Tucked inside a book I picked up from a stack on the floor was a postcard I had long ago forgotten about. The card shows a reproduction of the da Vinci painting, The Last Supper, one all of us have seen many times in one form or another. Staring at the postcard and trying to pick out a detail or two, it was hard to see anything clearly in what looks like a pre-restoration image of the painting. But in this digital age of almost instant gratification, I knew that a hundred or more websites would offer a bigger and much clearer image of this famous work of art.
Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper for his patron Duke Ludovico Sforza during the years from 1495 to 1498. The painting covers an end wall of the refectory at the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy and measures 15 feet by 29. It is one of the most famous paintings of a biblical subject in Western history.
The subject of The Last Supper depicts Christ celebrating the Passover meal with the twelve apostles shortly before Judas betrayed him to the Romans. Christian theology teaches that this event marked the first celebration of the Eucharist, as it was at this meal that Christ transformed the bread and wine into his body and blood.
Da Vinci’s composition is by no means casual and throughout the painting are arrangements and symbols that reflect scripture and theology, as well as the painter’s deep thought about his subject and task. The arrangement of figures shows Christ and the disciples aligned on one side of the table, thus creating a barrier separating the sacred event from the monks of Santa Maria delle Grazie who ate their meals in the refectory seated before the painting. The apostles are arranged in groups of three, one of several representations of the Holy Trinity in the painting: From the left they are Bartholomew, James and Andrew, and in the next grouping Judas, Peter and John; in the center is Christ, whose figure resembles a triangle, symbolizing again the Trinity. Next are the apostle Thomas, James the Greater and Philip, and the last grouping of Matthew, Jude Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot. The three windows behind Christ yet again underscore the idea of Three in One.
A page of da Vinci’s preliminary sketches
Giorgio Vasari, a sixteenth-century biographer of Leonardo explains that the painting was meant to capture the moment of Christ’s prediction as it appears in Matthew 26:21, “Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.” The apostles are shown reacting to his words, each expressing a different emotion. Though it is difficult to see well in the painting, Judas appears surprised at the revelation of his secret. Details in the painting suggest the betrayer’s intent, and looking closely you will see that Judas is clutching a small bag holding what we imagine are thirty pieces of silver. He has also upset the salt cellar before him, an action in that time and place called “betraying the salt” and symbolizing the betrayal of one’s master or someone owed loyalty and devotion. Note too that the head of Judas is horizontally the lowest of anyone in the painting.
Leonardo’s commission was to paint a fresco on the wall of the refectory, but The Last Supper is not a true fresco, not something painted on wet plaster. The artist worked with great precision, and because a fresco cannot be modified as the artist works, Leonardo instead sealed the stone wall with layers of pitch, gesso and mastic, then painted onto the sealing layer with an oil and tempera based medium. That medium proved highly unstable and the painting began to deteriorate a few years after Leonardo finished it.
From 1978 to 1999 restorers undertook a major restoration to permanently stabilize the painting, and reverse the damage caused by dirt, pollution, and misguided earlier attempts at restoration. Since it was impractical to move the painting to a more controlled environment, the refectory was converted to a sealed, climate-controlled environment, which meant bricking up the windows. The restoration took twenty-one years and in May of 1999 The Last Supper was put back on display. Visitors are required to book ahead and can only stay for fifteen minutes.