Leonardo da Vinci’s large mural of The Last Supper is one of the most familiar images in Western art, even though it has deteriorated to the point where its original brilliance can only be guessed at. The mural has largely been known through its repainted versions, or through touched-up copies that attempt to give some idea of what the original might have looked like. But, the various versions of the picture do little to convey how revolutionary Leonardo’s whole conception was. At Milan, Leonardo created a work that treated a familiar subject, but was a complete departure from the usual in terms of composition, selection of a Biblical text, iconography, use of perspective, and fresco technique.
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Leonardo arrived in Milan in the early 1480s, and made one of the longest stays of his career there–nearly twenty years. He went to Milan to work for the controversial Sforza family, dukes of Milan, in a number of different capacities: designer, engineer, painter, sculptor, and producer of theatrical entertainments and spectacles. The Last Supper was his most important painting commission in that city. The mural, which measures 13’10” x 29’7.5″, was painted in the refectory of the ducal church of Santa Maria della Grazie in the years 1495-1498.
Leonardo was an inventor and an innovator, always looking for a better way to do things. In addition, he was, one of the most influential painters of the High Renaissance. The key to understanding the revolutionary qualities of The Last Supper lies in the fact that, in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, Leonardo was engaged in creating an entirely new style of painting. He was involved in working out a solution to a problem that had confronted Florentine painters during the preceding century: the opposition “between a view which took the first function of art to be that of rationally and objectively describing physical reality and one that held it to be the expression of spiritual–non-rational and subjective–values” (Freedberg 23).
Various compromises had been worked out between these two positions. But, Leonardo wanted a true blending, rather than a compromise. He did not seek to replicate reality for its own sake, nor did he choose to neglect the appearance of the real world. Instead, Leonardo believed that the painter could show “that truth which intellect may find behind the facade of visible experience” (Freedberg 20). The painter’s various tools, such as perspective or the rendering of light on surfaces, were to be used to create an overall harmony that took from the real world in order to describe the ideal. Leonardo had begun the work of creating this new style in his Adoration of the Magi (1481), which he left behind, unfinished, in Florence, when he departed for Milan. His earlier paintings in Milan show the continued development of the style, but his Last Supper was to be its major statement (Freedberg 20).
He began conventionally enough. Refectories, the dining halls of the friars or monks who ran large churches, were traditionally decorated with portrayals of the Last Supper, or some other subject associated with dining. These paintings must have been considered important commissions, since “their execution was often entrusted to the most popular and well-known artists of the times” (Cole 45). The opposite wall usually featured a fresco of the Crucifixion–signifying the connection between the last supper, at which the sacrament of the Eucharist was instituted, and the sacrifice on the Cross, which was recreated in the sacrament. At Milan, the opposing wall featured a Crucifixion (1495) by Donato Montorfano (Pedretti 75). Leonardo’s drawings show that he began with the conventional seating arrangement and the depiction of the usual moments from the New Testament (Hartt 399). But, he soon changed this, and went for something new.
Unfortunately, he also wanted something new in terms of technique–and this has made it difficult to see everything else he seems to have accomplished in this work. Leonardo was a painter who could spend enormous amounts of time staring at, and thinking about his works. There are even mentions in the literature of the duke trying to get him to hurry with this particular commission (Pedretti 75). In addition, Leonardo’s primary concern in painting was the creation of a uniform, overall effect–a vital element of his creation of a harmonious ideal. But, fresco painting had to be done in clumsy stages. The wet plaster had to be applied only to the section the painter would be able to finish in one sitting. The paint was applied to, and absorbed by, the wet plaster, and creating smooth, invisible joins between sections was a difficult problem. But for Leonardo, who wanted carefully controlled tone and light to unify his composition, it was nearly impossible. Therefore, he attempted to produce a new type of fresco, and painted directly on the dry plaster with a special oil tempera which, he was convinced, would meet the special needs of painting on plaster. But, by 1517, humidity and changing temperatures began to make the paint peel, and, within only twenty years, had become almost indecipherable.
In the dramatic moment that Leonardo presented, Jesus sits with his hands outstretched, as if in resignation. He is the focal point of the composition. The twelve apostles are arranged in four groups of three, two on either side of Christ. Their faces express surprise, and horror at the thought that one of them could be guilty of anything so terrible. This allows Leonardo to present a number of figures, who are, basically, arranged in a long row, in a great variety of positions, expressing shock, surprise, protest, and curiosity. But, among the groups, one includes Peter, John and Judas. Christ is lit from in front and from behind, by the framing of his head against the center window, and all the disciples are also well lit. The single exception is Judas. It was traditional to present Judas on the other side of the table from everyone else, and as “dark-haired and bearded, his expression sly” (Hall 190). But, Leonardo wished to present a more natural version of the story in which Judas truly would not stand out to the eyes of his fellow disciples. Therefore, Judas is integrated into the group. But, he is also placed with the other two most readily identified figures. He sits, shadowed, the only disciple not in the light, by Peter and John. Judas displays his accepted appearance. And, Peter displays his well-known characteristics of gray hair which is “generally short and curly and a short usually curly beard,” while John is identifiable because he is usually shown “next to Christ,” and depicted as “young, clean-shaven, with long hair and sometimes rather effeminate features” (Hall 190).
Because the historical event serves as a warning to those who view it, it is set in a world that is both realistic in its details, and ideal in its totality. Leonardo was creating a vision of one of a New Testament drama that had great personal significance for the viewers. But the event is played out on a scale, and in a setting that resembles the real world, but actually represents an ideal. The control of light seems to have been very carefully organized as well, and the perspective of the room is perfect. But, just as the light that shines on the faces of the disciples cannot have any origin within the picture, so the perspective is not what spectators were used to. The fifteenth century’s tradition of illusionistic perspective “decreed that represented space must be an inward extension of the room in which the spectator stands” (Hartt 401). However, in the case of The Last Supper, “there is no place in the refectory that a spectator can take in order to experience the painted space” in this way (Pedretti 70). The room created by Leonardo, like the people and objects in it, is in a “region of superior existence” and the table’s edge “makes a boundary between our world and the idea” (Freedberg 24). Thus, though Leonardo failed to change fresco painting to suit his own aims, the wreck of The Last Supper demonstrates how revolutionary the painting was.
Cole, Bruce. The Renaissance Artist at Work: From Pisano to Titian London: John Murray, 1983.
Freedberg, S. J. Painting in Italy: 1500-1600 3d ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.
Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art Rev ed. New York: Harper and Row-Icon, 1979.
Hartt, Frederick. Italian Renaissance Art Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; New York: Abrams, 1975.
Pedretti, Carlo. Leonardo: A Study in Chronology and Style. . New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich-Johnson Reprint, 1982.
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