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The Last Supper: da Vinci's Depiction Of Jesus & Apostles

Updated: Feb 1


The Last Supper
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci | Source: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is always high time whenever I read and write about da Vinci. Those who are his keen followers already know that his paintings and sketches introduced perspective towards art, life and a deeper understanding than just what is visible. So, to actually discern the foresaying, let us start imagining the year 1495 through the books and its bibliomania, which will take our imagination so far that we can't resist reading more about Milan and meeting da Vinci. Besides, did I tell you that even mentioning the meet gave me terrific shivers? If you are in the same boat, mate, let us pass this passage of time for him virtually. It's all worth it! It is because there is something special about this influential personality, who has had such loyal patrons for centuries for his beloved and valuable works of art. Historically, after dozens of years spent on art, Leonardo, at the age of forty-three, there coincided the time with a prestigious commission to complete something that truly fulfilled his confounding promise of being with every art patron for centuries. That is the commission to paint The Last Supper in the refectory of a Dominican convent! A question often appears in mind, why The Last Supper is brought into vogue even with its controversies? Because it's Leonardo, isn't the reason enough? Yeah, for the loyal patrons, but those who don't know him may never understand why. You have to read the article for the answer, but to keep you going even without enough space but with the best lines, I will try! It is because the artwork is not just a replica of thoughts but a combination with reality. It is an experimented intelligent composition of human behavior and reaction towards an expression by Jesus and a story of survival towards the ages, even with the torturous history. Not only do the elements, symbolism, or perspective define its benignity, but there are dozens of stories behind him, from making the models of Apostles to his gestures and expressions of them. Now that I have told you the reason behind this article: let us start reading about the historic and epic painting of all time.


Artist Synopsis: Leonardo da Vinci.


"I wish to work miracles",

says Leonardo da Vinci. Fair enough, the artist created miracles through his works and artworks. Born in 1452 in the square-built farmhouse near Vinci, his grandfather recorded his birth in his diary,

"A grandson was born to me, the son of Ser Piero, my son, on the 15th day of April, a Saturday, in the third hour of the night, He bears the name Lionardo."

For his earlier life, I have mentioned in the artist abstract of my previous article. Let me give you an account of his schooling life.


Portrait of High Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci
Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (from Characaturas by Leonardo da Vinci, from Drawings by Wincelslaus Hollar, out of the Portland Museum) 1786 | Source: Met Museum

Talking about Leonardo's early education, you must know that it was unremarkable as it hardly provoked the circumstances under which he became the celebrated polymath. Between the ages of six and eleven, he studied at an elementary school called the Botteghuzza, which prepared students for the workshop. He mainly learned the idiomatic Italian of Tuscany and basic abilities to read and write. Further, he studied a few elementary grammars from Donadello (Latin instructions). Though he didn't have proper schooling anywhere, his one earnest attempt and desire to master his work led him to transcribe Niccolo Perotti's widely used textbook Rudimenta grammatices. It was in Latin, and even the exceptional brains struggled to do so. Vasari stated that Leonardo was so ingenious in mathematics that he used to baffle his headmaster with his questions. It tells us to assume that he was a brilliant and curious student who always had greed for perfection in his works. He used to describe himself as "Uomo senzo lettere:" a man without letters.


After his early days, da Vinci moved to Florence to live with his father after his grandparents and stepmother died in 1464. During that time, he had an apartment in Palazzo del Podesta, and in 1470; he had a house in Via Della Prestanze. He created accomplished works of all times, residing in different homes.


Maybe, someday I might write his entire biography, which is filled with numerous fascinating stories and learnings. But, for now, let us move towards the painting analysis and whereabouts.


History And Background Of The Artwork.


The story of The Last Supper painting dates back to 1492 when Ludovico was contemplating his own last-resting place. So in the same year, he began to plan a Sforza mausoleum for his own and his descendants and began to find a perfect place for the purpose. Finally, he selected the Church of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan.


