The Last Supper (Leonardo)

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Art

The Last Supper
Leonardo Da Vinci, 1495– 1498
tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic
460 × 880 cm, 181 × 346 inches
Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan)

The Last Supper ( Italian: Il Cenacolo or L'Ultima Cena) is a 15th century mural painting in Milan, created by Leonardo da Vinci for his patron Duke Lodovico Sforza. It represents the scene of The Last Supper from the final days of Jesus as depicted in the Bible. The painting is based on the account, in John 13:21, of Jesus announcing that one of his twelve disciples would betray him. The painting is one of the most well known and valued in the world; unlike many other valuable paintings, however, it has never been privately owned because it cannot easily be moved.

Composition and meaning

The painting measures 460 × 880 centimetres (15 feet × 29 feet) and can be found in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. The theme was a traditional one for refectories, but Leonardo's interpretation gave it much greater realism and depth. The lunettes above the main painting, formed by the triple arched ceiling of the refectory, are painted with Sforza coats-of-arms. The opposite wall of the refectory is covered by a Crucifixion fresco by Donato Montorfano, to which Leonardo added figures of the Sforza family in tempera. (These figures have deteriorated in much the same way as has The Last Supper.) Leonardo began work on The Last Supper in 1495 and completed it in 1498 — however, he did not work on the piece continuously throughout this period.

The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him. All twelve apostles have different reactions to the news, with various degrees of anger and shock. From left to right:

  • Bartholomew, James the Lesser and Andrew form a group of three, all are surprised. Andrew holds both of his hands up in a "stop!" gesture.
  • Judas Iscariot, Peter and John form another group of three. Judas is wearing green and is in shadow, looking rather withdrawn and taken aback by the sudden revelation of his plan. He is clutching a small bag of silver, given to him as payment to betray Jesus. Peter looks angry; perhaps foreshadowing Peter's reaction in Gethsemane. Peter is holding a knife, which is pointed away from Christ, also a foreshadowing of Peter's violent protection of Christ in Gethsemane. The youngest apostle, John, appears to swoon.
  • Thomas, James Major and Philip are the next group of three. Thomas is clearly upset; James the Greater looks stunned, with his arms in the air. Meanwhile, Philip appears to be requesting some explanation.
  • Matthew, Jude Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot are the final group of three. Both Jude Thaddeus and Matthew are turned toward Simon, perhaps to find out if he has any answer to their initial questions.

These names are all agreed upon by art historians. In the 19th century, a manuscript (The Notebooks Leonardo Da Vinci pg. 232) was found with their names; before this only Judas, Peter, John and Jesus were positively identified.

In common with other depictions of the Last Supper from this period, Leonardo adopts the convention of seating the diners on one side of the table, so that none of them have their backs to us. However, most previous depictions had typically excluded Judas by placing him alone on the opposite side of the table from the other twelve. Another technique commonly used was placing halos around all the disciples except Judas. Leonardo creates a more dramatic and realistic effect by having Judas lean back into shadow. He also creates a realistic and psychologically engaging means to explain why Judas takes the bread at the same time as Jesus, just after Jesus has predicted that this is what his betrayer will do. Jesus is shown saying this to Saints Thomas and James to his left, who react in horror as Jesus points with his left hand to a piece of bread before them. Distracted by the conversation between John and Peter, Judas reaches for a different piece of bread, as, unseen by him, Jesus too stretches out with his right hand towards it. All of the angles and lighting draw attention to Christ.

The painting contains several references to the number 3, which may be an allusion to the Holy Trinity. The Apostles are seated in groupings of three; there are three windows behind Jesus; and the shape of Jesus' figure resembles a triangle. There may have been many other references that have since been lost to the painting's deterioration.


