I saw Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper during a visit to Milan in 2008. I had to buy a ticket—the last one available during our stay in the city—for the chance to spend 15 minutes with it. Located in the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie, the painting has been kept under controlled conditions to slow down its deterioration; hence, the 15 minutes, one of the conditions. Arguably more than enough time for most people.
One essentially joins a tour when going to see it. Our guide led the group into the room. At least 20 feet farther back from the barrier that keeps mortals from getting close to the painting, she gave a spiel about the painting, which I found quite annoying. I thought it wasteful of our allotted 15 minutes. All I wanted to do was look at the painting for myself. Come to my own judgment.
When we were finally released and allowed to get closer—behind the barrier, of course—I stared at every inch of it, starting from the middle.
A couple of things crossed my mind: How much of the original was I looking at? As early as 20 years after Leonardo painted his Last Supper, it showed clear degradation. Restorations of the painting have been going on for centuries. Most of them of dubious value. New sophisticated technology informed the last restoration that started in 1979. It took 20 years and is often praised for bringing back what remained of the original. But, not every expert agrees, of course.
I also wondered: Was my perception of this painting affected by what we’ve all been told—that it is the best Last Supper ever painted? I had seen a few Cenacolos in Florence including the first ever painted, Taddeo Gaddi’s at the Basilica of Santa Croce. None of the other Cenacolos has been touted to elicit the same reverence.
Regardless of how Leonardo’s painting affects you, its attributes as a High Renaissance exemplar are obvious.
Leonardo’s Last Supper shares some characteristics with Castagno’s. It is huge, about the same height as Castagno’s and only a tad narrower (28 feet). In both versions, the scene is situated in a hall with architectural details (three lunettes) which indicate that it’s part of a larger building. But Leonardo’s gives a sense of much deeper space through one-point linear perspective, evident in the coffered ceilings and windows (doors?) on the two side walls.
The figures populating the tableau are the same. But in a break with tradition, Leonardo places Judas on the same side as the disciples. This unexpected placement creates both more drama and more stability. For those who know about the betrayal by Judas, it incites tension.
Leonardo intensifies the drama with other formal elements. Although like Castagno, he shows emotional reaction in hand gestures, facial expressions and body postures, Leonardo also sculpts his figures with chiaroscuro (stronger contrasts in light and shadow) and sfumato, a technique he pioneered. The hazy, smoky effect of sfumato seems quite appropriate to this scene of betrayal: it is artistic form calling attention to spiritual meaning. (Remember McLuhan’s The medium is the message?).
Placing Judas with the other disciples creates greater symmetry in the composition. Jesus is now clearly the center of the group. The symmetry goes further when Leonardo separates the 12 disciples into four groups of three. The triad of figures (a pyramid) is an element of composition valued by Renaissance artists for the sense of stability it conveys. It is also a symbol of the Holy Trinity (One God embodied in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), a fundamental teaching of a Christian faith meant to provide spiritual stability.
As in Castagno’s Cenacolo, Leonardo seats the disciples behind a long horizontal table, another element invoked for a sense of stability. He also brings them and the table closer to the picture plane, making the scene harder for a viewer to ignore.
The maturing of the Renaissance style is evident in Leonardo’s Cenacolo. Not only does he use most of the same devices as Castagno, he has carried them further.
Creating impact is of utmost importance to the “istoria” in a painting. Leonardo da Vinci brings the drama in his Last Supper several notches higher.