Milan is best known for the Cathedral, St. Mary of the Nativity, or as it’s called: The Duomo. More on that later, this blog is all about the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.
After a tiring but interesting airplane adventure, I was finally in Milan. Milan is the city of contradictions, they have some of the most ancient structures in western civilization holding court among the newest and most innovative designs, they have dilapidated old apartment houses next to some of the most lavish and expensive homes. They have streets wide enough only for pedestrians, yet crowded with cars. They have streets congested to exasperation and state of the art public transit that is bursting with passengers. The energy in Milan is contagious, I find myself feeling energized to go farther, do more, accomplish more.
To be where important history happened, to see art or architecture that was created by and for the most important historical figures and events in human history, that takes my breath away. So, I hope you’ll understand why visiting the Last Supper was the first outing of my adventure. All I knew of The Last Supper was that it was a little bit gray, somber and faded, I wanted to see it because it wouldn’t attract such admiration if it had nothing to offer, I needed to see what was so interesting. I wasn’t disappointed, our tour guide made the painting and its history come to life, I hope to do the same for you.
Da Vinci was a renegade who always looked for a better way to do everything. He was an engineer, a designer, an events planner, a visionary, a painter and a sculptor, he didn’t do anything in half-measures, he was phenomenally successful at all the many fields he tried. He was hired to go to Milan to live with and work for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan; his initial contract was to build the aqueduct that is still in use in Milan to this day. Leonardo worked in Milan from 1482 until 1499; Sforza commissioned Leonardo to paint the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The painting was to be a fresco, which is created by spreading fresh, wet plaster on the wall and then painting onto the wet plaster, the paint melds with the plaster and the painting is indestructible as long as the wall is standing. Da Vinci didn’t paint that way, fresco paintings must be complete in approximately ten hours, da Vinci needed days and weeks and years to complete a painting, he couldn’t do it in a matter of hours; in fact, The Last Supper took years, from 1495 to 1498 to paint. The plaster could not stay wet that long so da Vinci experimented with painting on dry plaster, the result was that within just a few years after completion the paint began to peel off the plaster. Unlike frescoes that have the paint embedded in the plaster that can last nearly forever, The Last Supper didn’t even last 20 years, by 1517 the paint had chipped away so much some were claiming it was ruined. The painting was restored from 1978 to 1999 so, today, we see a much brighter, multi-hued painting than the dingy gray image we had seen in most reproductions, but the restoration couldn’t restore the paint that had chipped away, it just cleared off hundreds of years of smoke, grime and paint from others who tried to restore it before.
Here’s a picture I took of the Last Supper, notice that even though much of the painting has chipped away, we can still see the vibrant colors da Vinci used.
What makes the da Vinci work so powerful when similar works aren’t? It’s because da Vinci broke all the rules when he painted his masterpiece. His commission was to paint a scene from Jesus’ passion for a monastery dining hall, so he chose a scene from the Last Supper, the one where Jesus announces that someone at the table was about to betray him. He could have chosen the foot-washing scene, a scene where everyone was eating or the last scene where Jesus asks his disciples to go pray with him. But, he chose the moment of Jesus announcement partly because this was a popular theme in the work of his contemporaries, but also because he wanted to introduce a completely new and innovative way of thinking of this last supper, last fellowship and last hours of his mortal life. Da Vinci wanted to present more than a wooden looking group of men sitting at table, he wanted to create something dynamic that would truly say something about Jesus’ sacrifice.
Prior to da Vinci, this is what most Last Supper paintings looked like, this one was painted by Domenico Ghirlando in 1488:
You can see the difference right away. Before da Vinci, each individual is sitting upright, except John and each has a halo except Judas, the only hint of emotion is John the Beloved resting almost in Jesus’ lap. The picture is stiff and formal looking, lifeless. Judas was usually portrayed on the opposite side of the table, on the side of the viewer, to indicate that Judas was one of us, a sinner. The painting indicates that Jesus’ apostles were saints, while we and Judas are not. In short, other than being a bit preachy, this picture is pretty boring.
Now, let’s look again at da Vinci’s Last Supper:
The first thing we see is Jesus, da Vinci has developed perspective, every object in the picture is placed so that it points directly to Jesus’ right eye so Jesus immediately becomes the viewer’s focus. Then, notice the emotion and energy in the picture, look at their hands; Jesus has just told the apostles that one of them would betray him, they react with outrage and concern. Also, notice that Jesus is alone on the night he needs his friends more than ever. His pronouncement hit the group like a bomb and, like a bomb, everyone is pushed out from the center, everyone has moved away from Jesus, even his beloved John is leaning towards Peter as Peter asks him to find out who it is. Everyone is agitated except Jesus who sits calmly in the center, still, yet dynamic, the clear center and cause of the disturbance among the apostles. Da Vinci has ordered the apostles in groups of three, the number of the Trinity to cement the concept of who Jesus is. There are also three windows and three spaces of wall between the tapestries behind the group. Finally, it’s significant that Judas is not isolated from the group, he’s right in the middle. His face is dark and his nose is misshapen, da Vinci may have portrayed him that way, but those who have painted and touched up the masterpiece over the years may have exaggerated the difference in Judas’ appearance from that of the other apostles. Judas is grasping his money bag and sitting right in front of Peter who is leaning over with his hand on John’s shoulder to speak with John. John is Jesus’ beloved, so we see him sitting next to Jesus. Judas is the only one who appears calm amid all the commotion surrounding him. Da Vinci’s point in putting Judas in the middle of the other apostles seems to be a statement that Judas isn’t just one of us, he’s one of them. They are all sinners, they have been forgiven, but they’re no different from you and me. Notice that no one has a halo.
Here’s another shot of the painting I took from a greater distance away. Notice how the perspective causes the table to pop out of the picture, the table cover has been folded in perfect geometric shapes, the hands almost tell the story themselves and enhance da Vinci’s use of perspective.
Napoleon used the dining hall where the painting was produced as a stable for his horses after he conquered Milan, then the building was bombed during WWII, the painting was protected only by bails of straw and, miraculously, it wasn’t damaged when most of the building was destroyed. Then, at some point along the way, the monks built a door under the painting cutting into the bottom where we would expect to see Jesus’ feet. There are drawings of the painting preserved that indicate Jesus’ feet were crossed in approximately the same position they would have been on the cross, so this painting foreshadows the coming passion with Jesus arms outstretched, his apostles leaving him and his serene acceptance of what is about to happen. He is already forgiving them.
There’s more, but I don’t want to bore you with any more details. I hope this little description will give you a new appreciation for this groundbreaking work of art. Since this painting was done, virtually every Last Supper painting has the apostles showing emotion and outrage at Jesus’ statement. Here’s a Last Supper painting I saw in a different church that will be the topic for another blog.
Here, you see the apostles showing emotion, questioning Jesus, they do not have haloes, Judas is, once again, isolated to the side on the far right, but the picture is stiff, bland and lacks the focused perspective compared to the da Vinci, still it illustrates the influence da Vinci had on the future of the art world.
Here are some pictures of the church, Santa Maria delle Grazie, that houses the masterpiece. It was a privilege to visit it, if you decide to go, you will need to make reservations long in advance because only a few people are allowed in every 15 minutes so it severely limits the number of people who can see it. I booked my wonderful tour which is how I got the chance to see it.
There was more in Milan, I hope to upload more pictures tomorrow. Until then, arrivederci!