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Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, one of Leonardo da Vinci's most significant patrons, would commission the artist to produce a huge mural to decorate the newly renovated refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.
The artist would take a number of years to complete a mural which would eventually stretch to almost nine metres in width, making it comfortably one of Da Vinci's largest paintings. This iconic painting would eventually become one of the most famous artworks in history, ranking alongside the likes of his own iconic Mona Lisa.
The Last Supper combines many different genres, as well as Da Vinci's many technical innovations. The religious content allows him to display his talents as a portrait painter, but there is also a strong use of perspective which produced balance within the scene. His customary landscapes are also just about visible through windows at the back.
This huge painting was actually considered to be Da Vinci's most famous piece during his own lifetime, and for a number of years later. Sadly, though, the materials used ensured that it would start to deteriorate very early on in its life, perhaps as little as just two decades after Leonardo had completed his work.
"...Verily i say onto you, that one of you shall betray me..."
The Last Supper has received regular restoration and preservation work over the centuries, with some being more successful than others. An abundance of work was completed over the 20th century, with four clear periods of intense study and correction. These projects appear to have at least protected the piece from further problems for the time being.
Fellow artists and scholars would discuss this piece more than anything else from Da Vinci's oeuvre, particularly within the 16th century. He was only seen as a painter for several centuries, before later being regarded as a the more rounded Renaissance Man, as we now refer to him. With all this attention, The Last Supper would also be copied, often very precisely, many times over by his followers, known as the Leonardeschi.
Within this article we examine this large mural in depth, discussing the various techniques used by Leonardo which differed somewhat from his other paintings. We track the history behind the original commission, and also see the efforts made to preserve and protect the piece over the centuries that followed.
Table of Contents
- What is The Last Supper?
- Artistic Interpretations of The Last Supper
- Size and Medium
- Large Images of The Last Supper
What is The Last Supper?
The Last Supper represents a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus Christ. It is then that he shared his final meal with apostles in Jerusalem, just before his crucifixion. Whilst sat at the table, Christ will announce that he expects to be betrayed by one of his guests at the lunch, and that therefore this would be his "Last Supper".
The various religious scriptures that mention this event can vary slightly in terms of the date of this event, and details around it, but the main fundamental points remain the same. Jesus enjoyed a "triumphant" arrival in Jerusalem just a few days earlier, but he now understands that after the impending betrayal, his arrest, trial and then his crucifixion will follow.
Artistic Interpretations of The Last Supper
Artistic depictions of The Last Supper have existed since the very early period of Christianity, and over time a number of compositional techniques have remained constant. Even as artistic styles changed, this scene would still retain a certain look from one century to the next.
The most obvious aspect that has remained constant is in how the table will spread horizontally across the scene, and most artists continued to use this approach, even centuries after Da Vinci's own version. He would have seen previous incarnations within Italy and chose to evolve the subject, rather than breaking too far from convention.
There is, for example, a minature depiction from the 13th century which carries the same long table, albeit from a different angle that is more in line with the experimental use of perspective found in the period leading up to the Italian Renaissance.
The Renaissance gave us more examples of this subject than any other movement, with Fra Angelico breaking with convention with a curved table. In later centuries, as expression and creativity came to the fore, then we have seen more variations, and slowly religious art has become less prominent within the mainstream.
In the late 15th century, Ludovico Sforza planned for the Santa Maria delle Grazie to become the burial location for himself and his family. A chapel would be built separately for them, but it was decided that Leonardo would still be employed to provide a large mural to cover an entire wall.
Sforza coats-of-arms were added to lunettes which sit above The Last Supper, reminding us of the family's connection to the original commission. The artist would also help out on a depiction of the Crucifixion which faces The Last Supper on the opposing wall.
Leonardo accepted the commission for the Last Supper and worked on the large mural between the years of 1495 to 1498, and he was already well acqainted with the Sforza family, building a strong bond which brought about a number of paintings over a period of several years.
Payments made by Ludovico Sforza directly to the artist during this period, as well as a number of notes from his own hand have provided further evidence, were it needed, of their relationship and collaboration on this particular project.
There has been some discussion between scholars over the indentities of the individuals added by Leonardo da Vinci to The Last Supper. The generally agreed list, running from left to right, is Bartholomew, James the Younger, Andrew, Judas, Peter, John, Thomas, James the Elder, Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot.
A copy of the piece was found in Ponte Capriasca which lists these names alongside their figures, and for now most believe this to be the most reliable way of identifying the apostles within this scene.
Christ sits centrally, with his palms open. The long table is full with food and drink, whilst the apostles chat openly in small groups either side of him. A series of panels behind them help to build a path of perspective which leads to the back of the room, with a number of open windows running across. These reveal small sections of the landscape outside.
Leonardo follows the appropriate conventions for depicting this famous event within this painting, but there are some areas in which he innovates. The emotion and energy found across the table gives each apostle their own unique character and behaviour, and this had not really been seen before.
Typically, most apostles would be styled in much the same way as each other, and often motionless, but after Da Vinci's version was completed, later generations took his ideas into their own interpretations. The use of perspective was also very strong in this piece, running through many different elements, where as previous versions had tended to prefer flatter perspectives which were typical of art from the Middle Ages.
The artist glued a layer of ground chalk to the wall before applying thick layers of tempera over the top. Leonardo would then sketch out the rough composition of the artwork in black lines, which can still be found today using scientific research. The artist would then add the top layer of detail which would become the main artwork, once he was broadly satisfied with the layout.
