Thursday, March 24, 2016

Details in Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" -- What Do You See?


What can you identify in Leonardo da Vinci's mural painting The Last Supper in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan? I know you have seen this masterpiece many times. Yet, what may seem to you to be a straightforward work of art representing a simple Biblical depiction may surprise you in its meticulous detail.

In celebration of Easter, I am asking you to examine The Last Supper very closely and determine exactly what you see in the work. In other words, I am posting the painting and asking you to view it carefully. Then, I would ask you to read the sections below subtitles as “Speculation” and “What We Do Know” to reveal both interpretations of the work and information from Leonardo, himself.
First, here is a little background. Stop at the image of The Last Supper and do your investigation before reading the interpretations.


The Last Supper is one of the world's most famous paintings. The painting represents the scene of The Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, as it is told in the Gospel of John, 13:21. The present condition of the painting is not good in part due to Leonardo experimenting with oil paint and tempera in an environment where fresco would traditionally be used.

The painting was done from 1494-1499. One story goes that a prior from the monastery complained to Leonardo about the delay in completing the work, enraging him. He wrote to the head of the monastery, explaining he had been struggling to find the perfect villainous face for Judas, and that if he could not find a face corresponding with what he had in mind, he would use the features of the prior who complained.

(Kenneth Clark. Leonardo da Vinci. 1939, 1993.)

It is tempera (a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of colored pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium – usually a glutinous material such as egg yolk) on gesso (a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment, or any combination of these), pitch (a polymer derived from petroleum, coal tar, or plants), and mastic (a resin a obtained from the mastic tree).

The dimensions of the work are 460cm x 880 cm (181 inches x 346 inches).

 The Last Supper

 The Last Supper (Enhanced)

Close Up Views






The Last Supper has been the target of much speculation by writers and historical revisionists alike, usually centered on purported hidden messages or hints found within the painting.

A common rumor surrounding the painting is that the same model was used for both Jesus and Judas. The story often goes that the innocent-looking young man, a baker, posed at nineteen for Jesus. Some years later Leonardo discovered a hard-bitten criminal as the model for Judas, not realizing he was the same man. There is no evidence that Leonardo used the same model for both figures and the story usually overestimates the time it took Leonardo to finish the mural.

Some writers identify the person to Jesus' right not with the Apostle John (as is supposed by icongraphical tradition and confirmed by art historians) but with Mary Magdalene. This theory was the topic of the book The Templar Revelation, and plays a central role in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code (2003).

It is also claimed that if one looks above the figure of Bartholemew, a Grail-like image appears on the wall. Whether Leonardo meant this to be a representation of the Holy Grail cannot be known, since as pointed out earlier there is a glass on the table within Christ's reach. The "Grail image" has become noticed probably because it only appears when viewing the painting in small scale reproductions.

Slavisa Pesci, "an information technologist and amateur scholar", superimposed Leonardo da Vinci's version of The Last Supper with its mirror image (with both images of Jesus lined up) and claimed that the resultant picture has:
  • a Templar knight on the far left
  • a woman in orange holds a swaddled babe in arms to the left of Christ
  • the Holy Grail used in the first Eucharist

Giovanni Maria Pala, an Italian musician, has indicated that the positions of hands and loaves of bread can be interpreted as notes on a musical staff, and if read from right to left, as was characteristic of Da Vinci's writing, form a musical composition.

What We Do Know

The subject of the work specifically portrays the reactions of the apostles after Jesus announces: “One of you will betray me.” (Mark 14:18) Of course, this news is terribly shocking to his closest followers.

Perhaps the most important theme shows Christ reaching toward a glass of wine and bread. This is said to be the institution of the sacrament (the eucharist or “holy communion”) The glass is not the glorified chalice of legend as Leonardo insisted on realistic paintings. With a hand spread wide, it seems as if Jesus is reaching toward the wine but at the same time toward a bowl, and simultaneously Judas is reaching toward that same bowel. Does Jesus identify his betrayer signified by the person who dips with him in that bowel?

Do not the figures seem too crowded for the table? And, to some, the figure of the serene Christ has an important geometry in the painting. His body forms an equilateral triangle with the window that frames his head as a halo of sorts. He is the calm, divine center surrounded by humans with all of their “crowded” faults. fears, and worries. Da Vinci may have been thinking about math, science, religion and the integration of all of these things. All of the angles and lighting draw attention to Christ.

Even someone viewing the painting would have to be ten feet off the floor to get all the perspective correct. Thus, viewers must “look up” to see this, so Harris and Zucker claim “it elevates us to look at this painting.”

(Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. “Leonardo, Last Supper.

The Last Supper presents the apostles in four groups of three each. This overlaps them and perhaps help create drama and shared tension.

All twelve apostles have different reactions to the news, with various degrees of anger and shock. The apostles are identified from a a manuscript (The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci ) with their names found in the 19th century. (Before this, only Judas, Peter, John and Jesus were positively identified.)

(The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci – Complete by Leonardo da Vinci. January 2004.).

From left to right, according to the apostles' heads:
  • Bartholemew, James (son of Alphaeus) and Andrew form a group of three, all are surprised.

  • Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John form another group of three. 
    Judas is wearing green and blue and is in shadow, looking rather withdrawn and taken aback by the sudden revelation of his plan. He is clutching a small bag, perhaps signifying the silver given to him as payment to betray Jesus, or perhaps a reference to his role within the 12 disciples as treasurer. He is also tipping over the salt cellar. This may be related to the near-Eastern expression to "betray the salt" meaning to betray one's Master. He is the only person to have his elbow on the table and his head is also horizontally the lowest of anyone in the painting. 

    Peter looks angry and is holding a knife pointed away from Christ, perhaps foreshadowing his violent reaction in Gethsemane during Jesus' arrest. 

    The youngest apostle, John, appears to swoon. 

  • Jesus. 
  • Apostle Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip are the next group of three. 
    Thomas is clearly upset; the raised index finger foreshadows his Incredulity of the Resurrection. (Perhaps asking if this is part of God's plan? Is this also the finger of doubting Thomas feeling the wound of Jesus?) 

    James the Greater looks stunned, with his arms in the air. 

    Meanwhile, Philip appears to be requesting some explanation (with his hands together, not out into the air like James).

  • Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot are the final group of three. 
    Both Jude Thaddeus and Matthew are turned toward Simon, perhaps to find out if he has any answer to their initial questions.
In common with other depictions of the Last Supper from this period, Leonardo seats the diners on one side of the table, so that none of them has his back to the viewer. Most previous depictions excluded Judas by placing him alone on the opposite side of the table from the other eleven disciples and Jesus or placing halos around all the disciples except Judas. Leonardo instead has Judas lean back into shadow.

Jesus is predicting that his betrayer will take the bread at the same time he does to Saints Thomas and James to his left, who react in horror as Jesus points with his left hand to a piece of bread before them. Distracted by the conversation between John and Peter, Judas reaches for a different piece of bread not noticing Jesus too stretching out with his right hand towards it (Matthew 26: 23). The angles and lighting draw attention to Jesus, whose head is located at the vanishing point for all perspective lines.

The painting contains several references to the number 3, which represents the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. The Apostles are seated in groupings of three; there are three windows behind Jesus; and the shape of Jesus' figure resembles a triangle. There may have been other references that have since been lost as the painting deteriorated.

(The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci – Complete by Leonardo da Vinci. January 2004.).

Happy Easter. I hope you learned something new. I know I did when collecting the information for this entry.

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