Italian Masterpieces III: The Last Supper

nickcharles · May 30, 2006 1:51 am

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"The Last Supper", by Leonardo da Vinci, has recently found itself in the spotlight world-wide because of the controversy generated by Dan Browns novel "The Da Vinci Code", and the recently released movie based on the book. This painting, an icon of the Renaissance long before Dan Brown came along, has inspired artists for generations, and in this article I would like to take a look at some of the technique and history behind it.

Da Vinci painted the Last Supper between 1495 and 1498 on one of the walls in the refrectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. The fresco measures a whopping 1319 x 2910 (4.2 m x 9.1 m) and depicts the moment in the Gospels when Jesus reveals to his apostles that one of them will betray him. The Last Supper is in poor condition as a result of Leonardos technical methods. He was so sensitive to light and shadow in his paintings, that he would have been impatient with the traditional fresco method in which an artist painted very quickly on wet plaster. This technique would not have allowed him the time to perfect the tonal relationships in his painting, and so instead of using traditional fresco technique, he first prepared the wall with a base layer, then he built up his painting using layers of tempera. Unfortunately, moisture between the layers of paint prevented them from drying properly, and as soon as 1517 the painting began to flake off the wall.

The fresco was repainted twice in the 18th century, and once in the 19th century. It suffered under the hands of Napoleonic soldiers, and later Allied bombs during World War II. A more recent restoration, done by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon between 1978 and 1999, has used scientific testing and original drawings to reverse the damage of hundreds of years. The restoration has aroused considerable controversy, however, because it dramatically changed some colors and tones.

Leonardos Last Supper is an extraordinary piece of art for several reasons. First is in the composition; Christ is in the center of the painting, at the vanishing point for the perspective, so all of the perspective lines lead directly to him. In addition, the disciples around him have been divided neatly into four groups of three. Leonardo has thus created order out of a chaotic scene, and his use of the numbers three and four carries meaning because of their religious significance (three is the number of the trinity, there are three theological virtues, four Gospels, four cardinal virtues, etc.).

This painting is also significant because of the strong emotions depicted in the apostles reactions to Christs statement that one of them will betray him. We see St. Philip pointing his hands to his chest in protest that it could not be him (the third figure to the right of Jesus), and St. Matthew recoil as if shocked (the second figure to the right of Jesus). On the other hand, we see Judas (third figure to the left of Jesus) drawing away from Jesus and reaching for bread on the table, with his face in shadow.

Finally, this painting is a landmark in Renaissance art, because of the space that it depicts. Leonardo breaks with the contemporary illusionistic tradition, in which a painting is seen as an extension of the room in which the viewer is standing. The perspective was supposed to be consistent with the viewer, so that the viewer might almost think that they are looking through a window into another room. In the Last Supper, however, while the perspective is perfect, there is no place in the refectory that a viewer could stand where their eyes are on the same level as the vanishing point. The painting is not a continuation of the room, or a window, but a painting. This idea was to propel art into the High Renaissance, and later be adopted by other artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael.


The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The entire collection is copyrighted by The Yorck Project and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Graphic3970.jpgA special thanks to Staff Columnist, Jenna Hoffstein [bluevenus], as she reports from her studies in Italy! We invite you to view: bluevenus' Art Gallery bluevenus' Renderosity Store
May 29, 2006


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Article Comments


JoeBlack ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 30 May 2006

A lot of people are convinced that the figure to the right of Christ is Mary Magdalene, because it looks so feminine. This is one of the cornerstones to the whole "holy grail" legend (certainly the legend which states that the Holy Grail is a person, not a cup or object). I've heard art critics such as Brian Sewell insist that it's like that because of the way men were painted at the time. But if that is the case, why do the other male figures look male? Why change styles in the middle of a painting? Why is this one figure different? It's the only "male" figure in the painting to look remarkably female, even down to the smile, hair and gestures. This makes no sense if it's supposed to be a figure as important as John or Peter. Another thing to ponder is the peculiar "V" shape between Christ and the figure to his right. Some believe this is a secret sign from Da Vinci depicting the "vessel" symbol, the female pubic triangle. Again, another reference perhaps to Mary Magdalene? It's a wonderful masterpiece. I'm not sure where I stand on any of possible symbols alledged to be hidden in this painting. But it does make things interesting. No matter what people say, this Da Vinci/Holy Grail legend will never be laid to rest. Especially as long as people like Dan Brown are around to write books about it. Cheers JoeBlack

nemirc ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 31 May 2006

Hello there :) This was a very nice reading. I don't think anybody can know for sure whether or not all that holy grail theory is true or not, and unfortunately Leonardo is not around to ask him, heh. Take care.

