The Painting of "The Last Supper"

by Stan Griffin


Five hundred years ago in a church in Milan, Italy a talented artist completed a mural (wall painting) which would become world famous. As the centuries passed, however, it was forced to withstand attacks by man and by nature. That painting is "The Last Supper," and its creator was Leonardo da Vinci.

Ironically, it was the artist himself who laid the groundwork for the first assault on "The Last Supper." Leonardo was constantly experimenting with his paints. When gathering his materials for this job, he rejected the accepted method of the day. Instead, he used a technique that he had developed himself, thinking it would serve his purpose. Unfortunately, he was wrong. 

Soon after completing the mural, paint began to flake away; and deterioration continued through the years. Many attempts at restoration have taken place, none of which have been entirely effective. Today many parts of the painting are hard to see because of Leonardo's choice of paints.

Twice "The Last Supper" was damaged by flood waters that rampaged through the church.

There were more attacks by man. In 1624 monks who lived in the building cut a door into the wall, removing the feet of Jesus. During wars in the early 19th century, the room was used as a stable. Soldiers reportedly spent their spare time throwing bricks at the apostles' heads.

During World War II the most serious onslaught against the painting took place. Allied bombers destroyed the chapel of the church in Milan. Miraculously, "The Last Supper" wall was left standing, saved by a pile of sandbags.

Leonardo was born in a small Italian town in 1452. He kept its name as his own name (Vinci). He lived during a period of time when people in all of Europe were becoming interested in art. This was called the "Renaissance," (RENN-ah-sahnce), a cultural movement that began in Italy. Leonardo was an important figure in that era, influencing and inspiring generations of artists.

In 1482 Leonardo came to Milan to be court artist for Duke Ludovico Sforza. Besides painting, Leonardo performed other duties for the Duke. He worked as (1) a military engineer, designing artillery; (2) a civil engineer, developing canal locks; and (3) a sculptor, planning a huge monument of the Duke's father on horseback. Leonardo was probably one of the most versatile geniuses in history; he was at various times an inventor, an artist, a sculptor, a writer, an architect, a scientist, an engineer, and a botanist.

In 1494 the Duke and a group of monks in Milan commissioned Leonardo to paint a huge mural at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Their purpose was to "open out the end wall of the dining hall (refectory) and include (in the painting) a high table with Jesus and the disciples" at their final Passover meal: the "Last Supper." It was intended to remind the monks "of the significance of their vocation." 

At that time "fresco" was a durable and accepted technique used for murals. The picture was made to be part of the wall itself. Artists would mix dry pigments with water and then brush it on damp, freshly-laid plaster. In order for this method to be successful, it was important that no more plaster be applied than could be painted by the artist in one day. It was then necessary for the artist to do his work quickly--before the plaster dried. 

Leonardo rejected the "fresco" procedure because it was his custom to paint slowly, changing his work as he went along. Often he would return weeks, months, or even years later to make alterations. 

Leonardo's new approach involved mixing oil with "tempera" (pigment that was combined with a water-soluble, glutinous material) and applying the paints to the wall on "ground" of resin, pitch, and plaster. His experimental material did not bond properly to the plaster, and the plaster didn't stick on the wall as it should have. Spots of mildew soon developed, and the paint started to "scale off." It continued to crumble through the ensuing centuries.

The moment captured in Leonardo's "The Last Supper" was just after Jesus had announced "One of you will betray me" and a short time before He blessed the wine and bread. The artist was able to portray an instant between the two events, giving the scene " ... unprecedented spiritual intensity ..."

Leonardo changed the traditional placement of figures. In earlier renditions of the scene, the apostles were shown in a line--except for Judas Iscariot who was set apart. In Leonardo's version, Judas is part of the group, third to the left of Jesus.

Jesus sits at the middle of the table, the others to his left and right. He is the physical, spiritual, religious, and dramatic center of "The Last Supper"; eyes are led to him. Six of his friends sit to his right, and six sit to his left--in groups of three. "Space recedes to a point behind His head ... focusing on His face ..."

Leonardo searched diligently through the city to find real-life models for the apostles. According to one account, the church prior (monk in charge) complained that Leonardo would come in, stare at the unfinished painting for one or two hours, make 5-6 brush strokes, and then leave. The artist explained that he was having difficulty visualizing the face of a man as evil as Judas. If he was going to be rushed, said Leonardo, he would just paint the prior's face on Judas! 

"The Last Supper" is commanding. Ceiling lines extend into the painted room. Diagonal lines mark the place where wall and ceiling meet. The table and tablecloth, dishes, and glassware in the painting were like the ones used by monks during their meals, giving the impression that Jesus and His disciples were actually in the same room.

All of the figures in the painting face the spectator, giving an "open view" of the scene. They all appear to be "living creatures."

The twelve disciples are massed close together at the table: some are standing, and some are seated. There are "subtle waves of surprise and disbelief" as they react to Jesus' announcement about betrayal: turning to each other; leaning and gesturing toward Jesus; leaning away from Him. One points to Heaven; another points to himself. Judas is clutching a money pouch in one hand. Arms, hands, and bodies appear to move, "all creating a rhythm of emotion."

As portrayed by Leonardo, Jesus is a sorrowful figure, His eyes downcast. His head is silhouetted against a window behind Him. Since He is facing onlookers, both of His arms seem to be spread toward them. With both arms extended toward the table and head erect, His pose is that of a "stable triangle." His right hand reaches for a wine glass; His left hand gestures toward the bread to be shared: preambles to the sacred act soon to take place.

"The Last Supper," completed in 1497, has been praised for its innovations. It is considered the greatest example of "one-point perspective" created during the Renaissance as well as the first major painting of that period. Such intensity and feeling of movement had not been seen before. It contained a "symmetry of gestures and postures" which were unique, and it " ... brings to life (a) sublime and terrible moment ..."

Leonardo went on in 1503 to paint the "Mona Lisa," another of his works to be ranked as one of the greatest ever created. He is remembered as one of the top painters in history as well as the most versatile.

"The Last Supper" began undergoing changes during Leonardo's lifetime. In fact, some observers believe that its disintegration might have started while Leonardo was still working on it. In 1517 it was described as " ... a most excellent work although it begins to decay ..." Later viewers stated that there was a " ... rain of minute scales and grains falling off the wall ..." and that it is " ... a faint shadow of what the artist first unveiled ..."

Despite its present condition, seeing it today (in the words of one visitor) " ... is still a magical encounter with a work of art ..."