The artist chose not to make use of the traditional buon fresco method for this mural, where diluted pigments are applied to wet plaster. This technique required artists to work quickly and Leonardo was someone who liked to build up images over time, using his subtle variations, making this approach inappropriate for his needs.
He chose to initially add this white base in order that any colours added over the top would be as luminous as possible. He was essentially taking elements of fresco painting and oil painting, to create a technique which best suited his own methods. Leonardo would regularly disappear for months on end, before returning to work on this project, and so could not use the more traditional mural techniques.
The large amount of restoration work that has been completed on The Last Supper has clouded some of the investigations into Da Vinci's techniques, though most of these interventions were entirely necessary because of how quickly the original painting started to deteriorate.
The methods used by Leonardo may have suited his busy calendar, but unfortunately they would cause issues with the long term health of The Last Supper. Within two decades the colours were fading, and forms starting to lose their clarity. Plans were immediately drawn up about how this deterioration might be solved, but no concrete action was taken for quite some time.
The first restoration can be traced back to 1726, with a follow up attempt made around fifty years later. The work would last only a few years at a time, before fading away just as the original piece had done. The room itself would also then be used for all manner of different purposes, and the preservation of the painting was no-longer a priority.
Within the 20th century the piece would then have continual interventions, some more successful than others, but by this point the painting was at least receiving considerable care and attention once more, whilst the methods used had also evolved substantially.
Towards the end of the 20th century a more highly skilled approach was taken, and much of the work aimed to not only protect the piece from further deterioration, but also to remove some of the previous stages of restoration and attempt to return the piece to how the artist had originally intended. Upon its unveiling, the newly restored version in 1999 received mixed reviews, though it cannot be denied that the overall environment is now much more suitable for this painting's protection.
Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper can be found at the Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. The church and convent were completed at around the same time and the architecture was designed by Guiniforte Solari and Donato Bramante. The building work was commissioned by Duke Ludovico Sforza, who also asked Da Vinci to complete the Last Supper and eventually it would be decided that the Duke and his family would be buried here.
A chapel had previously existed in the same location, but it would be replaced by this ambitious and exciting new development. The painting itself by Leonardo was to be hung in the refectory of the convent, and it still remains there today.
Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper was completed between the years of circa 1495–1498. The artist completed this project in clusters of work, often being away for long periods before returning to continue his work. He would also make considerable numbers of alterations as he went, which was perhaps inevitable considering the complexity of this composition.
Considering the length of time that Leonardo took to complete some much smaller paintings, such as the Mona Lisa, you could argue that he was actually fairly efficient in producing a 9 metre mural within just a few years, whilst also taking care of other commissions.
The Last Supper is attributed to the artist Leonardo da Vinci, with a strong degree of confidence. It can be described as one of the few paintings from Da Vinci's career which is beyond doubt one of his own. Most controversy surrounding the piece remains on the identity and meaning of the various figures within the scene.
This confident attribution to Leonardo is formed from an abundance of evidence, such as with documentation which records the original commission that he received, as well as a number of study drawings which he completed in preparation for this complex piece. As an installed piece, it is also more easy to document the painting's history and provenance, as compared to some of the artist's other works which would change hands on multiple occasions, perhaps even leaving Italy.
Size and Medium
Leonardo's The Last Supper is 880 cm in width and 460 cm in height (346 inches by 181 inches). This large mural is formed from tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic, making it a fairly unique project within the artist's career, with most of his other paintings being produced using oil or tempera on wooden panels.
The nature of the mediums used by Leonardo within this painting have meant that the piece could not be moved safely, and that its preservation would also be difficult. As such, very little of the artist's original work can still be found in the painting today, which has undergone regular bouts of damage and restoration. In fact, a number of detailed copies of it by other Renaissance artists actually remain in better condition today.
Considering the poor condition that the original painting can now be found in, it is fortunate that a number of high quality copies were made soon after Da Vinci's Last Supper was completed. These have suffered less over time, and many now refer to these to see how the original may have looked back in the late 15th century.
Many other installed paintings from the Renaissance have similarly been damaged over time, though some were sensibly removed and transferred to canvas, though this process is not without its own risks.
Giampietrino, a student of Leonardo, would regularly make copies of his master's work and would do the same with The Last Supper in around 1520. He went as far as matching the original piece's size, making it quite an undertaking. Restorers to the original have studied it in detail in order to make sure any alterations best match how Leonardo's version would have looked.
Andrea Solari created his own version, also in around 1520, though his was made using oils and so would have inevitably looked a little different in its colour balance. He was better known for his original compositions of religious scenes plus portraits of local figures.
Cesare da Sesto, another former pupil of Leonardo, would also create a life-size reproduction of Leonardo's original painting. Relatively little is known about his career, and he may have actually been more of a follower of Leonardo, rather than a direct pupil, and his version resides today at the Church of St. Ambrogio in Ponte Capriasca, Switzerland.
Large Images of The Last Supper
This huge mural, measing nearly nine metres in width, cannot really be appreciated without seeing the original piece in person. However, we have included some larger, high resolution images below which can help you to understand and appreciate more of the detail added by the artist.
The higher resolution will allow you to identify the individual figures placed across the long table, and also to see other features such as the various food, drink, plates and bowls which are strewn across the scene. Additionally, there is a strong use of perspective which leads towards an imaginary vanishing point.