genius of his work.
There’s also a school of thought that believes that the High Renaissance period began with The Last Supper.
3.1. The High Renaissance Period
The time frame of this period in the Italian Renaissance is debatable. The term was coined by Jacob Burckhardt in 1855.
The most legendary artists of this time included Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, and a few more.
Now, coming to describe what the paintings looked like- it was a return to depicting human emotions. Even though the paintings may have included divine subjects, there were strokes of humanity in them. While the emotions depicted were human and not very God-like, the actual paintings were visually symmetrical and perfect.
This period was also characterized by new methods of painting such as Leonardo’s quadrature or ceiling paintings that could be looked at while one gazed up towards their heaven.
The painting has so many things to admire, the more you look, the more you see.
3.2. The Physical Aspects-
As mentioned before, The Last Supper is housed in the refectory which is a dining room in the Dominican monastery. It covers an entire end wall with its magnificence.
Its dimensions are 460cm × 880cm.
The wall opposite the refectory wall is covered by the crucifixion fresco painting by Giovanni Donato da Montofano. Leonardo also added figures of the Sforza family to this painting’s tempera.
While many documents stating the exact date of completion of The Last Supper have been destroyed, there’s one document from 1497 mentioning that this was when the painting was nearly completed.
3.3. Copies of the Last Supper
There were quite a few copies made of The Last Supper painting.
The copy made by Giampietrino, an artist greatly influenced by da Vinci, is currently in the possession of the Royal Academy of Arts, London. This copy was also the one that was used as a reference for restoring the original painting.
The other painting, also made by one of the Leonardeschi, Cesare da Sesto is installed at the Church of Saint Ambrogio in Switzerland.
The third and final copy painted by Andrea Solari is exhibited in the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of the Tongerlo Abbey in Belgium.
3.4. Preparatory Sketches
In one of the earlier depictions made by da Vinci for the Last Supper painting, in his notebook, we see the twelve apostles, out of which, nine of them had their names written above their sketch.
4. An Artist’s Ingredients- Their Medium of Painting
Leonardo da Vinci took his time with his paintings, he liked to let them breathe and was open to making mistakes, hence he preferred oil painting, which allowed him to do the same. He also wanted more contrast between light and dark than would be possible through fresco. He also used some elements of panel painting, wherein he added an undercoat of white lead to increase the brightness of the oil. So instead of painting on wet plaster, he chose to try out something new with tempera paint on that monastery stone wall.
While I’m all for new trying new things and seeing what works and what doesn’t, this method of his seems to not have worked for too long, since only after a few decades the paint started to peel off and had to be restored.
4.1. Oil Paint-
Oil painting uses drying oil as the medium that binds the paint together. It’s a slower way of painting since one needs to allow the paint to dry before another layer of it can be applied. It’s one of the most common methods, though, for painting on wood panels. Various drying oils include poppy seed oil and walnut oil.
4.2. What da Vinci Did Not Prefer- Fresco
This technique involves painting on fresh wet plaster. Since the plaster itself has some binding properties, a separate binder is not required and the pigments are just mixed with water and applied to the dry plaster. There are surprisingly a lot of chemical reactions, its true, I guess, then that art and science cannot exist without one another.
4.3. The Subjects of The Last Supper painting
First, let’s understand the story of the subject and the scene of the Bible depicted in this painting hung on the thin exterior wall of the refectory.
The Bible is an accumulation of religious texts in Christianity and Judaism, primarily. The main protagonist in this is, of course, Jesus Christ. While it would be a little too arduous for me to explain The Bible from start to finish but let me just wrap it up in a few sentences-
Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph. Christ was born among the people to save them and forgive them for all their sins. His first miracle of turning water into wine (win for Jesus, loss for raging alcoholics). This miracle is accounted for in John’s Gospel written mostly by Saint john (one of Jesus’s apostles). Jesus Christ was eventually crucified. But in typical God fashion, he was resurrected on Easter Sunday.
5. Christ’s Apostles
Throughout his life, Jesus had a close community of followers who believed in him with utmost dedication. These were known as his disciples/apostles.
Their names were-
- Simon (who is also called Peter)
- Peter’s brother, Andrew;
- James (son of Zebedee)
- James’ brother Apostle John;
- Matthew (the Tax Collector)
- James (son of Alphaeus)
- Thaddaeus or Jude
- Simon (the Zealot)
- Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus
6. Significance of a Meal
The Last Supper was, as the name hints at, the last meal that Christ had with all twelve apostles. It was one of utmost significance. It was then that Jesus announces to his apostles that one of them would sacrifice him due to his greed.
All the disciples washed their feet to highlight that all of them in end, were equal in the eyes of God and the sin that one of them was about to commit would also be eventually forgiven.
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting creates the atmosphere, the dramatic moment in time, right after Jesus tells his apostles about their future betrayal. It’s an exam excellent presentation of the feelings and emotions each disciple felt. It’s so magnificently depicted through da Vinci’s understanding of human emotions and how they translate to our subconscious actions. We can see the entire spectrum of human emotions on the faces of his disciples from horror, anger, shock, and guilt in this one dramatic scene.
Leonardo also apparently used the everyday people of Milan as the inspiration for the subjects of this painting.
From left to right, this is how Leonardo da Vinci envisioned the reactions of all twelve apostles-
- Bartholomew: He was also referred to as Nathaniel. Jesus described him in the gospel of John as “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
- James the Lesser: Unfortunate title, but he had spent about three years with Jesus, following him and witnessing his miracles.
