The Arts

April 2, 2018

The story behind Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’

The story behind Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’

Every face, every feature, every position and gesture of the twelve disciples at the table with Christ was the result of profound artistic meditation

By OSA AMADI, Arts Editor

Leonardo Da Vinci who painted the iconic masterpiece, The Last Supper, was born in 1452 in the hilly Tuscan countryside near the village of Vinci, about 20 miles west of Florence, Italy. Around 1460, Leonardo became apprenticed to the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, a renowned artist, from where he learned drawing, painting, anatomy, sculpting, and architectural design. With time, the handsome, talented Leonardo came to the attention of Lorenzo the Magnificent, head of the powerful Medici family that ruled Florence.

Lorenzo, one of the most accomplished poets of his time, maintained a circle of friends which included the finest poets, artists, philosophers, and scholars – leading luminaries of the Renaissance that was taking place then in Florence. Leonardo, though without any formal education and therefore unable to read books most of which were written in Latin, was soon regarded as part of Lorenzo’s circle of artists, philosophers, and poets.

By 1477, Leonardo left Verrocchio to set up his own studio. Around this period, Leonardo’s relationship with Lorenzo the Magnificent thawed. “Leonardo did not quite fit in amongst the brilliant and privileged group of intellectuals who gathered at (Lorenzo’s) Palazzo Medici. Their humanist erudition, their ability to speak Latin (and even Greek), their sophisticated behaviours – all these excluded the ill-educated country boy from Vinci…,” wrote the author of Napoleon in Egypt, Paul Strathern in The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior.

After a shakeup in Florence, following an assassination attempt on the life of Lorenzo in 1478, Lorenzo sent Leonardo in 1482 to Milan “to deliver, and demonstrate to its ruler, Ludovico Sforza, a magnificent silver lyre that Leonardo had produced in the form of a horse’s head.”

Leonardo took this opportunity to leave Florence permanently, selling himself as an artist and military engineer to Ludovico Sforza, known as “II Moro” and tyrant of Milan.

It was through Ludovico Sforza who became Duke of Milan by usurping Gian Galeazzo, his eight-year-old nephew’s power, that Leonardo Da Vinci was commissioned by the Prior to paint The Last Supper as a mural in the refectory of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

Though The Last Supper is said to have revealed Leonardo at his superlative best, the great artist had by this time acquired a reputation for finding it increasingly difficult to finish the works for which he had been commissioned. He was probably distracted by his growing interest in military engineering designs. He was at this period, absorbed in sketching military devices “such as a large mobile mortar that fires stones as if it were a hailstorm, and a tank-like armored vehicle in the shape of a flattened cone, accompanied by a drawing of its underside showing how its cogwheel engine worked. These designs, wrote Strathern, were way ahead of their time: not until three centuries later would a remarkably similar armored military vehicle be tried out in the American Civil War. It is unlikely that these designs were actually built, but recent experiments have shown that most of them would have worked.”

Nonetheless, Leonardo worked hard on The Last Supper. Matteo Bandello, a novice at the monastery, who observed him work, described the way Leonardo worked on The Last Supper thus:

“He would arrive at an early hour, climb up onto the scaffolding, and start working. Sometimes he would stay there from dawn until sunset, not once setting down his brush, forgetting to eat or drink, and painting without cease. On other occasions, he would go for two, three or four days without taking up his brush, but spending one or two hours a day standing before the work, arms folded, scrutinizing and assessing the figures in his mind. I also saw him, driven by some sudden urge, set out from the Corte Vecchia at midday when the heat of the sun was at its height, without seeking the shade…and come straight to Santa Maria delle Grazie, clamber up onto the scaffolding, take up his brush, add one or two strokes, and then go away again.”

Every face, every feature, every position and gesture of the twelve disciples at the table with Christ, wrote Strathern, was the result of profound artistic meditation. Each figure is individual, each taken from someone he had noticed – and covertly sketched in the pocket-book he kept hanging from his belt. Yet, each figure is both psychologically and symbolically recognisable – from doubting Thomas with his fated raised finger, to the effete intellectual, Luke – all enclosed within the strong geometric shapes of the upper room, whose perspective continually leads the eye back to the central figure of Christ…”

The delay and the long time it took Leonardo to finish The Last Supper must have exasperated the Prior (the man in charge) of the monastery so much that he went and reported Leonardo to the Duke, Ludovico Sforza.

When Leonardo was summoned before the Duke to explain why The Last Supper had not been completed, Leonardo explained that he had almost finished the painting except for the face of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. He told the Duke that he had gone through the most notorious streets and taverns of the city in search of a face “imbued with sufficient perfidious evil” as Judas’ but found none. However, said Leonardo, if the Prior wanted the painting finished immediately, he should present his face, as he, Leonardo, was willing to use the Prior’s face for Judas. The Duke was said to have burst into laughter and that ended the summoning. Leonardo took his time and finished the painting.

Another reason advanced for the delay in completing the painting was the experiment Leonardo was engaged in with The Last Supper, an innovative approach to painting technique known as fresco, which resulted in a disaster. Over the years, surface of the painting had begun to deteriorate, a situation made worse by the dampness that began appearing on the wall. By the time the Florentine artist and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, saw The Last Supper just over 50 years later, all that could be seen was a blur of paint-dabs.”

The modern version of The Last Supper that appears on the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie, as well as the reproductions of the painting, Stethern wrote, are mere ghosts of the original. “What we now see is the result of several restorations which according to most experts, obliterate much of the subtlety and nuance that are presumed to have existed in Leonardo’s original. Even so, The Last Supper remains recognisable as an iconic masterpiece.

The Last Supper captures the scene of the last (Passover) meal which Jesus ate with his disciples in which He identified Judas Iscariot as the one who would betray Him to the Jewish authority for His crucifixion.

That evening while they were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”

Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?”

Jesus answered: “You have said so.”

Later, Judas actually fulfilled that role by betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver paid him by the Jewish authority. Judas finally committed suicide in regret for the sin he committed.

After Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, the Bible records that He resurrected on Sunday, the third day, just as the Scripture had said thousands of years before that He would. Thus, Jesus won for all mankind, the victory over death.