ysvry ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 31 May 2006

i think the use of coke makes people see symbols in everything, leonardo made this 1500 years later and at that time the internet didnt exist so his info was a bit less of what we can get nowadays. maria magdalena was a whore who changed her ways due to christ, thats what the bible says. another reason for davinci to draw a man like a woman might be he was a convicted gay. Nice article jenna.

alvinylaya ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 31 May 2006

Actually Leonardo made some prelimenary sketches for the Last Supper and labeled each character, no Mary Magdalene, but Giovanni (John) next to Jesus. For those familiar with Leonardo's works, he actually made a portrait of St. John, looks really feminine too much like the one in the Last Supper. The Da Vinci code was definitely an exciting page turner (read the book twice), not a great source of historical facts though. I love articles that make us think, thanks for this one.

Pigumon ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 31 May 2006

This is wonderful painting, it really makes me wonder what artists were thinking before this time... how could they not paint realistically?? They didn't notice atmospheric differences, perspective, proportions.. it's incredible how there really was a "renaissance"!!! As for the whole controvery thing, as ysvry stated, Da Vinci exisited 1500 years AFTER Christ died.... only 500 years before US. We know far more about Da Vinci than he did of Christ. People seem to think anything past 20 years ago is "ancient" and all part of the same era of history. Also, The Church was quite corrupt at the time, and Da Vinci was very anti-religion, so he could have painted anything to defame the Church and its teachings. He was a commerical artist in reality, using money from his work to pursue his own very advanced interests. A great painting, not a super secret spy fantasy. People will find symbolism in anything. Did you notice the large amount of small rolls of bread that are on the table? If you draw vertical between each person in the painting , then add up the number of rolls in between each line, they correspond to letters in the latin alphabet, it roughly translates as "it's just a painting, get a life".

DarkStarBurning ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 01 June 2006

ysvry, FYI, Mary Magdalene is NOT referred to in the bible as a whore. There are in fact 3 Mary's and the lines between them were merged by Pope Gregory. The Vatican clearly stated in 1969 that he'd made an error and that Mary Magdalene was in fact a loyal, virtuous and wealthy woman. Obviously the fact she was a single woman who travelled and spent a large amount of time with a group of men meant she was a prostitute... sigh ... some things never change...

DigitalDream666 ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 01 June 2006

This is a realy nice report i like it ;-) take a look at my version from the Last Supper ;-)

colours ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 01 June 2006

Any of you that believe in the "De Vinci code" and that the picture of John the Younger was Mary M.....Please let me sell you a bridge in New York I have. ITS A PICTURE HE PAINTED OUT OF HIS IMAGINATION !!!!! If he felt Mary was there , he would have painted 14 people.

kserwolf ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 02 June 2006

I would like to respond to DarkStarBurning...I hate to tell you this but Mary Magdale was an adulteres that took money for sex (what do you call this kind of person) It very clearly tell in the bible that she was brought to Jesus because she was cought in the act of adultery. According to the Jewish law she was to be stone. But he took mercy and told the crowed "He who is with out sin throw the first stone..." John 8 3-7 is where you will find the whole story should you have any questions about who she was.

mrsparky ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 02 June 2006

You can even hear the man and the mona lisa speak now ... http://promotion.msn.co.jp/davinci/voice.htm

deemarie ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 02 June 2006

Leonardo has thus created order out of a chaotic scene, and his use of the numbers three and four carries meaning because of their religious significance. Intriguing information. Thanks so much for bringing us another outstanding article on the classic paintings. Do you have any plans about doing future articles on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? Dee-Marie

mastercraft ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 02 June 2006

This painting is an artists fantasy which has no room for actually an event with historic accuracy. Why would a gathering of people sit all in a row facing the viewer? Maybe christs last words were " alright all of you on this side of the table gather around for your group portrait".Art is in the eye of the beholder.