Leonardo painted The Last Supper on a dry wall rather than on wet plaster, so it is not a true fresco. Because a fresco cannot be modified as the artist works, Leonardo instead chose to seal the stone wall with a layer of pitch, gesso and mastic, then paint onto the sealing layer with tempera. Because of the method used, the piece has not withstood time very well – within several years of completion it already began showing signs of deterioration.

Damage and restorations

As early as 1517 the painting was starting to flake. By 1556 — less than sixty years after it was finished — Leonardo's biographer Giorgio Vasari described the painting as already "ruined" and so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. In 1652 a doorway was cut through the (then unrecognizable) painting, and later bricked up; this can still be seen as the irregular arch shaped structure near the centre base of the painting. It is believed, through early copies, that Jesus' feet were in a position symbolizing the forthcoming crucifixion. In 1768 a curtain was hung over the painting for the purpose of protection; it instead trapped moisture on the surface, and whenever the curtain was pulled back, it scratched the flaking paint.

A first restoration was attempted in 1726 by Michelangelo Bellotti, who filled in missing sections with oil paint then varnished the whole mural. This repair lasted very poorly and another restoration was attempted in 1770 by Giuseppe Mazza. Mazza stripped off Bellotti's work then largely repainted the painting; he had redone all but three faces when he was halted due to public outrage. In 1796 French troops used the refectory as an armory; they threw stones at the painting and climbed ladders to scratch out the Apostles' eyes. The refectory was then later used as a prison; it is not known if any of the prisoners may have damaged the painting. In 1821 Stefano Barezzi, an expert in removing whole frescoes from their walls intact, was called in to remove the painting to a safer location; he badly damaged the centre section before realising that Leonardo's work was not a fresco. Barezzi then attempted to reattach damaged sections with glue. From 1901 to 1908, Luigi Cavenaghi first completed a careful study of the structure of the painting, then began cleaning it. In 1924 Oreste Silvestri did further cleaning, and stabilised some parts with stucco.

During World War II, on August 15, 1943, the refectory was struck by a bomb; protective sandbagging prevented the painting being struck by bomb splinters, but it may have been damaged further by the vibration. From 1951 to 1954 another clean-and-stabilise restoration was undertaken by Mauro Pelliccioli.

Major restoration

From 1978 to 1999 Pinin Brambilla Barcilon guided a major restoration project which undertook to permanently stabilise the painting, and reverse the damage caused by dirt, pollution, and the misguided 18th century and 19th century restoration attempts. Since it had proved impracticable to move the painting to a more controlled environment, the refectory was instead converted to a sealed, climate controlled environment. Then, detailed study was undertaken to determine the painting's original form, using scientific tests (especially infrared reflectoscopy and microscopic core-samples), and original cartoons preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Some areas were deemed unrestorable. These were re-painted with watercolour in subdued colours intended to indicate they were not original work, whilst not being too distracting.

This restoration took 21 years and on May 28, 1999 the painting was put back on display, although intending visitors are required to book ahead and can only stay for 15 minutes. When it was unveiled, considerable controversy was aroused by the dramatic changes in colours, tones, and even some facial shapes. James Beck, professor of art history at Columbia University and founder of ArtWatch International, has been a particularly strong critic.

The painting as it appeared before the major restoration in 1979 can be seen here.

Legends and alternative theories

A common legend surrounding the painting is that the same model was used for both Jesus and Judas. The story often goes that the innocent-looking young man, a baker, posed at nineteen for Jesus. Some years later Leonardo discovered a hard-bitten criminal as the model for Judas, not realizing he was the same man. There is no evidence that Leonardo used the same model for both figures and the story usually overestimates the time it took Leonardo to finish the mural.

There is a theory, first publicized in 1997 in the pseudohistorical book The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, that the person to the left of Jesus (to His right) is actually Mary Magdalene, rather than the apostle John (as most art historians identify the figure). This theory is central to Dan Brown's popular 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code.