Soon after, he began embellishing and beautifying the Church with a notice to his secretary to bring together the experts for architecture to design and renovate the Church's facade. Listening to this hussle, da Vinci became highly interested in the project, but Ludovico had different plans for him. Leonardo may have dreamed of constructing tanks and guns and completing the world's Brobdingnagian bronze statue, but he was doing none. Instead, he had to paint a wall!


Ludovico Duke of Milan
Ludovico II Moro and his son Massimiliano Sforza | Source: Pinacoteca di Brera, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, Why The Last Supper? Anything could be part of the wall, but there lies one more interesting story behind it, which tells us the answer. During the same period, Dominicans had religious authority in Italy. They had powers for firm order on what churches and Chapels must have themselves and even elect Pope. If I have to explain them in one line, Dominic used to follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, which abstains usage of flesh, bath, and meats, as pleasurable food and bath can stimulate the sexual appetites according to them. During this period, frescos were painted on the refectory walls, and the subject matter always consisted of food. Hence, to fit all these conditions and requirements, there was a perfect scene, The Last Supper. And this is how Ludovico Sforza chose The Last Supper painting over his mind amid Dominican friars.


Reaching back to the painting and Leonardo, the exact date of the commission is not known as the archives of the convent were destroyed. However, the most logical scenario says that it may have been given during the end of 1494 or the beginning of 1495. Additionally, you must know that Leonardo was not a fresco artist as his master Verrocchio wasn't. Bluffs and buster aside, Leonardo could do well with altarpieces and portraits, so even if he wasn't a frescoist, he was the optimal choice. How? You will know on further reading, and the rest is history!


Next, there is one fascinating incident coinciding with this prime commission. Now there is a historical fact about Leonardo that he used to balk out from earlier commissions, but since this came from Duke, he couldn't bail out. However, his fragmentary letters to Ludovico include phrases like

"things assigned" and "not my art",

which may concern this assignment. He complained about the lack of payment and expenses, in addition to his protests which were more about the equestrian monument. Somehow we understand that Leonardo wasn't happy with the commission, but it turned his career entirely after then. He exercised his talents to paint on a grander scale than ever before!


Versions Of The Last Supper Painting Throughout The History.


Before Leonardo, there were many European artists who made Last Supper in their own way. It is no surprise in knowing that before Leonardo, many artists envisaged The Last Supper for more than a thousand years. I will let you know all the crucial and known versions by different artists.


The earliest surviving mosaic was from the basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravena from the fifth century to show the life cycles of Christ. Further, the scene was a part of illuminated manuscripts, ivory and stone carvings and cathedrals on their glass windows.


Apollinare Nuovo Last Supper
Last Supper by San Apollinare Nuovo | Source: anonimus, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then came one the finest example of the scene in a refectory setting in the middle of the fifteenth century, situated in the convent of Sant Apollonia in Florence, commissioned by Andrea del Castagno. He created a near-perfect illusion of the three-dimensional space, giving a lifelike presence of Christ and the apostles. In his version, John leans sleepily against Christ, whereas the Apostles talk calmly among themselves.


Andrea del Castagno's Last Supper painting
Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno | Source: Andrea del Castagno, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Next, Domenico Ghirlandaio painted two Last Suppers during Leonardo's final year in Florence, one in 1480 at the Church of Ognissanti and one guest refectory in San Marco. Here, the artist gave a calm discussion, and two apostles daydreamed in Christ's presence. Differing from Castagno, the figures in this version lean more interactively, with several heads moving.


Domenico Ghirlandaio Last Supper painting
Last Supper painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio | Source: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Other crucial versions of The Last Supper paintings are of Perugino (1493), Ghirlandaio, Il Cenacolo di Ognisanti (1480), Cosimo Rosselli, and Biagio D Antonio (1481-1482).


It was never easy to paint The Last Supper, despite the wall's size and spaciousness. Artists had to fit everyone around a table, and there must be a compelling scene to narrate the biblical passage in silence. After you know the popular versions of the artwork, let us now move to Leonardo's version. But before we head toward the next section, let me tell you something more about the painting. You must know that perhaps no one in history ever drew a compelling scene of The Last Supper as Leonardo did. It was because of the extraordinary expressions and manners of the figures he showed. In the little sketchbook of Leonardo, he registered,

"the faces, manners, clothes and bodily movement".