- Andrew: He was one of the close ones. He was a fisherman before becoming a full-time devotee of Christ and had been his follower from very early on. All these three apostles had expressions of shock and surprise in varying degrees.
- Judas Iscariot: Christ’s Betrayer; Judas betrayed him to the Sanhedrin for 30 coins. With friends like him, who needs enemies? In the painting, we can see that his hands are holding onto that bag of coins for dear life. In Giampietrino’s copy, we can see that his face is the only one hidden in the shadows. Another interesting clue about his ultimate betrayal can be guessed by the fact that all the apostles, except Judas, have a halo around their heads.
- Peter: The Violent (a title given by yours truly); Just as how Judas clutches onto his bag of coins, Peter holds his knife. This hints at the time he would cut off a soldier’s ear who tried to arrest Jesus.
- John or Mary Magdalene: Art historians have pondered on the identity of this young individual for a while now. This person is the only one without any clearly masculine features, rather they look slightly feminine. But, it seems that da Vinci did indeed paint St. John and not Mary Magdalene. To clarify, she was present at the last supper, but she was not one of the big players, she was there to wipe others’ feet because of course that was her job. But she wasn’t mentioned in any one of the four Gospels describing the Last Supper, hence for da Vinci to include her would count as blasphemy and I don’t think da Vinci was rebellious enough for that. So that young man with slightly feminine features was, after all, St. John. He, while keeping true to his character, seems to simply swoon over what Jesus just said. Also, the conspiracy that John was actually Mary was perpetuated by books such as “The Templar Revelation” by Clive Price and “Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown.
- Jesus: The man of the hour. He’s at the center of the table. He’s surprisingly calm for someone who knows what tragedy his future holds. Leonardo da Vinci employed a clever way to capture the viewer’s attention to Christ. He used parallel lines that converge at one vanishing point to create an illusion of depth, that vanishing point being the center of Jesus’s forehead. For the feet enthusiasts, while in the original painting or da Vinci’s version, Christ’s feet had been erased, in the copies, you can see his feet painted clearly. Behind Jesus we see three windows opening into a wide scenery.
- Thomas: Also known as “Doubting Thomas” because he didn’t believe Jesus had been resurrected after his crucifixion. But on seeing his Lord, he immediately changed his mind. In the painting, he looks upset upon hearing the news.
- James: The Man with the Raised Index Finger; He also initially didn’t believe that Jesus had been resurrected but then he was told to poke Jesus’s side (by Christ himself) with his index finger to know that it was true. So, this is what the painting alludes to.
- Philip: He was the one who famously asked Jesus if it was him that betrays him. To this, Jesus replied, that the man who would reach for the same dish as him at the same time, would be the one to betray him. Any guesses who can be seen for reaching the same piece of bread that Jesus is reaching for? Judas, of course.
- Matthew, Jude, and Simon: Remember those moments when the teacher would ask you a question in class and you would turn to your friends who were as clueless as you for the answer? This is what was happening here, Matthew and Jude with confusion reflected on their faces turned to Simon for answers he doesn’t have.
7. The Last Supper- Salvador Dali’s version
In 1955, centuries after Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, came a new version of it in the era of modern art. Jesus here is a blonde man, and the apostles gathered around the table can’t be identified since all their heads are bowed.
Its currently in the possession of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
What could’ve been a revolutionary way to make murals, unfortunately, didn’t last very long. Since he wanted to work on the painting for a long time approximately three years, he used paint tempura and oil, and eggs and applied this concoction on dry walls. Records show that barely 20 years after its creation, it had begun to flake away from the wall and enter a state of certain ruin.
In 1857, the author Charles Dickens described the head of the apostles as having ‘positive deformities’ after major restoration had been done to preserve the disappearing painting. Many people were also questioning how much of da Vinci’s actual work was left in the restored painting.
9. Pinin Brambilla Barcilon
This was the woman who took up the task to restore the priceless painting to save what was left of it. It took her about 20 years to restore. And like anything a woman does, we had men questioning it. Michael Daley was critical of her work. He had an issue with how the sleeve on Christ’s right arm was now draped over the table instead of under it, as is seen in the copies of The Last Supper.
This is what you’d need to know about The Last Supper, so if now you’re randomly quizzed about it on the street, you’ll just be regarded as an intelligent being. I know there’s some futility in trying to describe a painting as grand as The Last Supper, so if you get the chance go ahead and visit the paintings and be in awe of it, in real time.
Q1. Where is the original Last Supper painting?
The original Last Supper painting is housed in the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. It is a UNESCO World Heritage sight.
Q2. Who painted The Last Supper and why?
If by now, you’re unsure of who painted The Last Supper, its not too late to add some new pieces of information to your chest of general knowledge. The artist is the mega-famous Italian painter (and much more), Leonardo da Vinci.As to why he painted it, the only person to answer that most accurately was probably him. Because why does anyone do anything in life, to find a purpose, to do a job, to earn money (it’s a rich man’s world, after all)? He was commissioned by Duke Ludovico Sforza to paint this scene from the Gospel of John, and so he did what was required of him.
Q3. How old was Leonardo da Vinci when he painted The Last Supper?
He was about forty-three years old when he painted The Last Supper. Who says greatness can be achieved only in one’s youth?
Q4. Who is the woman in The Last Supper painting?
The woman is supposed to be a man. But if the woman were really in the painting, it would be Mary Magdalene. She was one of Jesus’ followers.
To read more about another one of Leonardo da Vinci’s works, check out this invigorating article on Mona Lisa.