In the novel, it is said that John/Mary Magdalene has a womanly bosom, feminine facial features, and is swaying gracefully toward Peter. Peter appears to be making a threatening gesture across John/Mary's throat. The author uses this theory to advance his view that Leonardo da Vinci was once the head of a secret society, the Priory of Sion, which protects the secret of Jesus' royal bloodline, and the location of his modern descendants.

Critics of the novel's theories also point out that:

  • While damage makes it impossible to be sure of the figure's gender, it appears to be wearing male clothing.
  • There are only thirteen figures in the painting, so if one is Mary Magdalene, an apostle is missing: somebody would have noted a missing male apostle earlier. Some have suggested that on the front of the figure of Simon Peter there is one hand with a dagger which is associated to nobody in the picture, but in clearer reproductions this is seen to be Peter's right hand, resting against his hip with the palm turned outward; the knife points towards Bartholomew (far left) who was to be executed by being flayed. It may also indicate Peter's impulsive nature, as he cuts off a soldier's ear in John 18:10. A detailed preliminary drawing of the arm exists.
  • Some of the painting's cartoons (preliminary sketches) are preserved, and none show female faces.
Castagno's version of The Last Supper, depicting St. John sleeping
Castagno's version of The Last Supper, depicting St. John sleeping
  • Other paintings from that period ( Castagno’s 1447 and Ghirlandaio’s 1480) also show John to be a very boyish or feminine looking figure with long fair hair. This was because John was supposed to have been the youngest and most unquestioningly devoted of the apostles. Hence he is often shown asleep against Jesus's shoulder. It was common in the period to show neophytes as very young or even feminine figures, as a way of showing their inferior position.
  • Leonardo also portrayed a male saint with similar effeminate features in his painting St. John the Baptist.

There have also been other popular speculations about the work:

  • It has been suggested that there is no cup in the painting, yet Jesus's left hand is pointing to the Eucharist and his right to a glass of wine. This is not the glorified chalice of legend as Leonardo insisted on realistic paintings. He often criticised Michelangelo for painting muscular, superhuman figures in the Sistine Chapel.
  • It is claimed that if one looks above the figure of Bartholemew, a Grail-like image appears on the wall. Whether Leonardo meant this to be a representation of the Holy Grail cannot be known, since as pointed out earlier there is a glass on the table within Christ's reach. The "Grail image" has become noticed probably because it only appears when viewing the painting in small scale reproductions. Zooming in on the painting reveals a cluster of geometrical shapes, possibly intended to represent marble wall decoration, or more likely, panneling on a door. They only appear to form a golden chalice when parts are deliberately occluded.
  • It is argued that the colour of Jesus' and "Mary"'s clothes are inversions of each other, which suggest the two halves of marriage. However, there are other apostles with clothing of the same colors. Philip's clothing is also an inversion of Jesus's.
  • No credible researchers have ever supported the suggestion that the doorway was cut purposely to eliminate a sleeping apostle John from beneath the table, an image that would supposedly have proved that the figure appearing to the left of Jesus was Mary Magdalene. Several copies were painted before the door was cut. None show another figure, only table-legs and the sandled feet of Jesus.

The Last Supper in culture


The Last Supper made in salt in Wieliczka salt mine (Poland)
The Last Supper made in salt in Wieliczka salt mine (Poland)

A fine 16th century oil on canvas copy is conserved in the abbey of Tongerlo, Antwerp, Belgium. It reveals many details that are no longer visible on the original. The Roman mosaic artist Giacomo Raffaelli made another life-sized copy ( 1809- 1814) in the Viennese Minoritenkirche.

In modern times the painting has also been much imitated and parodied in art and photography. Mary Beth Edelson's "Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper" (1971) reproduced the composition with Georgia O'Keeffe in the central position. Likewise, Yo Mama's Last Supper, a controversial work of art by Renée Cox, was a montage of five photographs of twelve black men and a naked black woman (the artist's self portrait) posed in imitation of Leonardo's painting. Cox is pictured naked and standing, with her arms reaching upwards, as Jesus. The piece is exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and received acclaim and criticism in heavy measure, the latter notably by former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani.

