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.


Leonardo’s technique and the Last Supper

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.

The Last Supper’s survival instinct

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.

Photo by Nichols, Lynn H. (1995). The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Teasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-679-75686-6; OCLC 32531154, Fair use,

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.

An instant depicted

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.

Leonardo da Vinci study for Last Supper
By Leonardo da Vinci –  Public Domain,

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!”

Bartholomew James Minor Andrew Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci-W1200
Bartholomew, James Minor, Andrew, Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

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.

Judas, Peter, John the Evangelist, the Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci
Judas, Peter, John the Evangelist, the Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

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?”

Thomas, James Major, Philip, the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Thomas, James Major, Philip, the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

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.

Philip Matthew Thaddeus Simon Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci
Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon, the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

Judas is one of us

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.

An unusual perspective

Leonardo was a master of perspective, a 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. “Tempia” in Italian. The word’s etymology indicates Christ’s centrality in faith, the church and the universe.

Astrological sequence

Leonardo took his revolution a step further. (I should warn you that from here on, I am voicing my own ideas). 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, John the Evangelist: 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 Neoplatonic interpretation. (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).

The Last Supper and numerology

In Timaeus, Plato describes the creation of the universe. Considering that order is better than disorder, the Creator’s fundamental action was to bring order to the disorderly substance in which the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) were shapeless and in constant motion. In doing so, He ensured that the world is a living creature, doing so by putting intelligence in soul, and soul in body. “Wherefore, using the language of probability, we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God” (Timaeus 30a-b). In addition, the demiurge ensured that the world is one and only, a single unique world (31b), a concept that would be later developed by Spinoza. The Creator made the body of the universe from the four elements: “And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion” (31-33). Finally, the Creator made the soul of the world, placing it at the centre of the world’s body. The world thus became a perfect, self-sufficient and intelligent being, and so was itself a god (34b) – once again, equivalent to Spinoza’s concept of the universe.

In Timaeus, Plato then explains how the soul of the world was created by combining three elements, Sameness, Difference, and Being (or Existence). These elements were put into motion, and the motion of Difference comprised seven circles, corresponding to the orbits of the heavenly bodies, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The demiurge connected the body and soul of the universe, diffusing the soul from the centre of the body to its extremities in every direction (36e).

These numbers, three, four and seven, are clearly visible in all parts of the Last Supper’s composition, in the four groups of three disciples, the three windows on the back wall, and the ceiling beams, of which there are seven in each direction.

Last Supper ceiling, Leonardo da Vinci
Last Supper ceiling, Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

So the room of the Last Supper becomes a depiction of the universe, an intelligent being, a god. And so it is no surprise that Christ, the Son of God, is right at the centre, his right temple at the point of focus of the perspective lines, so that the intelligence of the world irradiates outwards to every part.

It follows that the three windows provide a glimpse beyond the world that mankind knows, the realm of eternity. I find it interesting that Leonardo never painted a paradise of clouds, angels, seraphims and cherubims as depicted by many other Medieval and Renaissance artists. (See below, Bergognone’s Incoronation of the Virgin in San Simpliciano, Milan). Leonardo’s paradise is simply our own world, in a different dimension. The landscape that we see through the three windows looks very like a Lombard landscape, with mountains and lakes, and even a tiny church tower that became visible after the restoration.

Last Supper windows, Leonardo da Vinci
Last Supper windows, Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

I would venture to say that Leonardo’s love of nature was such that he looked forward to continuing his explorations in eternal life. Perhaps he considered paradise as our own world, but outside the constrictions of time.

Bergognone Incoronation of the Virgin San Simpliciano Milan
CC 4.0,_soffitto_di_San_Simpliciano,_Milano.jpg

Hands off Cain

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.

The knife, Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci
The knife Last Supper Leonardo da Vinci, image Public Domain,

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: 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. The Last Supper is located at Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.