And his close observation of them made the artwork the most accepted one in history.


Understanding The Technique Of The Painting.


Before learning about The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci through subject matter and perspective, we must know the technique behind it to admire the elements. So, here we are in this section to study how the artist painted the legendary artwork.


Complete Landscape of The Last Supper Painting by da Vinci
da Vinci's The Last Supper (Complete Landscape) | Source: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The painting was supposed to be a fresco, but since Leonardo was not proficient in the technique, he experimented and made a tempera with oil directly on the stone. Originally, tempera was made by blending powdered pigments with egg yolk or any other liquid binder. The advantage of this kind was that Leonardo played with the oil tones in such a way that his figures looked realistic. On the other hand, it was also a reason that it developed cracks sooner.


da Vinci adapted this technique to his slow craftsmanship and especially to chiaroscuro, through which he showed infinite light effects and transparency in the painting. The change of gestures and expressions we see in The Last Supper is due to this technique, as it wasn't possible in fresco. However, it came with a flaw due to environmental conditions, intrinsic characteristics, and inadequate restorations; it became structurally fragile.


In frescoes, which was the favorite mural painting at that time, pigments have cooperated into a crust formed by the carbonation of calcium hydroxide of the plaster layer, by which that painting becomes resistant.


Though not fresco, the tempera on oil worked fabulously to give an everlasting painting!


Understanding Leonardo's approach to this mural requires you to read the next lines very carefully, as it's a bit complicated. He created an entirely different surface on which to paint. First, he coated the wall with plaster. After it dried, he covered it with a thinner and slightly granular layer of calcium carbonate mixed with magnesium and a binding agent made from animal glue. Once this layer was dried, he added an undercoat of lead white which acted as a primer coat to seal the plaster and enhance the luminosity of the mural.


After this, he prepared to work with his paints to draw the masterpiece.


da Vinci's Preparatory Sketches For Last Supper.


I think this section is the most unputdownable part of the entire article. Why? Because it connects art to our tangible world.


Leonardo always said that painters must have a close observation of people walking around them, crying, laughing, talking, and fighting together. In the history of art, many artists have copied the poses and expressions of their figures with either a previous sculpture or model look, but they never implied to see and draw with the real world. And when it comes to Leonardo, he always observed people in the open air. He considered a defect for an artist if he willingly takes poses and expressions from another artist.


For many years, Leonardo lived in Florentine, whose street life was exuberant, which gave him ample opportunity for close observation of people and their expressions. One of his contemporaries called Florence the theatre of the world. Because Florentines usually gather to mingle in streets and piazzas, there were open-air performances of songs during Carnival and games of Calcio, so the atmosphere was bustling. The place was a whole world with merchants, butchers, and beggars all around, learning thousands of expressions along the way.


One of the best aspects of the Florence, which seems to intrigue Leonardo was the men from all phases of life who sat and gossiped on the stone benches of streets, piazzas, and facades of prominent palazzos. Hence, there were hundreds of pictorial possibilities in Florence gossip benches; Leonardo must have walked through the streets with a notebook in his hands and noted each gesture, body movement, and expression as men talked, quarreled, laughed, or fought together.


Now, one of the sketches where five men seated on a bench may be a part of The Last Supper's inspiration. On the lower right-hand side of the page, you see a sketch of five men seated on a bench together. The middle man holds passionately forth, grasping the hand of his companion while showing a finger to the other. Either his friends listen intently to him, interrupt him, or ignore him dreamily. The scene is like a live interaction, paused for only a second. In the lower left of the page, there is a bearded-lone figure on the table, having the same scale as the bench sitters. He may be the christ figure of The Last Supper.


I can't be sure that da Vinci hinted at anything on the commission to paint The Last Supper in Florence in the early 1480s. Hence, you can say that the above sketch may be a prototype and possibly soon forgotten.


