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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Kade

The Last Supper - Santa Maria delle Grazie - Milan, Italy

The Last Supper is a late 15th century painting by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci housed by the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. It is one of the Western world's most recognizable paintings. Da Vinci painted the large 15 feet-by-29 feet piece directly on drywall. That means it’s technically not a fresco (which would be painted on wet plaster).  

Contrary to popular belief, the Last Supper is not located in a museum: It’s in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church and convent. The work (located in the dining room!) was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and was believed to be completed between 1495 – 1498.

Santa Maria delle Grazie ("Holy Mary of Grace") is a church and Dominican convent in Milan.

"Duke of Milan Francesco I Sforza ordered the construction of a Dominican convent and church at the site of a prior chapel dedicated to the Marian devotion of St Mary of the Graces. The main architect, Guiniforte Solari, designed the convent, which was completed by 1469. Construction of the church took decades. Duke Ludovico Sforza decided to have the church serve as the Sforza family burial site, and rebuilt the cloister and the apse, both completed after 1490. Ludovico's wife Beatrice was buried in the church in 1497.

The design of the apse of the church has been attributed to Donato Bramante as his name is inscribed in a piece of marble in the church vaults delivered in 1494. However, some dispute that he worked on the church at all. According to one source, in 1492–1497 Bramante worked on the crossing and the dome as well the transept apses and the coir with apse; this source also attributes a plan and section of the building to Bramante. Some documents mention the name Amadeo, likely Giovanni Antonio Amadeo. Similarities between this church and Amadeo's design for Santa Maria alla Fontana make this attribution more likely."

In 1543, the Titian altarpiece depicting Christ receiving the crown of thorns was installed in the Chapel of the Holy Crown, located on the right of the nave. The painting, looted by French troops in 1797, is now in the Louvre. This chapel is frescoed with Stories of the Passion by Gaudenzio Ferrari. In the small cloister adjacent to the tribune near the door that leads to the sacristy is a fresco by Bramantino. The church also contained frescoes depicting the Resurrection and Passion by Bernardo Zenale.

You can’t just stroll in to see The Last Supper: Instead, tickets must be reserved. Ticket dates are released approximately four months in advance and can be purchased online or by phone.

The church contains the mural of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, which is in the refectory of the convent.

The work is assumed to have been started around 1495–96 and was commissioned as part of a plan of renovations to the church and its convent buildings by Leonardo's patron Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The painting represents the scene of the Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles, as it is told in the Gospel of John, 13:21. Leonardo has depicted the consternation that occurred among the Twelve Apostles when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him.

Due to the methods used, a variety of environmental factors, and intentional damage, little of the original painting remains today despite numerous restoration attempts, the last being completed in 1999.

"The Last Supper measures 180 inches × 350 inches (460 cm × 880 centimeters) and covers an end wall of the dining hall at the monastery of Santa Maira delle Grazie. The theme was a traditional one for refectories, although the room was not a refectory at the time that Leonardo painted it. The main church building had only recently been completed (in 1498). Leonardo's patron, Ludovico Sforza planned that the church should be remodeled as a family mausoleum, and to this end, changes were made. The entire plan was not carried out. and a smaller mortuary chapel was constructed, adjacent to the cloister. The painting was commissioned by Sforza to decorate the wall of the mausoleum. 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 the Crucifixion fresco by Giovanni Donato da 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 worked on The Last Supper from about 1495 to 1498, but did not work it continuously. The beginning date is not certain, as the archives of the convent for the period have been destroyed. A document dated 1497 indicates that the painting was nearly completed at that date. One story goes that a prior from the monastery complained to Leonardo about its delay, enraging him. He wrote to the head of the monastery, explaining he had been struggling to find the perfect villainous face for Judas, and that if he could not find a face corresponding with what he had in mind, he would use the features of the prior who had complained."

There is a downside to visiting The Last Supper. No matter how far in advance you book, you’ll still have only 15 minutes in front of the painting. That’s not much when it comes to observing one of the Renaissance’s mos famous works (not to mention one that has launched countless conspiracy theories, movies, and novels!).

Before you are allowed into the room where The Last Supper and the Crucifixion are located, you walk down a long corridor. A glass door opens in front of you and a group of approximately 20 people enter. Then, the glass door closes behind you and you are enclosed in a completely glass room for about 5 minutes. By the time you are wondering what is going on, your guide explains that the room is a "humidity trap" and that they are attempting to pull some of the moisture from your body. After about five minutes, the glass door opens in front and you continue into the next room where you repeat the process. This happens three times in total. They discovered in the 1970's that the moisture from all the tourists' bodies was causing the paint to decay.