Peter C ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 02 June 2006

From the May 11, 2006 Wanderer's "Talking Points on Falsehoods in "The Da Vinci Code": "DA VINCI CODE: That must be Mary Magadelene sitting next to Jesus in Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper because the person has long hair, no beard, and feminine features. TRUTH: No, that's John the Apostle sitting next to Jesus, not Mary Magdalene. Leonardo explained in his Treatise on Painting that he painted people according to their age and status. Since John was the youngest apostle and a favorite disciple of Jesus, Leonardo painted him as youthful, long-haired, and clean-shaven."

cwolfraven ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 02 June 2006

It was proven by the Vatican that Mary Magdelene was NOT a prostitute. These were totally different people. Whether or not she and Christ entered into a releationship is a moot point. DaVinci was a masterful illusionist when it came to the canvas. Many of his meanings may have been based on translation errors that had already been in the text for a 1000 years. So, like an artist, it would be his job to fill in the gaps. Just like Michelangelo's statue of Moses with horns. Does anybody here actually believe Moses had horns? It is all illiteration. That's what artists do. ;)

sigiel ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 03 June 2006

yesterday, i saw a post on one of my pict, where a guy was saying how the blue crystal well represented the ice/tension betwene tow of the character. he realy did belive it, and realy saw it , for him the blue crystal was the ice betwen them my point is i did create the blue crystal because i thought it looked more cool with, i try alway to find an equilibrium of mass and color. 4 me it has no special meaning. however, i saw the my pict with his eyes, and i could see his point too. so it might be the same for leonardo. but the ONLY real, important point his : What do YOU see ? what I see is a unfinish painting. that i personaly don't realy like. i'm a children of the digital age. my aestethic sensibility is shaped by it.

BradanFeasa ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 03 June 2006

I think Leonardo was one of the greats in all of history. His mind, spirit, temperament, and works of all sorts will amaze and intrigue people for the next thousand years. Given his genius and prowess in the use of symbols as well as realism, I for one have no doubt that "The Last Supper" represents ideas and symbols intended by DaVinci but not yet understood or even discovered. It is a wonderful dimension of life to believe this is true, regardless of the inertia of "conventional wisdom."

Arbelain ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 03 June 2006

Bright description bluevenus. Thanx for the article. But we want More of them!

McDod ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 03 June 2006

Mmm, this debate is getting a little heated, lol!! Personally, I have no intention now (or in the future) of checking out that hokey book or the cheesy-looking movie starring (surprise!) Tom of Hanks...however I was fortunate to see the original painting of The Last Supper for myself, as a kid in Italy in 1976/'77 and it was certainly impressive. Leonardo was not exactly lacking in the talent department, that much we can ascertain! Cheers for the interesting article.

DarkStarBurning ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 03 June 2006

kserwolf, thank you for your opinion, however, you are wrong. According to the bible Mary was possessed by demons and was "saved" by Jesus.In 591, Pope St. Gregory the Great preached a sermon in which he identified as one person the New Testament figures of Mary Magdalene, The sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet and washed them with her tears, and the Mary who was the sister of Lazarus and Martha of Bethany. This was an error, and led to centuries of teaching, especially in the West, that Mary M was a whore. However, that was rectified in 1969 when there was an official statement by the Vatican simply stating that Pope Gregory had made an error. I cannot comment on Jewish law, as my interest is primarily in traditional Christianity and folklore, but I recommend you don't take my word for it and seek verification from the official Vatican website. As for the DVC book, I haven't read it. I'd rather read Umberto Eco lol

razzell2 ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 20 July 2006

well written, your study on this masterpiece. i wish you would have touched on the controversy surrounding the painting, since you mentioned dan brown's fictional novel, in regards to why the man on the right of jesus is so feminine and some of the other intriguing myths that surround this painting. also, ive read that da vinci was a pretty raw dude himself...but i guess thats for another thesis, hmm? im hooked on your series now. you must continue. thanks Jenna


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