Leonardo's sketch of five men sitted on a bench
Leonardo's sketch of five men sitted on a bench | Source: Discovering da Vinci

However, the noted texts can provide us with a context, self-evident enough to show the descriptions of Last Supper painting. Here you read what Leonardo actually wrote in his diary (Taken from Ross King),

"One who was drinking and has left the glass in its position and turned his head towards the speaker. Another, twisting the gingers of his hands together, turns his stern brows to his companion. Another with his hands spread open shows the palms, and shrugs his shoulders up his ears, making a mouth of astonishment. Another speaks into his neighbour's ear and he, as he listens to him, turns towards him to lend an ear, while he holds a knife in one hand, and in the other, the loaf half cut through the knife. Another who has turned, holding a knife in his hand, upsets with his hand a glass on the table. Another lays his hand on the table and is looking. Another blows his mouthful. Another leans forwards to see the speaker shading his eyes with his hand. Another draws back behind the one who leans forwards, and sees the speaker between the wall and the who is leaning."

You may have understood that painting for Leonardo was about telling us each detail of the story. He says,

"two principal things to paint: that is, man and intention of his mind. The first is easy; the second is difficult because it has to be represented by gestures and movements of the parts of the body."

The Last Supper Preparatory Sketch by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci, Four studies for The Last Supper, circa 1490-92 Pen and ink on paper, 266 x 214 mm | Source: Windsor Castle, Royal Library (inv. RL 12542) , H.M. Elizabeth II

Rembrandt's sketch of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Sketch after Leonardo da Vinci's 'Last Supper'; comprising the group of the disciples to the left of Christ only. c.1635 Red chalk, heightened with white, on paper probably washed pale greyish brown (The verso is pale cream, and the different tone of the recto does not seem to be the result of discolouration); ruled framing line in pen and brown ink (a remnant down left side only), Drawn by Rembrandt, After Leonardo da Vinci © The Trustees of the British Museum

Looking At The Last Supper Painting Meaning.


Well, you must have now understood that The Last Supper was all about the last meal of Christ with his apostles. But that was not the entire incident. It was much more, and that's what we will learn here.


Leonardo read four separate versions of The Last Supper, including two eyewitness accounts. In each gospel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John provided their own narrative with slightly different versions.


Now I am not discussing all the versions, but giving you a brief account of it in reference to the painting.


It is recorded that the apostles witnessed Christ riding on a donkey into Jerusalem, participating in the Last Supper, and seeing Christ rise through a cloud into heaven after his Ascension. As described in synoptic gospels, The Last Supper began after Judas went to the high priest and struck a deal with him to betray Christ, whose powers they resent and fear.


According to the story, Jews ritually slaughtered male lambs to commemorate their deliverance from an avenging angel. So the apostles asked Christ to prepare a feast on the same occasion. And he agreed. On the day, Christ ate with his apostles inside this large dining room. He says,

"Amen, I say to you that one of you is about to betray me." As he said these words, all the apostles saw each other with troubled faces and asked, "Is it I, lord?" To this, Christ responds, "he dips his hands with me in the dish, he shall betray me." When Judas inquires if Christ is referring to him, Jesus replied, "You have said it." Following the dinner ritual, he breaks the bread and says, "this is my body." Further, he adds, "Drink all of this. For this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins."

The biblical passage gave us enough information on the meaning of the artwork. It is finally time when we head to the next section to appraise The Last Supper; you waited for so long.


Formal Analysis Of The Painting.


In The Last Supper painting, da Vinci reveals a dramatic moment after what Jesus conveyed to apostles about being betrayed by one of them. Since the artwork is long made with many figures here, we have an advantage by Leonardo to study in groups.


The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper showcasing the holy trinity and apostles in group of three | Source: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1. The First Group.

The first group consists of apostles Bartholomew, James the Younger, and Andrew (from the left). Looking closely, you will see Bartholomew in a darker shade with black hair, resting both his hands on the table with his body leaning forward as if he didn't understand well; what Christ said and wanted to hear again. Leonardo made him look troubled and incredulous here. In the middle, Andrew raises his hands with palms on the front to indicate that he is totally out of suspicion. And with one hand leaning lightly on his arm of Andrew, James is leaning towards him, touching the shoulder of Peter in the adjacent group. He wanted to enlarge the conversation to know more about the betrayer and Christ. All three have their faces towards Christ.


