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The Mystery of Da Vinci's Last Supper

Few works of art in history have generated as much admiration, controversy and speculation as The Last Supper, painted by Leonardo Da Vinci in the late 1400s. The painting, often called Il Cenacolo in Italian, is actually a 15 by 29 foot mural located in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. The theme of the painting was traditional for refectories at the time but Leonardo’s treatment of it differed from others, a quality for which it was admired even in his own lifetime. What is most fascinating about the painting for many is not what remains of it but rather what does not remain and what is not known about it rather than what is known. In other words, it is the mystery of the painting that fascinates.

It is the deteriorated condition of The Last Supper that has caused it to be shrouded in such mystery. The deterioration began shortly after its completion in 1498 and within about 60 years, the figures were barely recognizable due to flaking and the accumulation of mold and mildew. Leonardo painted The Last Supper with tempera on a dry wall that he had sealed with a layer of pitch, gesso and mastic. He had apparently intended that the sealant would protect the paint from any moisture that would undoubtedly accumulate on the wall but unfortunately, it did not perform its intended function and Leonardo’s work began to degrade. It was this degradation, however, that caused the proliferation of a multitude of copies and a series of restorations that in turn gave rise to various interpretations of the original work.

The earliest records of restoration of The Last Supper were in the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, these early restorations were based on the premise that the painting was executed in oil paint and not tempera and a series of cleanings, varnishings, repaintings and even an attempt to remove the painting from the wall resulted in further deterioration. In 1943, the mural miraculously survived a bombing that nearly destroyed the refectory. In 1947, another cleaning was performed on the mural and shellac was applied to it as a fixative.

It wasn’t until 1979 that a massive restoration of the work based on scientific analysis took place. With the technological tools of chemical analysis, microscopic examination, sonar and radar surveys, and infrared reflectoscopy, the painting was analyzed and a program of restoration was initiated that involved first removing all additions to the painting after Leonardo completed it and then filling in missing parts with water colors in a manner that best matched the style of the painting. The restoration was completed twenty years later and it is what we see today at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

What remains of the painting today is symmetrical but elegant arrangement of twelve figures seated around a central figure at a large table. The twelve figures are arranged in four groups of three and each figure displays emotion and movement through various facial expressions and bodily gestures with the exception of the central figure who appears serene. The colors of the painting include rather vivid reds and blues and a gentle light source illuminates them from behind. The drama of the scene is heightened by the use of two techniques: cropping the scene with the use of a wide border and placing all of the figures in a frontal plane so that they do not recede to the vanishing point of the painting. That the central figure is Jesus, the remaining figures are his followers, and the painting depicted the last supper before the crucifixion are most likely true but that is all that can be said for certain. In fact, even these facts have been called into question since there is no visible evidence of halos surrounding the heads of the figures although copies indicated that they may have existed.

Traditional interpretations of The Last Supper center around Goethe’s study of the painting in 1818, in which he determined that it was based on the Biblical verse: “Verily I say unto you that one of you shall betray me.” This premise was also reinforced by the existence of a later copy of the work in which the verse was added to the tablecloth in the painting. Jesus’ followers have been identified based upon historical information on their appearance and their personal qualities mentioned in the Gospels. The three figures to the left of Jesus are thought to be Judas, Peter and John. Judas is shown in dark colors with what is presumably a money bag in his hand. Peter holds a knife and John is thought to be the effeminate figure closest to Jesus. To the right of Jesus are thought to be Thomas, James (the elder) and Phillip. Further to the right Matthew, Jude and Simon appear to be in discussion together and to the far left are Bartholomew, James and Andrew.

Some scholars suggest that the painting revolves around a successive verse in which each of the apostles ask Jesus if he himself would be the one to betray him. Other experts feel that the painting is not based on one verse or moment in time in particular but on multiple moments in the general time frame. Still others maintain that The Last Supper is a representation of the sacrament of Holy Communion because Christ’s left hand is pointing toward a piece of bread and his right toward a chalice, the symbolic body and blood of Christ. Various analyses of the hand positions of all of the figures have lead to a range of symbolic conclusions, particularly the hands of Jesus and Thomas. Jesus had traditionally been portrayed with his right palm showing and his left palm down but in the painting, these positions are reversed. Could this indicate Leonardo’s pagan inclinations or a response to the presence of Judas? Does the upward position of Thomas’ hand indicate that only heaven knows who will betray Jesus or is it a gesture mocking Jesus? The identity of the feminine figure to the left of Jesus is the subject of much controversy in the academic world and the theme of the popular book The Da Vinci Code in which it is suggested that the figure is actually Mary Magdalene. The knife held in Peter’s hand could be a way of protesting his innocence or an indication of his impulsive nature. As you can see, interpretations of The Last Supper abound and continue to be generated.

Despite the controversy surrounding this famous painting, or more likely because of it, The Last Supper continues to fascinate. Today, the painting is preserved by a sophisticated environmental system that monitors dust and humidity levels and filters dust particles. It is one the area’s most popular attractions and reservations are advised well in advance for the interested tourist. Unfortunately, when I visited Milan in 1995, the painting was still undergoing restoration and I was unable to glimpse it. Perhaps another time….

To see an image of The Last Supper in which you can zoom in and out to examine its details, click here. Then click on the fourth box that says “Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Super (zoomify).”

To see an image of The Last Supper before the renovation that began in 1979, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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