In 1988, modern artist Vik Muniz famously displayed a recreation of The Last Supper, made entirely out of Bosco Chocolate Syrup.

In 2003, when pop star Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch was raided in a search for evidence regarding child molestation charges, a pastiche of The Last Supper was found. A photograph of this piece of art was taken and it depicts a similar scene as in the original work, except this one has Jackson posing in the position of Jesus, with the apostles replaced by great creative figures of history. It hangs above Jackson's bed in his private quarters.

Drama and film

A play has also been written called The Living Last Supper, in which the painting is depicted on stage and the twelve disciples break from the group individually and address the audience.

The painting has been parodied in several films, the most notable being perhaps Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961). Robert Altman's dark comedy M*A*S*H (1970) includes a sub-plot about the camp dentist, the high point of which recreates Leonardo's tableau. The 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar has Jesus and the twelve apostles, gathered in the Garden of Gethsemane, pause at one point in the music and freeze into the tableau positions. The 1981 Mel Brooks film History of the World, Part I features Brooks as a waiter at the last supper who poses in the background as a Leonardo character is painting their portrait. In 2004 a Christmas edition of the British TV show Shameless caused controversy by portraying the disfunctional family at the centre of the show in a copy of the composition, with the alcoholic father played by David Threlfall as Jesus.

Likewise, in the movie Paradise Now, just before Said and Khaled leave for their "mission", they sit down to enjoy a "last supper". Said, Khaled and 11 other recruits sit facing the camera, similar to Leonardo's last supper. There are 13 people in the scene though, with no one exactly in the centre (where Jesus would be), possibly to avoid offending both Christians and Muslims, who see Jesus as a prophet of Allah, and portrayal of any of Islam's prophets is forbidden.

Popular culture

In the 1998 episode "Streaking" of the Fox series That '70s Show, the principal cast members assemble into the poses of the subjects of The Last Supper as they discuss streaking at a campaign rally for President Gerald Ford.

The cover for comedian George Carlin's 2004 book When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? parodies The Last Supper with Carlin replacing Jesus at the table.

Also in 2004, rapper Nas' album cover of Street's Disciple was influenced by the Last Supper.

Also in 2004, an advertisement appeared for the popular HBO series "The Sopranos" depicting twelve of the cast members surrounding the central figure of Tony Soprano posed as in the Last Supper. Though only briefly in the public eye, it generated some controversy at the time.

In 2005, an advertisement for French fashion house Marithé François Girbaud based on Leonardo's painting sparked controversy in Italy. Jesus and the apostles were cast as fashionably dressed females, the only male in the picture being a bare-chested young man sitting on a model's lap. The advertisement was withdrawn after protests by Italian Catholics.

In the 2006 artbook Football Heroes, English cartoonist Beach depicts the 1958 Brazilian World Cup football team in the daVinci tableau, with Pelé as the Jesus figure.

In episode 13 of the anime GetBackers, Akabane Kurodou explained the meaning of the painting to Ginji Amano when they saw the painting hanging on a wall inside Babylon City.

At the end of the episode of "The Simpsons" in which Homer Simpson goes to heaven, the episode ends with thirteen people at Moe's Tavern. They freeze for a few seconds, and their positions are in obvious parody of Leonardo's painting.

In the episode of " Gilmore Girls" titled "The Festival of Living Art," the members of the town participate in the titular festival and physically recreate the painting.

In the 1997 film Con Air starring Nicholas Cage, John Cusack and John Malkovich, a picture of the Last Supper is given to a prisoner with the eyes cut-out. When the picture is putover a letter it reveals a message.

The cover for the 1999 DVD release by heavy metal band Black Sabbath (also titled "The Last Supper") parodies the DaVinci painting, depicting members of the band in place of four of the apostles.

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