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last supper (1495-98), leonardo da vinci

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Technique: Tempera, Gesso, Mastic

Dimensions: 460 x 880 cm

Year: 1495 – 1498

Location of creation: Milan

Current Location: Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

Movements: Renaissance

Theme: Biblical

Subject: The last supper of Jesus Christ, along with his 12 disciples

painting summary

The most famous painting of this subject, The Last Supper innovates on many levels, from the way each character is portrayed to the naturalism of an action at play, and is considered to be the pivotal stone which marks the beginning of the High Renaissance.

general description

Located in a refectory, the scene features 13 figures having supper together, in a rectangular room with coffers on the ceiling and tapestries on either side of the room, with three windows on the background and opening up into a beautiful peaceful landscape setting; the room in perspective obeys a mathematical order, which greatly accentuate the sense of depth of the painting.
The painting depicts the biblical scene of The Last Supper, chronicled in all four of the Gospels it is one of the most significant moments of the New Testament and a pivotal story of Christianity; it depicts the exact moment when Christ tells the apostles, after gathering them all for supper, that “One of you is about to betray me” (Matthew 26:21) in that same evening; referring to Judas, all the apostles become puzzled, startled, and emotionally confused; at the supper, Christ gave instructions on how to eat and drink in remembrance of him; this action became the cornerstone of the Eucharist, a ritual still performed at mass on Sundays.

Marking the beginning of the High Renaissance, it is considered as one of its most iconic masterpieces, and is one of Leonardo’s most notorious artworks; it is also seen as one of the most controversial works of all time. Beyond this, this painting represents one of  the cornerstone moments of Christianity, and one of history’s most influential works of art.

The painting was commissioned by Duke Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s patron for over 18 years, for the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

content analysis

There are multiple emotional narratives depicted in the painting, coexisting together in one single frame.  Exploring the psychological reactions of the figures involved, the various apostles are linked in movements and poses; each expression and motion of the 13 figures is different, contributing to the intense psychological depth. Individually, each of the disciples is depicted in a distinct way, derived from a compound study of different human emotions; each expresses their own distinct emotional content and personality through motion, each individual reaction expresses (in a subtle manner) varying emotions: horror, protest (Philip), sadness (John, next to Christ), anger, bewilderment, and shock. Christ, unlike the apostles, shows a feeling of acceptance and serenity; despite the intensity of the scene, this subtle feeling of serenity and peace is also enhanced by the blue skies that pierce in from the windows at the far back. Here, Leonardo depicts what is usually seen as a dramatic and intense moment in a serene, trivial and mundane manner.

The painting contains multiple symbols that allude to its message: the spilled salt, found near Judas symbolizes bad luck, loss, or evil; the fish, which is speculated to be either Eel or Herring, each hold their own symbolic meanings; eel in Italian is ‘aringa’ which means to indoctrinate and represents faith, whereas the word for herring is ‘renga’ meaning someone who denies religion, a non believer, (a symbol of the apostle Peter, who denies knowing him); Judas clutches a bag with money containing silver coins, a symbol of greed, while reaching out for the bread at the same time as Jesus, a symbol of arrogance; and lastly, the numerical symbolisms, as  four groups of three apostles surround Christ, as three is the number of the Holy Trinity in Christianity (The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit), associated with the three days Christ spent in the tomb, a symbol of the three theological virtues (faith, hope and charity), and a fundamental number for Leonardo, sure to its other symbolic forces through the pyramidal underlying compositional structure of this painting.
The fresco aims to create the effect of the extension of the refectory, where it is located; it continues the function of the space, creating a continuum across space, events and time; it is a similar effect to Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco (of Santa Maria Novella in Florence), using similar pictorial effects as its predecessors. In a similar way, it also uses perspective to create a more realistic effect, specially in the landscape in the background where Leonardo employed aerial perspective (an effect where the horizon’s colors become more dull and colorless creating the illusion of depth in landscapes); by terminating in this kind of grayish subdued misty horizon, makes it seem as if the space opens up indefinitely.

There are various aspects that create a psychological intriguing enigma. The feminine look of Apostle John has inspired many controversial theories about the painting; in fact, some believe that rather, it portrays Mary Magdalene; in addition, the fact that Christ does not have a Halo is a reflection of Leonardo’s belief that God manifests Himself in nature, depicting everyone in the story as common people; as a triangular halo is used only for the Holy Father, the scene, in a triangular composition, may be interpreted to carry an underlying divine connotation as a whole.

