Art History Lab

Unraveling the Mysteries of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper

The Last Supper is a painting that continues to intrigue art enthusiasts, scholars, and the general public to this day. Created by the renowned Italian painter and inventor Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century, this painting is a masterpiece of High Renaissance art.

It showcases Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles during their last supper together before his crucifixion. The painting has undergone numerous restorations and remains a must-see attraction for visitors to Milan, Italy.

This article aims to provide readers with a deeper understanding of The Last Supper, from its history to its symbolism and influence on pop culture.

Background of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci, born on April 15th, 1452, in Vinci, a small town in Tuscany, Italy, was a legendary artist, inventor, and scientist. He was one of the greatest figures of the Italian Renaissance era.

Leonardo was born to an unwed mother, Caterina, and a wealthy notary named Piero da Vinci. As a result, Leonardo grew up in the care of his father, his stepmother, and his maternal grandparents.

Leonardo received his early education in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, a prominent Florentine artist and teacher. Leonardo showed a deep interest in art since he was young.

He was a master of many artistic disciplines, including painting, sculpting, and architecture. His innovation and creativity were seen in his works, which exuded a unique style and technique.

Leonardo’s art was also characterized by a keen observation of nature and the human form. He died on May 2nd, 1519, but his art continues to inspire people worldwide.

Commission and Creation of The Last Supper

In 1495, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint a mural on the wall of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The mural depicted The Last Supper, a biblical moment that portrays the final meal of Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles, including Judas, who would later betray him.

Leonardo’s original approach to the mural was distinct and revolutionary compared to traditional interpretations of the topic. Instead of showing Christ and his apostles sitting at a table around a central point, Leonardo depicted them in a linear style, with Christ sitting in the middle of the painting.

This style gave the piece a sense of movement, as if the figures were about to spring into action. The painting was finished in 1498, taking Leonardo almost three years to complete.

Despite the initial enthusiasm for the artwork, the mural’s stability began to deteriorate shortly after completion. The flaking of the paint and the fragility of the plaster further exacerbated the painting’s degradation.

Subsequent restorations and renovations were carried out by different artists who tried to revive the painting’s brilliance.

Painting Details and Characteristics

The Last Supper is an oil painting covering the entire wall of the dining hall of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The painting measures 4.6 meters by 8.8 meters, making it a monumental piece of art.

Leonardo used a technique called “dry plaster,” which involved painting on a dry wall rather than a wet plaster layer. This technique gave the painting an incomparable delicacy and subtlety.

The painting’s colors are tonal, giving it an almost monochromatic tone, which blends harmoniously with the gray and ochre tones of the wall. Leonardo wanted to achieve an effect of light and shadow that would give the painting a realistic, almost three-dimensional appearance.

The use of chiaroscuro emphasizes the three-dimensionality of the figures and makes the painting seem alive. However, this also contributed to the painting’s deterioration over time.

Symbolism and Interpretations

The Last Supper is rich in symbolism, which has given rise to many interpretations over the years. The most well-known symbols in the painting are the loaves of bread representing the body of Christ and the glasses of wine representing his blood.

These elements symbolize the Eucharist, a sacrament in the Christian faith. Leonardo’s use of light and shadow in the painting is also significant.

The light on Christ’s face, for example, symbolizes his divinity. Judas, who later betrayed Jesus, is painted in a darker tone, a technique that symbolizes his sinful and malevolent nature.

Theories abound about The Last Supper’s meaning and symbolism, and there is no one conclusive interpretation. Some suggest that Leonardo’s painting tells a symbolic story that carries a message of hope and salvation for humanity.

Others claim that the painting represents the harmony of nature, science, and religion. The painting’s mysteries continue to captivate researchers and art enthusiasts worldwide.

Influence and Pop Culture References

The Last Supper has not only influenced art but has also played a significant role in various forms of pop culture. The painting has been the subject of many parodies, imitations, and adaptations, demonstrating the painting’s influence worldwide.

For example, the 1967 film “The Graduate” was a coming-of-age comedy that referenced The Last Supper in its final scene. Additionally, Dan Brown’s 2003 novel “The Da Vinci Code” used the painting as a focal point, fueling the book’s popularity with its code-breaking fiction.

Conclusion

The Last Supper proves that art and history continue to intrigue people from different backgrounds and cultures. The painting’s splendor and symbolism contribute to the ongoing fascination and fascination surrounding it.

Leonardo da Vinci’s genius brought forth a masterpiece that continues to inspire and captivate people centuries after its creation.

Preservation and Fragility

One of the ongoing challenges facing the preservation of The Last Supper is its inherent fragility. The choice of dry plaster, which Leonardo da Vinci used to paint the mural, is more fragile than the traditional wet plaster technique.

This fragility has translated into some damage, decay, and loss of color over the years. Additionally, the painting’s size and weight, coupled with its location on a wall that is exposed to moisture, are also contributing factors to its deterioration.

Several restorations have been carried out over the centuries to preserve the painting. However, each restoration presents the risk of further damage.

The most recent restoration, which concluded in 1999, took 21 years and was one of the largest and most comprehensive efforts in the painting’s history. Using microscopes and other advanced technologies, experts were able to uncover previously unknown details of the painting’s composition and restoration history.

The goal of the restoration was to balance the preservation of the painting with the need for accessibility to the public. Despite the restoration efforts, the painting remains vulnerable to deterioration, and the number of visitors allowed to view it every day has been restricted.

The number of visitors allowed into the convent per visit is limited to 25, and each visit lasts only 15 minutes. Moreover, the visitors are not allowed to take pictures, touch the painting, or enter the dining hall with any bags or cameras to ensure the painting’s preservation.

Limited Accessibility

Visiting The Last Supper requires advanced booking, and the process can be somewhat challenging. This is because the painting is inside the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which is still an active convent and only allows limited visitor capacity.

Visitors must book a guided tour (to be conducted in Italian or English) of the refectory in advance through authorized ticket sellers or travel agents. Further, visitors should be mindful of the dress code required to enter the convent.

The dress code is strictly enforced, and any visitors whose attire does not meet the standards are denied entry. For example, shorts, dresses, or skirts above the knee, sleeveless shirts, and sandals are not allowed.

Visitors are also advised to arrive at the entrance about 20 minutes before the specified time on their booking in case of any delays. Another obstacle with visiting The Last Supper is the limited viewing capacity.

As previously mentioned, only 25 visitors are allowed in at a time, and each visit lasts only 15 minutes. Visitors must adhere to the time slot allotted to them by the authorized ticket sellers, and latecomers have no entry.

Moreover, groups of fewer than 25 people are not allowed in, and visitors need to present an identity card or passport to gain entry.

Conclusion

The challenges and restrictions surrounding The Last Supper is understandable, given the painting’s historical significance, fragility, and rarity. Despite these hurdles, the painting remains an attraction for art lovers, historians, and tourists worldwide.

Visitors who intend to view The Last Supper must book in advance, follow the dress code, and adhere to the viewing time carefully. Ultimately, the restrictions only add to the painting’s allure and significance, making it worth the effort required to view this priceless masterpiece.

In conclusion, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is a masterpiece of High Renaissance art that remains a source of fascination to this day. The painting’s history, fragility, and symbolism have contributed to its allure and significance.

The ongoing challenges of preservation and accessibility only add to its value, and it is essential for visitors to follow the required dress code and booking procedures to view this priceless masterpiece. The Last Supper continues to inspire and captivate art lovers, historians, and tourists alike, reminding us of the enduring power of art to connect us to our past and transform our future.