Last Supper, a grand complication in art

One of Milan’s claims to fame is that it is the only city in which you can give the name of a painting to a taxi driver, and he’ll know exactly where to take you. The Last Supper caused a revolution in painting when it was first unveiled in 1499, and it has contined to exert its power over artists right up until today, notwithstanding the fact that it has suffered the passage of time more most pieces of art. Visitors should be warned that the visit does not include multi-media presentations or explanations, and at best a guide with limited grasp of English who provides a summary overview of the scene that Leonardo depicted. Here is my version.

What is luxury? Certainly, luxury has a lot in common with rarity, and while the world’s finest mechanical watches may be made in editions limited to a thousand, a hundred, thirty pieces, a work of art is absolutely unique and so acquires value in the eyes of collectors. Damian Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull titled “For the love of God” cost £14 million to make and was put on sale at £50 million, but even more remarkable in terms of acquired value was the Codex Leicester, or Codex Hammer, thirty-three drawings by Leonardo da Vinci which were bought by Bill Gates in 1994 for $30 million.

So, if luxury has something in common with rarity, then the original DaVinci Last Supper enables everyone to experience the ultimate luxury in art, because this work is absolutely unique, and will never be moved to another museum for a temporary exhibition. It is indissolubly tied to the walls of the room in which it was painted, the refectory of a Dominican monastery in central Milan. Santa Maria delle Grazie.


It is common knowledge that this Renaissance Last Supper is in a bad state, but it is in better condition now than it has been for almost five hundred years. Leonardo painted it from 1494 to 1498, and his finished work sent shock waves through the Italian Renaissance. But just a few decades after it had been finished, it began to deteriorate. Often, people think that this was caused by an experimental technique invented by the artist that went wrong, but this is not actually the case.

In the German city of Erfurt, the Catholic cathedral has a large fresco depicting Saint Christopher, in excellent condition, recorded as having been painted “à l’huile sur le mur préparé au moyen d’une couche d’huile et d’une couche de blanc de plomb”. This corresponds to the preparation of the wall on which the Last Supper was painted, a very fine plaster mixed with an oily substance, possibly wax, and then coated with a layer of white lead. The technique therefore was not an invention by Leonardo, but a method that had been described previously, in particular, by Cennino Cennini in the 14th century. In fact, according to Cennini, the traditional fresco painting technique, using pigments direct on wet plaster, was the safest, but had the disadvantage of restricting the range of colours that could be used. Cennini in fact recommented the use of pittura a secco, namely painting onto dry plaster, for the final touches alone. Leonardo had evidently heard about the techniques used in northern Europe, and decided to use the oil-based technique for his fresco. This was also important for his desire to work slowly on the painting, giving him sufficient time to develop the gradual shading or chiaroscuro that was essential in his style.

Unfortunately, the wall was subject to rising damp, and the situation was made worse by the fact that on the other side of the wall were the kitchens, where the food eaten by the monks in the refectory was prepared. In the years following the completion of the work, the moisture in the wall repelled the oily ground, and it began to crack, fragmenting the painted surface. In many areas, the individual pieces of plaster between the cracks took on a concave shape, like a series of tiny shells, within which dirt accumulated. During the innumerable restoration operations that have been performed over the centuries, the painting was scraped with spatulas and metal brushes in an attempt to force the plaster back into shape, but this just damaged the edges of the individual concave chips, exposing the lead white ground. Layers of resin and glue were painted over it in an attempt to stabilize the layer of pigment. On several occasions, painters were actually summoned to bring the work back to its original glory by painting over it. By 1969, many scholars believed that there was nothing at all left of Leonardo’s original work, but just accumulated dirt and the paint added during successive repainting operations.

Only in 1977 did the first trial areas of cleaning demonstrate that it was possible to remove the extraneous layers and reach Leonardo’s original pigment. And this is what was done in the operation that lasted from 1978 to 1999.

Another event in the history of this painting shows that its survival up until today is something of a miracle. In August 1943, the refectory received a direct hit from a bomb dropped in one of the three air-raids planned to accelerate the Kingdom of Italy’s Armistice (signed on 3rd September). The blast completely destroyed the roof and one of the long walls of the refectory. The two end walls – one with the Last Supper, the other with Montorfano’s Crucifixion – survived, and the paintings remained intact because they had been protected by a wall of sandbags from floor to ceiling.

It is no surprise, considering its turbulent history, that its conditions are closely monitored. Visits are limited to 25 people every 15 minutes, which is why pre-booking is necessary. Before entering the hall itself, visitors pass through a series of glass-encased rooms that delicately remove excess humidity and dust by means of a pressure differential. In other words, you are hoovered, but very gently.

Inside the refectory, there is nothing. Nothing except Leonardo’s painting, and Montorfano’s on the opposite wall. At this point there is another analogy with a valuable mechanical timepiece. You can only appreciate its value if you understand something of its incredible complication. Just as to the eyes of a layman, superficially there doesn’t seem to be all that much difference between a Piaget and a Swatch, the Last Supper runs the risk of leaving a visitor with the feeling “is that it?” Worse, a lack of information leaves ample space for writers – most famously Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, but many other even worse authors who wanted their share of this dubious glory – to reinterpret the painting as they wish. And so, according to Dan Brown, the feminine-looking figure to the left of Christ is not actually one of the twelve Apostles, but Mary Magdalene. This immediately prompts a Brown sceptic such as myself to ask, so where did the twelfth disciple go? Out buying the pizzas, or just late for dinner?

The truth of the matter is that the painting is a true grand complication. There is so much meaning, on several different layers of complexity, that any of the modern reinterpretations pales in comparison. The Last Supper question is one that has never been comprehensively answered.

The first level of meaning is the scene itself. Leonardo chose an exact moment in the Gospel narration of the Last Supper. “In truth, I tell you, one of you will betray me…” says Jesus, who is shown in the act of speaking. This revelation surges outwards amongst the Disciples who react, each in his own way, coalescing them into four groups of three. Christ has an expression of resigned sadness and at the same time, an assured and regal poise. He gestures to the wine with his right hand, to the bread with his left, instituting the fundamental Christian ritual of the Eucharist. The movement of the Disciples isolates Jesus, leaving Him alone at the centre of the composition. He is the only person to have a geometrical shape, an almost perfect equilateral triangle. He is also the only person to wear robes in red and dark blue. This is a tradition that descends from Mediaeval traditions in painting and stained glass.

The most expensive pigments to make were deep blue and bright red, requiring pulverized lapislazuli and gold respectively, and so over the centuries, these pigments were used only for the most important figures in the composition.

Leonardo painted the Apostles after having made countless drawings, some of which have survived in his notebooks. One preparatory drawing shows the Apostles labelled with their names. In fact, each Apostle had acquired a sort of standard appearance throughout the history of art up until that point, so that a person could recognize them in paintings and frescoes. In the same way, saints and martyrs were often depicted with certain objects that left no doubt as to their identity, such as John the Baptist’s rough animal-skin clothes, St. Peter’s keys, St. Catherine’s wheel and so forth. And so we know who attended the Last Supper – namely the identity of the Apostles – from the facial expressions that Leonardo gave them. On the far left, Bartholomew is rising to his feet, incredulous. James Minor is seated, trying to attract Peter’s attention with a hand on his shoulder. Andrew has both hands in the air, a gesture still used in Italy today to mean “it wasn’t me, honest!”

The next group of three is complicated. Judas is a dark figure, leaning back from his position close to Jesus and over the table, so that his head is actually the next, the fourth, in the sequence. He is clutching a bag of money in his right hand, while his left is about to take a piece of bread. In fact, Jesus would shortly reveal to John that the traitor would be he who would dip his bread into the same bowl as Him.

Judas is distanced from the other Apostles by his dark, shadowed complexion, and by an apparently broken nose. Behind his back there is a knife held by a mysterious hand. It could be Peter’s, it could be a disembodied 27th hand belonging to no-one in the composition.

Peter, the next in the sequence, is leaning in the opposite direction to Judas, so that although he is sitting next to Andrew – they were brothers – his head is very close to John the Evangelist. This is because, in the Gospel narration, Peter is asking John to ask Jesus who the traitor would be. John was the youngest Apostle, which was why he was traditionally shown without a beard.

Then, on the right of Jesus, there is Thomas, pointing upwards with a finger. This gesture was familiar to monks during the Renaissance: as meals in the refectory had to be taken in silence, in order to indicate God there was a conventional sign, thumb and index finger extended, the others closed. James Major is next, in a green robe. Philip is gesturing with both hands towards his heart, saying in tortured self-doubt, “Could it be I?” Matthew, the only educated man amongst the Apostles, is debating the matter, hands outstretched towards Jesus while he himself is deep in conversation with the other two Apostles in the right-hand group, Thaddeus, and lastly Simon.

