by Roderick Conway Morris

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St Maria delle Grazie, Milan
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, late 1490s

Leonardo's 'Last Supper'

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 26 May 2001


Leonardo's 'Last Supper' was in many ways an experiment that went very badly wrong. The artist painted it on an end wall of the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery in the late 1490s. But instead of using traditional fresco techniques - rapidly applying colors to wet plaster - he built the image up slowly in a series of layers on a dry, prepared surface. This proved a disastrous formula. Within a few years it was deteriorating. Within decades it was a phantom of its former self.

Ironically, the mural's spectacular state of dilapidation imbued it with a celebrity all its own, as the masterpiece that seemed to be disappearing before one's very eyes. As Henry James wrote of it in 1870: 'The mind finds a rare delight in filling each of its vacant spaces, effacing its rank defilement, and repairing, as far as possible, its sad disorder. Of the essential power and beauty of the work there can be no better evidence than the fact that, having lost so much, it has yet retained so much.' Indeed, by this time 'The Last Supper' had become a work almost as much of the viewer's imagination as the artist's.

The picture has undergone several restorations since James saw it, so what we see today is not even what he saw then. Yet its mystique lives on, and one can almost envision future generations gazing at an almost blank wall and wondering at its sheer uniqueness.

Though we will never know quite what 'The Last Supper' looked like when Leonardo laid down his brushes in 1498, an extensive exhibition about the mural and related works, 'Leonardo and the Last Supper,' at the Palazzo Reale, certainly helps us reconstruct it in our mind's eye and to assess its considerable and complex influence on later artists, despite the rapidity of the original's decline. (The show continues until June 17.)

The most telling, but potentially misleading, single exhibit from the historical viewpoint is a large 'copy,' now generally attributed to Giampetrino and tentatively dated around 1515 (which is normally on permanent loan by the Royal Academy to Magdalene College at Oxford). This contains a wealth of detail now completely lost in the original, but it is clear that, for whatever reasons, Giampetrino did not set out to make an exact copy. Thus, to take but one example, while enough is left of the original table cloth to confirm the 16th-century art historian Vasari's account of the infinite pains Leonardo took in rendering its texture (and, in fact, its intricate pattern), Giampetrino's is a simple white affair.

Indeed, the latest campaign of restoration, although inevitably attracting accusations of 'repainting,' has revealed a great deal about how Leonardo worked, and uncovered many particularities which, while invisible to visitors to Santa Maria delle Grazie, have been detected by the restorer's magnifying glasses and microscopes and recorded by sophisticated photographic techniques. This, in turn, has confirmed the extent to which Giampetrino's canvas is not a copy in the conventional sense, immensely useful though it remains.

The instant fame 'The Last Supper' won when it was first seen rested on its emphatic linear composition with overlapping figures and its dramatic presentation of its subject. For Leonardo's representation of the event focuses on the moment after Jesus's declaration (according to the words of Saint John's Gospel): 'Verily, verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.'

The consternation and confusion this has caused is reflected in the disciples' animated facial expressions and gesticulations, as some even leap to their feet, and Simon Peter urgently asks Jesus's favored follower John (who until moments before had been sleepily resting on Christ's shoulder), 'who it should be of whom he spake.'

This novel degree of theatricality, even melodrama, greatly appealed to many contemporary artists, who went on to imitate it in various ways. But there was also an oddness and maladroitness about the scene, which Bernard Berenson sought to pinpoint in an essay in 1917, where he excoriated himself for previously following the herd in overpraising Leonardo, against his better instincts.

'As a boy I felt repulsion for Leonardo's 'Last Supper,'' wrote Berenson. 'The faces were uncanny, their expressions forced, their agitation alarmed me. They were the faces of people whose existence made the world less pleasant and certainly less safe… I remember feeling that they were too big, and there were too many of them in the room.' An excessive adulation of Leonardo and his works is, of course, as current today as it was when it provoked Berenson's broadside, and the second part of the show is marred by some overstating of the case for the influence of Leonardo in general and 'The Last Supper' in particular.

Much is made of the effect of both on Giorgione. This goes back as far as remarks made by Vasari, who was, however, a Florentine nationalist and anxious to prove the ultimate primacy of his native city in all artistic matters. More convincing was the influence on other Venetian painters, such as Lotto and Titian, whose 'Ascension of the Virgin' in the Frari Church in Venice clearly suggests a knowledge of Leonardo's 'Last Supper.'

In the realm of 'copies' by major artists, one by Van Dyck is especially interesting. Based, apparently, on a drawing done by Rubens on the spot, it was thought lost but resurfaced in a private collection in Spain.

In some respects it is close to the original, but Van Dyck has added on the floor in the foreground not only a dog worrying a bone, but also robust, Netherlandish still-life elements, including a basket, containing a pewter plate and big round loaves, an earthenware jug and sturdy copper tub -- homely northern counterparts to Leonardo's elegant Italian glassware and individual bread rolls.

The ever wider distribution of the image of 'The Last Supper,' at first through engravings and later photographs, and its consequent familiarity led inevitably to its inversion for comic and satirical purposes, as the exhibition illustrates.

Hogarth employed its compositional structure on a number of occasions, to mocking effect, notably in his rendering of the grotesque bedlam of a cockfight. And, in due course, artists and filmmakers, such as Bunuel and Pasolini, made subversive use of its associations to annoy the bourgeois and Catholic establishment by placing this classic image in secular and low-life settings.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024