Commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo Da Vinci painted the mural of the Last Supper to be the centerpiece of Sforza's family mausoleum.
"...Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else..."
Facts and Figures
The Last Supper is much larger than you might think. Standing at 460 cm x 880 cm, its grand proportions were aided by Da Vinci hammering a nail into the wall, tying a string to the nail, and then creating the depth of field lines so that he could create a one-point perspective with Jesus' head as the vanishing point.
Infamous for his tendency to procrastinate, Da Vinci took three years to create this mural, working on it intermittently between 1495 and 1498.
Although the painting is on a wall, it is not a fresco. Da Vinci invented a new technique for this mural. He used tempura paints on stone. Necessity being the mother of invention, he needed a technique which would serve his greater purpose.
The traditional fresco method demands that the painter works on wet plaster. The result, as Da Vinci saw it, was that the painting was dull, flat and unrefined. He wanted his work to have a luminosity and a detail that could not be achieved with the fresco method.
So, he primed the wall with two layers of dry plaster, added lead white as an undercoat in an attempt to increase the brightness of the tempera he applied on top.
The chromatic effect was indeed dazzling and the detail was unsurpassed, but the paint never fully adhered to the wall. In fact, Da Vinci had not even completed the Last Supper when it first started flaking and he had to restore it.
The second reason, and perhaps the most important, was that the artist needed to work quickly because the work needed to be complete before the plaster dried. Again, Da Vinci procrastinated and took three years to complete this masterpiece. He wanted to create the perfect Last Supper and he would not be rushed.
Exploring the Subject
The Last Supper depicts Jesus Christ and his disciples on the evening before his arrest, where they shared their final meal together.
The event is chronicled in the four Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible. It specifically illustrates the moment where Christ says that one of the disciples would betray him, and the various reactions to his words of each disciple.
Da Vinci's visual interpretation shows Phillip asking Christ if he would betray his lord. Christ in turn says that the disciple who would betray him would dip his hand in the same dish as Him. Da Vinci then portrays Judas and Christ reaching for the same plate.
Simultaneously the painting also shows Christ performing the first communion, which Christians practice where they eat bread and drink wine in memory of the last supper.
Christ blesses the bread and says to his disciples to take and the bread because, "This is my body, which is given up for you." Christ then blesses the wine and says all of them must drink from the cup.
Identifying the Disciples
Each disciple can be identified according to Da Vinci's notebook which was found in the 19th century. Before the discovery, the only disciples who could be positively identified were Peter, Judas and John, and the central figure of Jesus Christ.
The disciples have various reactions to Jesus' words that someone would betray him, some are angry, some are shocked and some are surprised. The manuscript called, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, names the disciples from left to right as follows:
Bartholomew, the son of Alphaeus called James, and Andrew are surprised at his words.
Judas Iscariot the betrayer, Peter and John form a rather important trio.
Judas clothed in green and blue is sitting in the shadows. He looks taken aback with the fact that Christ already knows his plan and that He told everyone at the table.
He is holding a purse thought to be holding the 30 pieces of silver which he was given to betray Jesus.
Another interpretation of the purse is simply the fact that he was the treasurer amongst the 12 disciples. He is the only disciple with an elbow on the table, and horizontally his head is the lowest in the painting.
Peter is holding a knife. It could perhaps be a forewarning of what would occur later when Jesus is arrested. Peter reacts violently, and cuts off the guard's ear. Peter looks angry at Jesus' words.
John, who is the youngest disciple, was described as a "friend who sticks closer than a brother". He is also the disciple who Jesus entrusts his mother with. John appears to faint at the news of Jesus' coming betrayal.
Jesus appears calm. He is the one accepts his fate.
Thomas the doubter, James the Greater and Philip are the next group of disciples. Thomas raises his index finger and is upset. After Jesus Resurrection, he is the one who doubts that it is the Messiah who has risen and places that same index finger in Christ's wounds. James the Greater looks dumbfounded and throws his arms in the air. Philip seems to be asking for some clarity on the issue.
Matthew the taxman, Jude Thaddeus also known as Jude of James and Simon the Zealot form the final group of three. Matthew and Jude are looking at Simon. It is suggested that they are waiting for an explanation from him.
Da Vinci uses numerous symbolic references in the painting.
The number three in Christianity traditionally represents the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The disciples are arranged in groups of three. The way Jesus is seated forms a triangle, and three windows are placed behind Jesus.
There are four gospels in the New Testament and four groups of disciples.
Behind Jesus, are three windows depicting a green landscape which is often referred to as paradise. The linear perspective lines draws your eyes towards the face of Jesus where paradise can only be reached through him.
Leonardo Da Vinci skilfully weaves psychology, symbolism, and principles of perspective to make this the first work of High Renaissance art. The principles of compositions and perspective were hallmarks of the early Renaissance period but the use of emotional reactions was revolutionary for the time. At the same time, the use of naturalism was unknown in the early Renaissance period.
The Last Supper was a common theme for refectories at the time. A typical example would be Andrea del Castagno's rendition of the Last Supper in the same time period. He also used linear perspective, which was popular at the time, but combined it with ornate sphinxes. However, Da Vinci eliminates unnecessary details which detract from the spirituality of the scene.
Da Vinci's Secret
There is one key difference between Da Vinci's Last Supper and earlier renditions of the same account. Mario Taddei, a Da Vinci expert, says that this difference is indeed a hidden message in the mural, but it isn't a hidden code. It is a far more relatable, easy-to-understand message.
Earlier depictions all have Jesus and his disciples with halos above their heads. They were portrayed as saints, as men far above us mere sinners. But Da Vinci does not adorn Jesus nor his disciples with halos. This was not a mistake but Da Vinci did it intentionally to illustrate the fact that Jesus and his disciples were ordinary men. Da Vinci believed that what made this ordinary story extraordinary, was that it was the story of 13 common men. That is something worth painting about. That is powerful.
Da Vinci's Last Supper truly is one of the greatest paintings of all time, as is his Mona Lisa.