The Everlasting Lure of The Last Supper

When traveling around the world, companion compromises must made. He wanted Berlin, and I wanted two quick stops – one to see the pyramids in Egypt and the other to see The Last Supper painting by Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan. Seeing both in person was worth whatever awaits us in Berlin.

The pyramids are obvious marvels of creation. Today though, I want to focus on The Last Supper painting that Da Vinci completed in 1498, which took four years to complete. The only place this masterpiece has ever been is in Milan in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. There, the Last Supper was painted on the walls as commissioned by Milan’s duke, Ludovico Sforza, as a gift to the friars who lived there.

This painting is a masterpiece not just for the life-like details that Da Vinci gives to the figures which was in keeping with the growing Renaissance, but unlike any work proceeding him (Michelangelo was 20 years Da Vinci’s junior). The real allure is in the details, of which here are just a few:

  • Never before in commissioned paintings for churches, was Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, pictured sitting at the table on the same side as Jesus. In all prior paintings to date, Judas was seated on the opposite side of the table visually indicating he was not like the other disciples. But Da Vinci defied tradition. As a disciple who Jesus invited to attend his Last Supper, like Jesus, Da Vinci decided to include Judas at the table alongside the others.
  • The painting depicts the first few minutes after Jesus tells his disciples, his most loyal followers, that he knows that one of them betrays him. Everyone is reacting to the news – in anger, in disbelief, and in confusion. Judas is painted in the shadows, with a dark reflection on his face (in sharp contrast to John on Jesus’ left) as he reacts by knocking over the bottle of salt. In Italy, then and still now, spilling salt is bad luck.
  • The last two faces to be painted were that of Judas and Jesus. Da Vinci wanted historical references for what Judas looked like, but finding none, it’s widely believed that he based Judas’ face off of the painting’s project manager who was growing more and more frustrated (and ill-tempered) by the project’s delay.
  • At the table Jesus is at the center and is alone – perhaps indicating that he was abandoned, or simply, that his path was one that he needed to take alone.
  • Jesus’ feet are missing because a portion of the painting was removed to install a doorway in 1652. But from draft drawings and subsequent twin paintings by Da Vinci’s apprentices, we know Da Vinci painted Jesus’ feet as crossed.  With arms open wide, and his feet crossed, the image of Jesus represents his pending crucifixion.
  • The 12 disciples are painted in groups of three – a subtle reference to the Trinity – God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  • We know that at the time of the Last Supper, according to the Bible, John was Jesus’ closest and favorite disciple. This is why, like Jesus, John (to the left of Jesus) is also basked in light. We also know that John at this time was around the age of 13, which is why he is painted with young, androgynous features – he’s not yet a man. Despite rumors or theories that John is actually Mary Magdalene, we can dispute this myth because in the last 1400s it was still the days of the Christian Inquisition (a group of institutions within the Catholic Church whose aim was to combat heresy…and essentially kill the perpetrators). If it was discovered or even insinuated that John was a woman, the painting would have been destroyed and Da Vinci would have been killed.
  • James – the second disciple from the far left – may be a self-portrait of Da Vinci himself, as it was common in those days to hide small attributes to the artist.
  • Da Vinci surreptitiously signed the painting. On the right hand side of the table cloth is a knot. Da Vinci had an affinity for knots. The Italian word for knot (il vincolo) closely resembles his name, and accordingly, knots appears in several of Da Vinci’s paintings.

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

Master Da Vinci, I would say your art accomplishes both. If you can, go to Milan to witness the painting and poetry for yourself.

With loving gratitudes,

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