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.
—Georgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, 1568; translated by George Bull
St. Andrew, with his long grey beard, lifts up his hands, expressing the wonder of a simple-hearted old man. St. James Minor . . . lays his hand on the shoulder of St. Peter—the expression is, ‘Can it be possible? Have we heard aright?’ Bartholomew at the extreme end of the table, has risen perturbed from his seat; he leans forward with a look of eager attention, the lips parted he is impatient to hear more.
—Mrs. Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, 1848
Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker provide a description, historical perspective, and analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1498, tempera and oil on plaster (Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan)
The subject of the Last Supper is Christ’s final meal with his apostles before Judas identifies Christ to the authorities who arrest him. The Last Supper, a Passover Seder, is remembered for two events:
Christ says to his apostles “One of you will betray me,” and the apostles react, each according to his own personality. Referring to the Gospels, Leonardo depicts Philip asking “Lord, is it I?” Christ replies, “He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me.” (Matthew 26) We see Christ and Judas simultaneously reaching toward a plate that lies between them, even as Judas defensively backs away.
Christ blessed the bread and said to the apostles “Take, eat; this is my body” and he blessed the wine and said “Drink from it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26). These words are the founding moment of the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Leonardo’s Last Supper is dense with symbolic references.
- Apostles. Attributes identify each apostle. Judas Iscariot is recognized both as he reaches to toward a plate beside Christ (Matthew 26) and because he clutches a purse containing his reward for identifying Christ to the authorities the following day. Peter, who sits beside Judas, holds a knife in his right hand. This foreshadows that Peter will sever the ear of a soldier as he attempts to protect Christ from arrest.
- Neo-Platonism. The balanced composition is anchored by an equilateral triangle formed by Christ’s body. He sits below an arching pediment that if completed, traces a circle that would perfectly enclose the triangle. These ideal geometric forms refer to the renaissance interest in Neo-Platonism. In his allegory, “The Cave,” the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato emphasized the imperfection of the earthly realm. Geometry, used by the Greeks to express Heavenly perfection, has been used by Leonardo to celebrate Christ as the embodiment of heaven on earth. Neo-Platonism is an element of the humanist revival that reconciles aspects of Greek philosophy with Christian theology.
- Paradise. Leonardo rendered a verdant landscape beyond the windows. Often interpreted as paradise, it has been suggested that this heavenly sanctuary can only be reached through Christ.
- Trinity. The twelve apostles are arranged as four groups of three and there are also three windows. The number three is often a reference to the Holy Trinity in Catholic art. In contrast, the number four is important in the classical tradition (e.g. Plato’s four virtues).
Compared to the Same Subject Painted by Early Renaissance Artists
Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper (1447) is typical of the Early Renaissance. The use of linear perspective in combination with ornate forms such as the sphinxes on the ends of the bench and the marble paneling tend to detract from the spirituality of the event. In contrast, Leonardo simplified the architecture, eliminating unnecessary and distracting details so that the architecture can instead amplify the sense of spirituality. The window and arching pediment even suggest a halo. By crowding all of the figures together, Leonardo uses the table as a barrier to separate the spiritual realm from the viewer’s earthly world. Paradoxically, Leonardo’s emphasis on spirituality results in a painting that is more naturalistic than Castagno’s.
The Last Supper is in terrible condition. Soon after the painting was completed on February 9, 1498 it began to deteriorate. By the second half of the sixteenth century Giovan Paulo Lomazzo stated that, “the painting is all ruined.” Over the past five hundred years the painting’s condition has been seriously compromised by its location, the materials and techniques used, humidity, dust, and poor restoration efforts. Modern problems have included a bomb that hit the monastery destroying a large section of the refectory on August 16, 1943, severe air pollution in postwar Milan, and finally, the effects of crowding tourists.
Because Leonardo sought a greater detail and luminosity than could be achieved with traditional fresco, he covered the wall with a double layer of dried plaster. Then, borrowing from panel painting, he added an undercoat of lead white to enhance the brightness of the oil and tempera that was applied on top. This experimental technique allowed for chromatic brilliance and extraordinary precision but because the painting is on a thin exterior wall, the effects of humidity were felt more keenly, and the paint failed to properly adhere to the wall.
There have been seven documented attempts to repair the Last Supper. The first restoration effort took place in 1726, the last and most extensive was completed in 1999. Instead of attempting to restore the image, the last conservation effort sought to arrest further deterioration and where possible, uncover Leonardo’s original painting. Begun in 1977 and comprising more than 12,000 hours of structural work and 38,000 hours of work on the painting itself, this effort has resulted in an image where approximately 42.5% of the surface is Leonardo’s work, 17.5% is lost, and the remaining 40% are the additions of previous restorers. Most of this repainting is found in the wall hangings and the ceiling.
- Number of years after its completion that deterioration was noted: 18
- Number of bombs that have hit the refectory: 1
- Number of years needed to complete the recent conservation project: 22
- Number of years that Leonardo needed to complete the painting: 4
- Number of research studies produced during conservation project: 60
- Number of hours spent on the conservation project: 50,000
- Percentage of the surface that is lost: 17.5
- Percentage of the surface painted during the seven previous restorations: 40
- Percentage of the surface that was painted by Leonardo: 42.5