"The Last Supper portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him. All twelve apostles have different responses to the news, with various degrees of anger and shock. The apostles were identified by their names using a manuscript found in the 19th century. (Before this, only Judas, Peter, John and Jesus had been positively identified. The apostles are identified by the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci from left to right, as follows:

Starting at the left, Bartholomew, James, and Andrew form a group of three. All are surprised.

Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John form another group of three. Judas is taken aback by the revelation of his plan; he is clutching a small bag, signifying his payment for betraying Jesus. Peter looks angry and is holding a knife pointed away from Christ. The youngest apostle, John, appears to be overcome. Judas is wearing red, blue, and green and is in shadow, looking withdrawn and taken aback by the sudden revelation of his plan. He is clutching a small bag, perhaps signifying the silver given to him as payment to betray Jesus, or perhaps a reference to his role as a treasurer. He is also tipping over the salt cellar, which may be related to the near-Eastern expression to "betray the salt" meaning to betray one's master. He is the only person to have his elbow on the table and his head is also vertically the lowest of anyone in the painting. Peter wears an expression of anger and appears to be holding a knife, foreshadowing his violent reaction in Gethsemane during the arrest of Jesus. Peter is leaning towards John and touching him on the shoulder, in reference to John's Gospel where he signals the "beloved disciple" to ask Jesus who is to betray him. The youngest apostle, John, appears to swoon and lean towards Peter. Art historians suggest that the figure of Apostle John appears feminine due to Leonardo’s fascination with blurring the lines between the sexes. A characteristic found in Da Vinci’s other paintings, such as St. John the Baptist.

Judas Iscariot is recognized both as he reaches to toward a plate beside Christ (Matthew 26) and because he clutches a purse containing his reward for identifying Christ to the authorities the following day. Peter, who sits beside Judas, holds a knife in his right hand, foreshadowing that Peter will sever the ear of a soldier as he attempts to protect Christ from arrest.

Jesus is in the center, where the perspective and lighting draws attention to Jesus, whose right cheek is at the vanishing point for all the perspective lines.

Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip are the next group of three. Thomas has raised index finger foreshadows his disbelief of the Resurrection. James the Greater is upset with his arms raised. Philip appears to be seeking an explanation.

Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon are the last group of three on the right. Jude Thaddeus and Matthew are turned toward Simon to find out if he has any answers."

"The meal takes place within an almost austere room so that the viewer focuses on the action taking place in the foreground. Dark tapestries line the walls on either side, while the back wall is dominated by three windows that look out on an undulating landscape recalling Milan’s countryside.

Leonardo represented the space by using linear perspective, a technique rediscovered in the Renaissance that employs parallel lines that converge at a single vanishing point to create the illusion of depth on a flat surface. He placed the vanishing point at Jesus’s right temple, thus drawing the viewer’s attention toward the main subject. Although linear perspective seems like a systematized method of creating the illusion of space, it is complicated by its reliance on a single vantage point. Any viewing position other than the vantage point reveals a slightly distorted painted space. Later, scholars discovered that the vantage point for the Last Supper is about 15 feet (4.57 meters) above ground. Leonardo likely chose this relatively high height because the painting’s bottom edge is 8 feet (2.44 meters) above ground and using a vantage from the floor would have meant viewers would only have been able to see the underside of the table, not the action taking place above. Consequently, the painted space of the Last Supper always appears sightly at odds with the refectory space. It is one of many visual paradoxes scholars have observed about the painting. They have also noted that the table is far too large to fit in the depicted room, yet it is not large enough to seat the 13 men, at least not along the three sides where they are placed. The scene, so seemingly simple and organized, is a puzzling resolution to the challenge of creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface."

In common with other depictions of The Last Supper from this period, Leonardo has seated the diners on one side of the table, so that none of them has his back to the viewer.

The painting contains several possible numerical references, including to the number three,which represents the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. The Apostles are seated in groups of three, there are three windows behind Jesus, and the shape of Jesus' figure resembles a triangle. His hands are located at the golden ratio of half the height of the composition. The painting can also be interpreted using the Fibonacci series: one table, one central figure, two side walls, three windows and figures grouped in threes, five groups of figures, eight panels on the walls and eight table legs, and thirteen individual figures. Debates among art historians still surround the use of the Fibonacci series as some argue that its purposeful use did not fully begin to be applied to architecture until the early 19th century.

