“What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks.
“The Last Supper,” I reply.
Leonardo painted this mural as a commission by the duke of Milano not in the church itself but in the dining hall of the adjacent Dominican monastery. There is a bit of wit in that situation: a painting of the Last Supper in a dining hall. It was one of two wall paintings in the room — the painting opposite is on the crucifixion of Jesus.
But Leonardo’s work is the one that is venerated today. Why? Because it was painted by Leonardo? Partially. But Leonardo was simply an artist, someone considered to be at the social level of a craftsman. He wasn’t anyone particularly famous (outside of the world of artists anyway) when he received the commission in the 1490s.
It wasn’t the first painting of the Last Supper. Many others came before it. No, it’s not WHAT he painted, but HOW he depicted the scene. I'm not simply talking about the techniques his used (Leonardo was one of the first to master the perspective of depth, giving his painting a three-dimensional look), but how he approached the subject itself.
Many paintings of the day depicted other aspects of that evening in Jerusalem, most notably Jesus washing the feet of the apostles. Those that did choose the table scene painted in an iconographic style, with the apostles as stoic saints with halos. Well, all save one were painted with halos. I'll talk about the history of depicting Judas an a bit.
What Leonardo painted was a scene in which the apostles were human, and he depicted their fully human emotions at the moment Jesus told them that one of them would betray him. These apostles are shocked, angry, disbelieving at what they have just been told. None have halos. None have beatific expressions on their faces. None are holding up their hand in a “bless you my child” pose. These men want to know how this can be. They want to know who among them would dare do such a thing. They might well want to know if Jesus has lost his mind to think that one of those closest to him would sell him out. These are men whose faith in themselves and their close knit group is starting to falter. And they are discussing/arguing the point amongst themselves. In fact, hot-headed Peter even holds a knife in his right hand in a way that suggests he’s ready to assault the guilty party.
This is where Leonardo’s use of Christian symbolism comes into play. For the apostles are discussing this amongst themselves, and not with Jesus. Leonardo illustrates that this is the point at which Jesus finds himself alone at the table; no one in the scene has any physical contact with Jesus. No one is engaging him in the conversation. Jesus’ arms are somewhat stretched outward, and if his feet still existed in the painting (many years after Leonardo completed the painting, the small door below it was enlarged in height, destroying that part of the work), we would see that they are slightly overlapped (artists who copied this work showed this in their copies). Arms outstretched and feet overlapping — think the pose of crucifixion. For Leonardo, this is the beginning of The Passion. At the opposite end, another artist's rendition of the end of The Passion.
The apostles are carrying on the discussion in groups of three (that symbolic number of the Trinity, just as there are three windows behind the table). Four groups of three. Chief among these groups is the one to Jesus’ left: John, Paul, and Judas. Previous depictions if the table scene during that Passover meal show Judas separated out, either on the other side of the table or down at one end of it. Here we recognize him by the moneybag partially concealed by his hand (he also stands out more in the painting we see today, as he is darker and has extremely denigrating features, but these are not Leonardo’s work). What Leonardo painted changed the WAY artists painted the Last Supper going forward.
But perhaps equally amazing is the fact that we have this painting at all. You see, Leonardo failed in this painting. Having a scientific mind, he always experimented with his commissioned works. Murals were done as frescoes — paintings done on fresh, wet plaster so that the pigments absorb into and become part of the wall material. But that technique requires swift work, for the plaster of the day dried in eight hours. Artists would spread a small patch of plaster the size of the subject they were working on that day, then had to finish it within that eight-hour window.
No touch-ups. No changes that came to mind overnight. Eight hours and you're moving on to the next part.
Leonardo painted his Last Supper on dried, hardened plaster. That means the pigment is simply a thin layer on top of the plaster. This also means that after a few decades, the paint began flaking off the wall. Without some modicum of care, his Last Supper would have turned largely to dust long ago.
Then there is the friars’ decision to enlarge the doorway below the painting. Perhaps good fortune played a role in the friars’ not deciding to knock out the wall instead.
And how about the French occupation on Milan during the Napoleonic Wars. At that time, the French used the dining hall of the monastery as a horse stable, and the soldiers played a game where they threw stones at the painting, and the one who hit Judas’ face was the winner (it was when this was restored in the late 19th/early 20th centuries that the Judas acquired the darker skin and sinister, “Jewish” features, a clear reflection of the anti-Semitism of the day.
The greatest threat came in World War II and the aerial bombardment of Milan by the Allies. Both paintings in the room were protected by metal scaffolding and walls made of sandbags. The monastery was laid waste by the bombings, and when all was said and done the only two walls standing in that part of the monastery were the walls with the paintings. The only. Two. Walls.
So good fortune smiled on this work of art from the time Leonardo chose the wrong method to paint a mural, to the time the friars’ did some “remodeling work,” to the abuses of Napoleon’s soldiers, to surviving the bombing of World War II. Such good fortune.
Or perhaps it’s what could be described as a miracle.