The Last Supper Judas!
The Last Supper Judas! A few days ago, my colleague the marketing manager said this ought to be the keyword to be inserted in my article. “How do I insert that?”, I thought. “Be creative”, he said, as if he was reading my mind…Was this what he meant?! I wonder…
Anyways, inserted! SEO is happy.
Now, let us focus on one of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces, giving it the protagonism it deserves: The Last Supper, a fresco painted between 1495 and 1498, with some very curious features.
For some reason, I recall it being one of the first artworks I ever discovered, possibly watching a documentary with my parents when I was a child. I confess that I have been fascinated by the figure of Leonardo da Vinci ever since. He was what one would call a “true genius”, devoted to the study of nature and its accurate imitation in art.
Possibly one of the most famous artworks in the world, it was painted during the High Renaissance period for the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. A common subject to be placed in the refectory, the monks were blessed with the opportunity to dine while looking up at this sensational fresco: “not bad, eh!”, quoting my students.
The subject matter of The Last Supper
Protagonist of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, several speculations and conspiracy theories around its true meaning have been made throughout History, but what is clear is that it depicts the dramatic religious scene where Jesus declares – during his last meal, which gives the title to the painting – that one of the Apostles will betray him. His words provoke a series of reactions that are captured in this masterpiece.
However, Leonardo’s excellence is seen in the fact of representing a succession of moments rather than one instant frozen in time. Hence, simultaneously, Christ is also seen reaching towards a glass of wine and a piece of bread, symbolising the institution of the Eucharist, a key moment in Christian tradition where Jesus invites his apostles to take these two elements which symbolise his body and blood.
Analysis of the painting
Leonardo, as a remarkable virtuoso, visually translated this moment in an apparently simple composition that, if looked closely, reveals a complex study of various human emotions and poses, depicting the reactions of his twelve apostles to his announcement. Several drawings were made before the execution of this painting, where the artist meticulously studied each individual pose to manifest a certain emotion…Brilliant!
Moreover, the artist allows the figures and their gestures to stand out by expertly avoiding any form of excessive decoration that could distract the viewer from the solemn event, resulting in a simple composition.
The figures are organised in four groups of three which, together with the three windows present in the background, symbolise the divine number three, emblem of the Holy Trinity in Christian religion.
Briefly glimpsing some of my favourite figures, Saint John (or Mary Magdalene, if one wants to follow “The Da Vinci Code” conspiracy theory!) appears resigned, his eyes closed, following his traditional representation. Or again, Saint Thomas, represented with his finger pointing upwards, foreshadowing the moment when he will insert his finger in Christ’s wound after the Resurrection.
(Spoiler!) Judas is the one who will betray him, paid thirty silver coins by the Romans, which Leonardo skilfully shows by depicting him holding a bag in his right hand. Additionally, his betrayal is emphasised by representing him pulling away from Christ and casting his face in a superb chiaroscuro.
The peculiar representation of this apostle is one of the many innovations that Leonardo inserts in The Last Supper. Judas, in traditional paintings, is represented on the other side of the table, separated from the rest of the – loyal – apostles, as to emphasise his betrayal. Here, instead, they are all placed together, for the first time in the History of Art, the table serving – hence – as a separation between the earthly world (the refectory) and the heavenly one (where Jesus Christ resides) …This is the High Renaissance at its best!
As you might have perceived already, the composition appears formally arranged (in simple words: it appears all tidy and organised!) despite the presence of numerous figures which occupy the table. This choice is purposefully made to enhance the order and geometry of Christ, his figure forming a perfect equilateral triangle, contrasting his heavenly calmness with the visceral earthly reactions of his followers.
The utmost High Renaissance is echoed in the fact that the viewer is still able to identify the religious subject despite the lack of traditional divine symbols such as the halo. In fact, one could argue that the window behind Jesus’ head serves this purpose.
The use of perspective
One of the most influential contributions of the Renaissance was the invention of perspective, AKA the creation of the illusion of depth in a painting.
What makes The Last Supper so stunning, among other elements, is the exceptional illusion that the space of the refectory continues beyond the wall and into the painting through the insertion of the so called one-point linear perspective. It consists in organising and distorting the space by inserting lines (known as “orthogonal lines”) which radiate from one point (the “vanishing point”) placed on the horizon line (the eye level of the viewer). EING??
Hang on, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, as they say. Have a look at the image below, because this is brilliant: Christ’s head is the vanishing point – emphasising him, hence, as the centre of the composition – to which all the orthogonal lines merge, skilfully enhanced by the parallel lines formed by the walls and the coffered ceiling.
Fun fact! Curiously, since the fresco is placed higher on the wall of the refectory, the pictorial space should be organised in a way to offer an “ant viewpoint” (distorting the scene as if the painting were seen from below), imitating the point of view of the viewer, since he is situated on a lower level. However, by organising the scene as if the spectator were to see it from the front, Leonardo is elevating him to Christ’s level  (a fancy way to justify Leonardo’s consideration that, in the case of adopting an ant viewpoint, the viewer would have only been able to see the bottom of the table, and not the action taking place? Possibly).
Furthermore, depth is also created by using the common technique of overlapping shapes, seen in the figures of the apostles, whose bodies are overlaid, which also enhances the sensation of drama and tension in the scene and unifies the composition.
Condition: save The Last Supper!
Leonardo was a genius and a notorious perfectionist (I hear you, Leo!). Hence, unsatisfied by the reduced details and luminosity that traditional fresco would offer, he decided to undertake an experimental technique and, instead of painting on wet plaster, as traditional fresco would imply, he painted on dry plaster. Also, to enhance the luminosity, he applied a first layer of white paint which would grant the chromatic brilliance of the pigments once applied on top. Moreover, by using a combination of both oil and tempera, the fresco allowed outstanding intricate details, never possible using this technique. Excellent, right?
“Oops!”. I like to think that this is what Leonardo must have thought when he saw his artwork soon after its creation. Since he painted on dry plaster, the paint never adhered to the wall, so it soon started to deteriorate and fall off. This was aggravated by the precarious conditions in which the fresco is conserved, since the humidity, and the following air pollution of Milan and the copious flow of tourists, are seriously endangering its preservation.
Napoleon didn’t help either, when his invading troops used the refectory as a stable in the 18th century, and then – cherry on the cake – in World War II a bomb destroyed the roof of the refectory in 1943, exposing the artwork to natural elements for several months.
Even though a twenty-year restoration has been made, the fresco is still in terrible conditions, the nature of the medium of the painting itself being its biggest enemy.
To conclude, I will tell you a secret: I am an Italian art historian, a true art addict, I have seen numerous artworks from all around the world…and I still never had the chance to view this masterpiece of the Italian High Renaissance! (“Shame…Shame…”, as Septa Unella of Game of Thrones would say).
This painting is, together with all his work, a visual testimony of Leonardo’s genius, an artist who was able to merge his knowledge of mathematics and art in harmonious pieces.
Hence, I better hurry up – and you should too! – and view “The Last Supper” before it disappears, or what I will now affectionately call – thank you marketing manager! – “The Last Supper Judas”!
- OAI. Artworks by Leonardo da Vinci.
- OAI. Iconography of The Last Supper.
- BRITANNICA. (17th of February 2021), Last Supper. Fresco by Leonardo da Vinci.
- CRICCO, Giorgio, DI TEODORO, Francesco Paolo. Itinerario nell’arte. Dal Gotico internazionale all’Eta’ Barocca. Zanichelli: 2016
- KHAN ACADEMY. (17th of February 2021), The Last Supper.
- ULISSE. IL PIACERE DELLA SCOPERTA. (2019). Leonardo genio universale.
- VASARI, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford University Press: 2008