Bartholomew, James the Younger and Andrew in the Last Supper, The ultimate left side of the painting
Bartholomew, James the Younger and Andrew in the Last Supper, The ultimate left side of the painting | Source: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

2. The Second Group.


Here you see Judas, Peter, and John in a closed and pyramid-type composition (which I will discuss later). Interwoven hands on the table and an absorbed expression on his face, John leans towards Peter. Here, Peter is speaking into his ear, forming with his own body an oblique line parallel to that created by the withdrawal of Judas' body. Judas is stooping over and insinuating himself between the two. There is a knife used to cut food during supper in Peter's inverted hand- behind Judas' back. There is one noteworthy point here Judas extends his left hand to grasp the piece of bread Christ gives while he puts his right hand tenaciously on the sack of coins (the coins of betrayal).


Judas, Peter and John in The Last Supper Painting, Centre Left side of the painting
Judas, Peter and John in The Last Supper Painting, Centre Left side of the painting | Source: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

3. The Third Group.


Sitting to the right of Jesus, you see three apostles (Thomas, James the Elder, and Philip). They form a composition inscribed in the pyramid. James the Elder, who is at the centre, spreads his arms with a sincere gesture to offer nothing to hide and is ready for any enquiry for the traitor. Behind him, to the left, sits Thomas poking out of his head with his traditional inquiring finger, which sets him apart and is easy to notice in the group. Leonardo availed himself of the classic iconography in order to show the coded gesture for immediately recognizing their role. Here, he peculiarly showed Thomas showing his desire to know and touch reality with his hands through this symbol of an inquiring finger. And on the right, Philip sits with his hands on his chest, showcasing the sign of innocence. His expression of surprise is a careful study of expression by the artist, as testified in his sketches. Furthermore, the hand on his chest reinforces the expression of innocence and intensifies it.


Thomas, James the Elder and Philip on the last supper by Leonardo da Vinci, Central right side of the painting
Thomas, James the Elder and Philip on the last supper by Leonardo da Vinci, Central right side of the painting | Source: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

4. The Fourth Group.


Including the apostle Matthew, Thaddeus and Simon, we finally reached the fourth group. As Matthew points towards his master with his arms and turns his face towards Thaddeus and Simon, he seeks an answer as to whether they heard Jesus correctly. As someone who has heard something unusual and behaved in a way that implies what he heard was wrong, he seeks comfort in them. Simon responds by raising his hands upwards, confirming his dismay that even he doesn't know anything about the matter.


Matthew, Thaddeus and Simon in the last supper painting, The ultimate right side of the painting
Matthew, Thaddeus and Simon in the last supper painting, The ultimate right side of the painting | Source: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

5. Christ.


Even with a hassle in the surroundings and his apostles discussing the matter, he sits calmly with his motionless posture. All you see is his patience, tranquillity, and peace on his face.


The Christ in The Last Supper
The Christ in The Last Supper | Source: Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The left arm of Christ depicts an extraordinary feature by representing two postures simultaneously- at first outstretched as if to take the bread and the other as withdrawn. He represents the bread as his body, the offering for sacrifice, and wine as his blood. Orienting the hands in opposition to each other indicates earth and heaven, between which the son of god places himself to salvate man. The scene looks quite photographic. Christ looks more compassionate and resigned even with the thought of betrayal by one of his apostles. It is surprising that for what I have to narrate and describe in sentences, Leonardo put with such gestures, expressions, and mobility within a few centimeters.


There is one notable scientific learning that you must keep in your mind. It is about Christ's head, smaller than the others to define a vanishing point of perspective. It also tells us that it is a part of Leonardo's style of ample compendium of the motions of the soul. da Vinci used the mechanics and dynamics of the induced movement to showcase the perfect expression as if a moment is photographed.


Unity Of Composition.