The geometrical structural composition of the work builds on the early Renaissance painting traditions, with Christ in the center among the apostles, and his body forms a triangle-like shape which is not overlapped by any of the apostles. It is a deeply symmetrical composition, with the same number of apostles in each side and Christ in the middle. The geometry of the structure also follows a triangle-like shape, something very characteristic of Leonardo’s works (before and after). The work also uses a predominantly horizontal layout, accentuated by the large table top and the disposition of the disciples. In regards to perspective, there is a profound sense of perspective that builds on the perspective studies carried out during the time (Brunelleschi and Masaccio), Leonardo uses a one-point perspective; drawing the spectators focus to Christ’s head and the foreground, by placing the vanishing point directly on Christ’s right temple pointing into his brain; the table ends, floor lines, and orthogonal edges of the six ceiling coffer columns, all contribute to assimilating this sense of perspective and notion of space. As far as color and light, Jesus wears a contrastingly bright orange, either used as a distinguishing feature, or as a foreshadowing of tragic events since orange is the color of passion and fire; most of the disciples are wearing the blue, which during the Renaissance, indicates distinctive people. To note is also the fact that the window light in the background plays out like a halo over Christ and Judas is the only disciple who pulls away from the center, fading in the shadows; and, in addition to the frontal light source, da Vinci uses a back-light, which emanates from the windows at the back of the room, in order to bring a more dynamic aspect to the composition.

Rule of thirds analysis.

Developed rule of thirds grid analysis.

Leonardo’s geometry study for the Last Supper

Leonardo’s geometric study for the painting.

Perspective lines analysis.

Armature grid

Colour scheme of predominant tones.

Before the work began, Leonardo carried out a long process of observation and selection, believed to have been carried out during the course of 7 years. The main aim of the studies was to define the shape and position of the 13 images of the apostles, which Leonardo searched for very carefully in various live models. The experimental work used a mixed technique. Leonardo rejected the fresco technique because he didn’t appreciate the urge to finish painting before the plaster dried out and at the same time, he wanted the look of an oil painting (bright lights and more subtle effects). To achieve both these aims simultaneously, he used experimental pigments directly on the dry plaster. This mixed technique, an innovative tempera-on-stone experiment wasn’t successful and even before it was finished, it was already flaking off. To achieve an accurate one-point perspective, Leonardo used a hammer, nail and a string attached to it, to make marks creating the perfect angles in radial directions.

Besides the innovative tempera-on-stone experiment, there are various other elements that Leonardo innovated in. The emotional depth granted to the characters is novel, since, despite being a common subject, it was the first time that the subject depicted the figures’ emotional reactions, and quite innovative in the studies of emotional reactions and psychological states. In addition, Judas is depicted together with the group, alongside John and Peter. And finally, Leonardo demonstrates his individual virtuosity by depicting the scene with extreme naturalism, as the movement of the gestures accentuate a moment in action, which the artist masterfully captured, unlike previous works of the same subject, which depict a static scene.

Three of da Vinci’s students, including Giampietrino, made copies of his painting early in the 16th century. At the end of the 20th century, restorer Panin Brambilla Barcilon tried to restore the painting back to the original as accurately as possible, however, it is known that not much remains of the original painting – over the years it has crumbled, been bombed and restored numerous times. The mural is so fragile that visitors are only given 15m in small groups.

direct influences and connections

Leonardo was greatly influenced by Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco, and by the Early Renaissance traditions that framed the time before him, specially the advances on science and perspective.

The work was a profound influence on numerous artists and paintings ever since, especially the work of Dali.

  • Salvador Dalí, The Sacrament of the Last Supper;
  •  Marisol Escobar, Self-Portrait Looking at The Last Supper
  • Andy Warhol, The Last Supper;
  • Susan Dorothea White, The First Supper;

painting details

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Date: 1638
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Location: Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany

Artist: Tintoretto
Title: The Last Supper
Date: 1592-1594
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Artist: Masaccio
Title: The Holy Trinity
Date: 1427
Size: 667 x 317 cm
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Location: Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy