One of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance by one of its greatest masters, Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper is a complex depiction of this iconic biblical subject. In this article, Singulart investigates the life and achievements of Leonardo Da Vinci and examines the complexities of this masterpiece.
Who was Leonardo Da Vinci?
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian polymath and the archetypal “Renaissance Man”. Although he is most renowned today for his skills as a painter, his interests and skills ranged from drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and history to engineering, invention, anatomy, geology, astronomy and cartography.
Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of Piero Da Vinci, a notary, and a peasant woman named Caterina, and was born in Vinci, Florence. Ruled by the Medici family, Florence was considered the cradle of the Renaissance during Da Vinci’s lifetime. He was educated in the Florentine studio of the painter Andrea del Verrocchio in the mid 1460’s, where he received a thorough theoretical training. By 1472, he had qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke, the guild of artists and doctors, and although his father helped him set up his own workshop, he continued to collaborate with Verrocchio. Da Vinci’s earliest surviving work is a pen and ink drawing of the Arno Valley from 1473. Soon after he established his own workshop, he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of Saint Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio and another for the monks of San Donato in Scopeto. However, Da Vinci completed neither of these projects as he abandoned them to work for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan from 1482 to 1499. During this time he painted, the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Political Turmoil Interrupts Da Vinci’s Career
Ludovico Sforza was overthrown at the beginning of the Second Italian War and thus Leonardo, along with his assistant Salai and his friend, the renowned mathematician Luca Pacioli, fled to Venice. Here he worked as a military architect and engineer, designing defense plans to protect the city from naval attack. He returned to Florence in 1500 and lived as a guest of the monks of the Santissima Annunziata monastery, where he painted The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, which according to the art historian Vasari, was hugely popular.
Da Vinci then went on to work for Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, as a military architect, engineer and cartographer until he returned to Florence and the Guild of Saint Luke in 1503. It was at this time that he began to work on his most famous painting, a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, now known as The Mona Lisa. It is speculated that he worked on this until his final years.
In 1515, King Francis I of France captured Milan and the following year Leonardo entered his service where he drew up architectural plans for a castle town and other inventions. Da Vinci died in France in 1519, in the house given to him by Francis I.
What’s happening in The Last Supper?
The Last Supper was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, for his renovations of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The Last Supper measures 460 x 880 cm and is located on the end wall of the dining room in the Convent. The theme of The Last Supper from the Gospel of John, 13:21, was traditional for dining halls, however, Da Vinici’s treatment of the subject was revolutionary. He chose to depict the moment Jesus announced that one of his apostles would betray him. Consequently, the painting is full of expressive reactions, which combined with Da Vinci’s mastery of perspective, creates a naturalistic composition which remains today one of the most significant masterpieces in the history of art.
The Symbolic Composition of The Last Supper
The Last Supper depicts Jesus, surrounded by his 12 apostles at a table celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover and it is Da Vinci’s mastering of the composition which contributes to the painting’s reputation. With Jesus in the center, his turned right cheek is the vanishing point for the perspective lines of the composition and his hands trace the lines of the golden ratio at the midway point of the composition. His gaze towards his left arm, leads the viewer’s gaze towards a loaf of bread, referring to his prediction that the apostle who would betray him would reach for bread at the same time as him. To his right, Judas can be seen reaching for a loaf of bread, distracted by his surprise at Jesus’ knowledge of his plan.
All twelve apostles are sat on the same side of the table as Jesus, facing out at the viewer and are organised into groups of three, referring to the Holy Trinity. In the first group Bartholomew, James and Andrew can be identified looking surprised. In the second, Peter expresses anger, John despair and Judas, who leans on the table in shadow, is shocked. Then, to Jesus’ left, Thomas, James the Greater and Philip look to Jesus in disbelief. The final group consists of Matthew, Jude and Simon who turn to one another, as if trying to comprehend the news.
The art historian, Giorgio Vasari, described the composition in his book ‘Lives of the Artists’, stating: “Leonardo imagined, and has succeeded in expressing, the desire that has entered the minds of the apostles to know who is betraying their Master…So in the face of each one may be seen love, fear, indignation, or grief at not being able to understand the meaning of Christ; and this excites no less astonishment than the obstinate hatred and treachery to be seen in Judas.”
Da Vinci’s Experimental Techniques
Rather than use the traditional buon technique for fresco painting which used wet plaster, Leonardo chose to experiment with a secco technique in order to take longer and rework his complicated composition without worrying about the plaster drying. The secco also allowed him to incorporate his signature painting techniques into his fresco, such as chiaroscuro and sfumato and the use of linear perspective. Unfortunately, this technique is very delicate and began deteriorating shortly after The Last Supper’s completion in 1498. Despite multiple restoration attempts, The Last Supper has not withstood the test of time and it is unlikely that much of what we see today is from the original, however it remains one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s greatest works.