You might think that even with the individual groups of apostles, how did Leonardo succeed in bringing a unitary context to the scene? So here it comes, when he filled the space with the luminous atmosphere in the Last Supper. There are two sources of light- one, which is coming from the left, coinciding with the left windows of the refectory, and the second, which comes from the windows in the depths of paintings open to a luminous faraway countryside.


Through this technique of light, Leonardo was successful in creating an extraordinary and impeccable unity between the illumination of the refectory and The Last Supper to involve the observer in the scene, such that he thinks that he belongs to the artwork. Undoubtedly, he is an epic mathematician who chooses a point of view coincidental to the gaze of the spectator, standing in the centre of the room.


Background.


Apart from the subjective figures, in the background, there are three windows that have landscape beauty, indicating greenery-filled mountains and river waters. On the inside, there are higher roofs with a paneled ceiling, symbolizing the geometric importance of Christianity. The table has a white cloth with pieces of bread, wine glasses, and food in a very naturalistic way.


Finally, you have covered the formal analysis of the entire artwork. It is now time to learn the symbolism; Leonardo keeps in The Last Supper Painting. So, let us head to the next section!


Symbolism Behind The Last Supper Painting.


There is no painting in Leonardo's display room, which lacks symbolism. Here, in The Last Supper painting, you see a rigorous geometric construction, which enabled da Vinci to divide the twelve apostles into groups of three settings. Among all of them, the figure of Judah is easily distinguishable due to his posture and expression. We have learned in the analysis part about his right arm holding the thirty coins he received on the table and his left to the bread piece Jesus offers. Christ is the central figure of the composition, who is in a perfectly triangular space. It is an expression of the Divine Trinity, which absorbs itself in the institution of the Eucharist. Further, Christ offers wine and bread, indicating the sacrifice he is preparing. There is immobility in him, representing the Prime Mover from which all actions spring and return, telling life as a complex movement of gestures.


Next, there is traditional iconography in The Last Supper, largely used by fifteenth-century painters like Andrea del Castagno and Ghirlandaio. It is seating Judas on the opposite side of the table. But Leonardo had made the scene iconic by making Judas sit on the same side as if the secret of betrayal is only known to Christ and Judas.


da Vinci constructs a dialogue between the four groups of apostles in a very fluid continuity of gestures and movements, along with an extra work of shadow. For example, the face of Peter is in light, whereas Judas' face has shadows on him.


Next, Leonardo separated the earthly plain and paradise through a table. Behind the Christ and apostles, through the windows, you see a landscape with rivers and greenery, indicating heaven. And at the same time, the foreground of the table with the interiors shows the earthly plain. Hence, da Vinci juxtapositioned the two elements through the table.


Assuredly, da Vinci showed us the various colors in the painting through his unique symbolism! We can now move on to the most complex part of the article, which is the color study of The Last Supper painting.


Colour Analysis And Perspective.


As I told you earlier in the Technique part that the last layer before da Vinci started painting was of the lead. So, on it, he drew portraits and sketched outlines with red chalk. For painting the mural, da Vinci used four to five autonomous coats of different colors to build shapes and create tones. Sometimes he started with a darker pigment in the background, then highlighted it with lighter tones and semiopaque hues to create depth. For example, when Leonardo painted faces, he began with a base coat of lead white, then yellow, and finally another layer of vermilion. You see that layering of the paint was a deliberate process by which he heightened the effects of colors

.

In The Last Supper painting, da Vinci intensified these colors by using pigments like bright blues and reds. It included ultramarine, azurite, and vermilion. He also discovered the law of complementary colors, where the lightest colors would contrast most intensely if surrounded by fair and stronger contrasts. This way, we see that he used tense and vibrant contrasts of colors in The Last Supper to make it memorable today.


The Story Behind Restoring Last Supper.


The Last Supper painting was majorly affected by the massive bombing campaign on Milan in August 1943 during World War 2. As the work of war follows destruction and deaths, we saw hundreds of people killed in the explosions and damage to a significant portion of Santa Maria Delle Grazie. But thankfully, The Last Supper painting survived because of the sandbags and mattresses placed over it despite all the other walls