The Apostles are seated in groupings of three; there are three windows behind Jesus, and the shape of Jesus’ figure resembles a triangle with three sides and three points.

Leonardo balanced the perspective construction of the Last Supper so that its vanishing point is immediately behind Christ's right temple, pointing to the physical location of the center, or sensus communis, of his brain. By pulling a string in radial directions from this point, he marked the table ends, floor lines, and orthogonal edges of six ceiling coffer column. From the right and/or left edge of the horizon line, he drew diagonal lines up to the coffer corners, locating points for the horizontal lines of the 12 coffer rows.

Leonardo was well known for his love of symmetry. In his Last Supper the layout is largely horizontal. The large table is seen in the foreground of the image with all of the figures behind it. The painting is largely symmetrical with the same number of figures on either side of Jesus.

"In common with other depictions of The Last Supper from this period, Leonardo seats the diners on one side of the table, so that none of them has his back to the viewer. Most previous depictions excluded Judas by placing him alone on the opposite side of the table from the other eleven disciples and Jesus, or placing halos around all the disciples except Judas. Leonardo instead has Judas lean back into shadow. Jesus is predicting that his betrayer will take the bread at the same time he does to Saints Thomas and James the Greater 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 not noticing Jesus too stretching out with his right hand towards it (Matthew 26: 23). The angles and lighting draw attention to Jesus, whose turned right cheek is located at the vanishing point for all perspective lines. In addition, the painting demonstrated Da Vinci's masterful use of perspective as it "draws our attention to the face of Christ at the center of the composition, and Christ's face, through his down-turned gaze, directs our focus along the diagonal of his left arm to his hand and therefore, the bread."

"Leonardo reportedly used the likenesses of people in and around Milan as inspiration for the painting's figures. The convent's prior complained to Sforza of Leonardo's "laziness" as he wandered the streets to find a criminal to base Judas on. Leonardo responded that if he could find no one else, the prior would make a suitable model. While the painting was being executed, Leonardo's friend, the mathematician Luca Pacioli, called it "a symbol of man's burning desire for salvation."

Giovanni Maria Pala, an Italian musician, has indicated that the positions of hands and loaves of bread can be interpreted as notes on a musical staff and, if read from right to left, as was characteristic of Leonardo's writing, form a musical composition.

Da Vinci was experimenting with new techniques, and due to the methods he used and to a variety of humidity and environmental factors plus war damage, very little of the original painting remains today despite numerous restoration attempts.

Leonardo, as a painter, favored oil painting, a medium which allows the artist to work slowly and make changes with ease. Fresco painting does not facilitate either of these things. Leonardo also sought a greater luminosity and intensity of light and shade (chiaroscuro) than could be achieved with fresco. Instead of painting with water-soluble paints onto wet plaster, laid freshly each day in sections, Leonardo painted The Last Supper on a wall sealed with a double layer of gesso (a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment, or any combination of these), pitch, and mastic. Then, borrowing from panel painting , he added an undercoat of white lea to enhance the brightness of the oil and tempera that was applied on top. This was a method that had been described previously, by Cennino Cennini in the 14th century. However, Cennini described the technique as being more risky than fresco painting, and recommended the use of "a secco" painting (on dry plaster) for the final touches alone.

"Because Sforza had ordered the church to be rebuilt hastily, the masons filled the walls with moisture-retaining rubble. The painting was done on a thin exterior wall, so the effects of humidity were felt keenly, and the paint failed to properly adhere to it. Because of the method used, soon after the painting was completed on February 9, 1498 it began to deteriorate. In 1499, Louis XII contemplated removing the painting from the wall and taking it to France. As early as 1517, the painting was starting to flake, and in 1532 Gerolamo Cardano described it as "blurred and colorless compared with what I remember of it when I saw it as a boy". By 1556, fewer than sixty years after it was finished, Giorgio Vasari described the painting as reduced to a "muddle of blots" so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognizable. By the second half of the sixteenth century Gian Paolo Lomazzo stated that "the painting is all ruined". 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 center 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 varnishe the whole mural. This repair did not last well and another restoration was attempted in 1770 by an otherwise unknown artist named 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 revolutionary anti-clerical troops used the refectory as an armory and stable; they threw stones at the painting and climbed ladders to scratch out the Apostles' eyes. Goethe wrote that in 1800, the room was flooded with two feet of water after a heavy rainstorm. The refectory wasalso 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 center section before realizing 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 stabilized some parts with stucco."

