c.1495-1498. Oil and tempera on plaster. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Refectory, Milan, Italy. Read Note.
Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper is one of the artist's most well-known works and, together with the Mona Lisa, was one of the two paintings that helped establish Leonardo's fame as a painter. The work was commissioned by the Duke Lodovico Sforza, Leonardo's patron, for the refectory (dining hall) of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, Italy.
The wall painting, which Leonardo worked on between 1495 and 1498, is not a true fresco. The painter chose not to paint the piece on wet plaster, since that would severely limit the amount of time he could spend on the work. Instead he sealed the stone wall with a layer of resin (pitch and mastic) and chalk (gesso), and then painted over the sealing layer with tempera. Unfortunately, though this technique allowed him to depict the scene in exquisite detail, it did not prove very durable. The piece began deteriorating within only a few years after it was finished.
The finished size of the painting was 4.6 by 8.8 meters (roughly 15 by 29 feet). While the theme was a traditional one for refectories of the time, Leonardo's realistic style and dramatic depiction of the figures imbued the work with much more realism and depth, influencing all later paintings of the Last Supper. Specifically, Leonardo's work shows the moment after Jesus has announced that one of those sitting at the table will betray him (this episode is described in Matthew 26:21-22; Mark 14:18-19; Luke 22:21-23; and John 13:21-22). The twelve apostles react with various degress of outrage and shock.
The lines of perspective meet in Christ's right eye, thus making him the central figure of the painting. The rest of the scene is organized in order to emphasize this centrality. Leonardo grouped the apostles into four groups of three, with Jesus in the middle. From left to right are, they are:
Group One: Bartholomew, James the Lesser and Andrew form the first group of three, all of them appearing surprised. Andrew holds both of his hand up in front of him in a frightened gesture.
Group Two: Judas Iscariot, Simon Peter and John form the second group of three. Judas is holding a bag of silver in his right hand, while reaching for a piece of bread with his left. Simon Peter is leaning over the shoulder of John, a knife held in his right hand, symbolizing his zealous defence of Jesus. John appears to be swooning.
Prior to Leonardo, it had been traditional to isolate Judas from the rest of the apostles by either seating him across the table from Jesus, apart from the others who were traditionally depicted as sitting on only one side, or by giving all the rest of the apostles and Jesus haloes, and excluding Judas. Leonardo created a more subtle and thus dramatic effect by swathing Judas in shadow. He also presented a realistic explanation of Christ's prophetic words that the first man to share bread with him would also be the betrayer: Jesus and Judas are shown reaching for the same piece of bread, although everybody's attention is riveted elsewhere.
Group Three: The third group is made of Thomas, James the Great and Phillip. These three appear in varying degrees of shock; Thomas, with his hand raised, and Phillip seem to be requesting some sort of explanation, while James the Great, between them, appears to be recoiling from Jesus in horror.
Group Four: The last three, Matthew, Jude Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot appear to be discussing the matter with each other, in a rendition of Luke 22:23: "They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this."
Despite the theory popularized by Dan Brown in his popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, most scholars agree that the figure next to Jesus is John. The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci name all of the disciples in the order in which they are shown (which is how we come to identify them) and all of the figures in Leonardo's original sketches have distinctly male faces. It had been traditional to depict John as boyish and even effeminate, as he was the youngest and supposedly most devoted of Christ's apostles. He appears thus in other contemporary renderings of the scene, including The Last Supper of Castagno (1447) and The Last Supper of Ghirlandaio (1480).
History of the Painting's Restoration
The method in which the painting was executed, on a dry surface, rather than on wet plaster, the traditional method for a fresco, meant that it stood up very poorly to the test of time. By 1556, the notable contemporary historian of the Renaissance Giorgio Vasari was describing the painting as "ruined", to such a degree that the figures were no longer recognizable. In 1652, a door was cut through the bottom of the painting -- almost completely gone by that time -- and this can be seen in the gray unpainted area immediately below Jesus. The arch was eventually bricked up again.
Michelangelo Bellotti was the first artist to try to restore the painting. In 1726, he attempted to paint over the damaged sections with oil paint, and then cover the lot with varnish to preserve it from further deterioration. However, the methods and materials of the time were unequal to the task, and another restoration had to be attempted in 1770, some 44 years later. Giuseppe Mazza completely undid Bellotti's work and started from scratch, essentially re-painting the work. However, he was never allowed to finish, as the public was outraged at what they saw as creative liberties on his part.
In 1796, Napoleon's French troops were stationed around the convent and used the refectory as a makeshift prison, though it is unknown what further damage this caused.
In 1821, an attempt was made to move the "fresco" to a safer location. Stefano Barezzi, the expert charged with this task, damaged the painting quite badly before he realized that the work was not a fresco, but had been painted on a dry surface. He attempted to fix the damage he had done, but this only made the situation worse. From 1901 to 1908, Luigi Cavenaghi began a careful cleaning of the painting. He was followed by Oreste Silvestri in 1924, who cleaned the painting further and stabilized those parts that were still intact with stucco.
In 1943, during World War II, the convent was struck by a bomb. While sandbags had been put up to protect the painting from bomb splinters, vibration may have caused further damage. After the war, from 1951 to 1954, another cleaning and stabilization was attempted by Mauro Pelliccioli.
It was not until the end of the 20th Century that a major restoration of this key work of art was undertaken. Between 1978 and 1999, under the leadership of Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, a concerted effort was made to reverse the damage caused by time, dirt, pollution and previous restoration attempts and to permanently stabilize the painting. Since the method used for the original painting made it impossible to move, the refectory was sealed off and set up with climate-controlling equipment. A detailed study of the painting was conducted using state-of-the-art methods such as infrared reflectoscopy and microscopic core-sampling. To determine the painting's original shape, the restorers studied Leonardo's sketches, as well as contemporary copies of the painting.Some areas had undergone such extensive damage that the restorers concluded that they were unrestorable and re-painted these areas in subdued watercolors, in order to demonstrate that these were not part of the originial work.
The results of the restoration were unveiled on May 28, 1999. There was considerable controversy over some of the decisions made by the restoration team, which included drastic changes in color, tone, and even the facial features of some of the apostles.
The painting today is open for viewing by the general public. Visitors, however, have to book in advance and are not allowed to stay long.
Unknown artist of the XVI century. Copy after Leonardo's Last Supper. Oil on canvas. Da Vinci Museum, Abbey of Tongerlo, Tongerlo, Belgium.
This copy, almost as large as the original, displays a wealth of detail, which is no longer visible in Leonardo's wall-painting due to the extensive damage it has suffered.
See also Last Supper.