Leonardo brought about many small revolutions with this painting, advances that may seem insignificant to us in our scientific and relatively unspiritual age, but that at the time were momentous. Firstly, he completely broke with tradition as regards the position of Judas. Painters before Leonardo made sure that Judas was very different to the rest of the Apostles, often by placing him alone, on our side of the table, or by making him the only one without a halo. Leonardo puts him together with the rest, one of the twelve, part of the overall sequence, and none of his figures have a halo. Secondly, this is probably the first painting in which an artist has tried to depict the variety of human psychology. Each Apostle reacts in his own, unique way, and Leonardo depicts this using all the methods possible, facial expression, bodily position, and above all, the gestures of the hands. Third, the question of perspective. Leonardo was a master in this fundamental Renaissance rediscovery, and in this painting he both broke the rules, and used it to add extra significance to the work. He broke the rules, because when you are standing the in the refectory, the perspective seems wrong. The upper edge of the tapestries ought to follow straight from the ceiling moulding in the real room, but they don’t. This is because Leonardo wanted to paint the fresco at a raised level, both so that it could be seen by all the monks in the room, and because the Gospel describes the Last Supper as having taken place in a room on an upper floor. If he had used perspective correctly, we would have seen nothing of what is on the table, and the table itself would have obscured most of the figure’s bodies. So he painted the scene with a perspective view that would be correct if the observer were at a height of about twelve feet.
The lines of perspective, the tapestries and the ceiling beams, converge at a vanishing point that is just above Jesus’ right eye. On his temple. “Tempio” in Italian. The word has the same double meaning in both languages, and it succinctly indicates that Christ is the originator of the new faith, the new church.

Leonardo took his revolution a step further. (I should warn you that from here on, I am voicing my own ideas. You decide). The parallel between the twelve Apostles and the twelve signs of the zodiac had been noted prior to Leonardo, but no-one had ever expressed it in paintings, partly because the Church didn’t approve of the contamination of doctrine with astrology. So Leonardo put in some subtle clues. Andrew, third from left, two hands in the air, Gemini, the twins, double sign. Judas, the fourth in the sequence, symbolizes a word that had had three meanings from Ancient Greek times: karkinos, the crab, tumours, and the zodiac constellation. Cancer. Then Peter, fiery temper, a great mane of hair: Leo. And then, the sixth in the sequence, a pale, delicate, feminine face: Virgo, of course! On the other side, Thomas, doubting Thomas, whose raised finger alludes (as well as to the Divinity in the sky) to that fact that later he would say that he would not believe until he had placed his finger into the wounds on Christ’s hands, is in the position of Libra, the sign of the zodiac hallmarked by perennial doubt. Second from last, Thaddeus is holding his hand in a cup shape. Aquarius, the water-bearer.

It’s true, not all the figures have such clear astrological attributes, but I think that there is enough to corroborate the theory. But, one may ask, why did Leonardo want to risk getting into trouble again with the Church for his unorthodox approach to subject matter? Here, I think that the answer is that Leonardo wanted to do more than just paint a picture describing a scene from the Gospel. He wanted to encapsulate that momentous instant in time into a worthy frame, and so he incorporated the only scientific, or rather metaphysical, concept on the origin and structure of the universe that he knew. (The same sort of approach can be seen in the Trivulzio Candelabra in the Cathedral, except that in this case, the world view is early Mediaeval). As this article is already getting rather long, I won’t burden you with details. Suffice to say that Leonardo incorporated numerological clues to indicate that the room represents the universe visible to Man, at which Christ is at the centre. The three windows behind provide a glimpse into the world of eternity, or paradise, as you will. Of course Christ is at the perspective centre of this as well.

Another revolution: Leonardo saves Judas. I mentioned the knife that is behind his back, another traditional element in Last Supper paintings, indicating man’s hostility to the traitor and suggesting the fact that Judas would die soon after. While at first glance, Peter seems to be holding the knife, the impossible anatomical position of this hand shows that in actual fact, the hand grasping the knife belongs to no-one at all, and that Peter is restraining it from its murderous action. Leonardo seems to be saying, by placing Judas with the rest of the Apostles, that there is an element of evil in all of us, and that we have to accept it just as we accept death and suffering. We cannot excise evil from the human race by executing a sinner. Hands off Cain, many centuries in advance.

This, then, is one interpretation of this extraordinary painting. While I’ve taken two hours to write this article, Leonardo spent four years on the painting, and there’s more, much, much more to be told…

Last Supper bookings: call +39 02 92800360, or visit the website where you can book tickets on line. Visits from 8.15 to 18.45, Tuesday-Sunday, closed on Mondays. Remember to bring your booking code, and to get there at least 20 minutes before the time of your visit. Where is the Last Supper located – Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

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