"During World War II, on August 15, 1943, the refectory was struck by Allied bombing; protective sandbagging prevented the painting from being struck by bomb splinters, but it may have been damaged by the vibration. Between 1946 and 1954, Mauro Pellicioli undertook a clean-and-stabilize restoration. Pellicioli reattached paint to the wall using a clear shellac, making it relatively darker and more colorful, and removed some of the overpainting. However, as of 1972, the repainting done in various restorations had made the heads of Saint Peter, Andrew, and James differ significantly from the original design."

"The painting's appearance by the late 1970's had become badly deteriorated. From 1978 to 1999, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon guided a major restoration project which undertook to stabilize the painting, and reverse the damage caused by dirt and pollution. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century restoration attempts were also reversed. Since it had proved impractical to move the painting to a more controlled environment, the refectory was instead converted to a sealed, climate controlled environment, which meant bricking up the windows. 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 unable to be restored. These were re-painted using watercolor in subdued colors intended to indicate they were not original work, while not being too distracting.

This restoration took 21 years and, on May 28, 1999, the painting was returned to display. Intending visitors were required to book ahead and could only stay for 15 minutes. When it was unveiled, considerable controversy was aroused by the dramatic changes in colors, tones, and even some facial shapes. James Beck, professor of art history at Columbia University and founder of ArtWatch International, had been a particularly strong critic. Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, has also complained about th restored version of the painting. He has been critical of Christ's right arm in the image which has been altered from a draped sleeve to what Daley calls "muff-like drapery".

Speculation about the symbolism in The Last Supper

  • The meaning of the spilled salt container near Judas’s elbow. Spilled salt could symbolize bad luck, loss, religion, or Jesus as salt of the earth.

  • The symbolism in da Vinci’s choice of food. There is a dispute on whether the fish on the table is herring or eel as each carries its separate symbolic meaning. In Italian, the word for eel is similar to the word meaning to indoctrinate. In northern Italy, the word for herring is also used to describe someone who denies religion.

  • An Italian musician created a melody from the notes that were allegedly hidden in the scene. The composition is based on the position of hands and loaves of bread, which can be interpreted as notes on a musical staff.  The notes need to be read from right to left, as was characteristic of Leonardo’s writing.

  • Others have translated what they see as mathematical and astrological indicators in the artwork as a message from the artist and his purported predictions.

  • The novel, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown in 2003, proposed that the person to Jesus’ right (left of Jesus from the viewer’s perspective) is Mary Magdalene.

  • Similar speculation about Mary Magdalene can be found in the following books: The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett in 1997 and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln and Richard Leigh in 1982

  • In 2010, Sabrina Sforza Galitzia translated what she saw as mathematical and astrological indicators in da Vinci's work as a message from the artist about the end of the world. According to her interpretation, the artist says the apocalypse will take place in 4006.

"The Last Supper has been the target of much speculation by writers and historical revisionists alike, usually centered on purported hidden messages or hints found within the painting, especially since the publication of Dan Brown's 's novel The Da Vinci Code (2003), in which one of the characters suggests that the person to Jesus' right (left of Jesus from the viewer's perspective) is actually Mary Magdalene. It also states that there was a letter ‘glaring in the center of the painting’ (M) standing for Matrimonio or Mary Magdalene. This speculation originated in earlier books The Templar Revelation (1997) by Lynn Picknett and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baignent, Henry Lincoln and Richael Leigh (1982). Art historians hold that the figure is the Apostle John, who only appears feminine due to Leonardo's characteristic fascination with blurring the lines between the sexes, a quality which is found in his other paintings, such as St. John the Baptist (painted c.1513–1516). Christopher L. Hodapp and Alice Von Kannon comment "If he (John) looks effeminate and needs a haircut, so does James, the second figure on the left." According to Ross King, an expert on Italian art, Mary Magdalene's appearance at the last supper would not have been controversial and Leonardo would have had no motive to disguise her as one of the other disciples, since she was widely venerated in her role as the "Apostle to the Apostles" and was the patron of the Dominican Order, for whom The Last Supper was painted. There would have even been precedent for it, since the earlier Italian Renaissance painter Fra Andelico had included her in his painting of the Last Supper."

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