Italian Renaissance in Three Versions of The Last Supper: Part 1

Renaissance.  Literally, the word means rebirth, renewal. Most often, though, we use it to refer to a period in  15th century Italy during which art innovated and flourished as it never had before.  The Renaissance style continued to evolve, eventually leading to Mannerism.  In this Catholic country, art was then devoted to the sublime, the divine, and the noble.  Many artists got called upon to paint the cenacolo  (Last Supper) to grace the walls of its many churches.  So, it is natural (and a good pedagogic tool) that we could see the evolution of Italian Renaissance in, at least, three versions of the Last Supper.

Three versions of the Last Supper in three Italian cities could do this beautifully—Castagno’s, painted about 1447 at the church of Sant’ Appolonia in Florence, Italy, representing Early Renaissance; Leonardo’s, painted in 1495 at the Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, Italy; High Renaissance; and Tintoretto’s, painted 1592 for the Santa Maria Maggiore in Venice, Italy, Late Renaissance/Mannerism.

The versions of Castagno and Leonardo are both frescoes while Tintoretto’s is oil on canvas.  The use of different media is in itself significant.  By Tintoretto’s time, the center of the Renaissance had shifted from Florence to Venice where artists of the early 16th century like Titian adopted and innovated with oil techniques that Flemish artists had preferred since at least the time of Jan Van Eyck who explored and refined its use about 100 years earlier.  By the Late Renaissance, oil had also become the preferred medium for the Italians because of its ability in capturing limitless nuances in light, detail, and even color.  It also proved durable on canvases that were more easily stored and transported.  Leonardo’s fresco technique was different from that of Castagno who used the much more durable buon fresco technique, the favored medium in Florentine Renaissance for monumental history paintings of religious subjects.  Buon fresco, a laborious medium, traditionally used water-based tempera. Leonardo, who had probably already known about oils, experimented with oil tempera on dry intonaco . Everyone who loves art knows Leonardo’s method has had disastrous results.

Massacio, Adam and Eve Banished from Paradise
Castagno’s Last Supper was painted 20 years after Massacio’s history-changing (and Renaissance-defining) work at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence; and 10 years after Alberti’s tome on painting (Della Pittura) that might be considered some sort of Renaissance style manifesto.  Thus, it might be no surprise that this painting is characteristically Early Renaissance.

Castagno’s cenacolo is monumental in size (about 32 feet wide and 15 feet high) and populated only with the main players of this event (Jesus and his 12 disciples).  The figures seated behind a long table parallel to the picture plane are spread across the width of the fresco, occupying about a third of the canvas height. Thus, they may be life size (hard to tell exactly from a picture of the fresco).  The focus of the picture is somewhere in the middle where Jesus sits looking indulgently down at the young disciple John. Supposedly a favorite of Jesus, John’s head is resting on the table and he may be asleep.  The expressions and gestures of the other disciples appear to be those of tolerant older disciples who, nevertheless, seem somewhat flabbergasted and a little puzzled.  In keeping with the New Testament, Judas sits on the opposite side of the table, signifying his role as the disciple who betrays Jesus and leads to his crucifixion.  The “istoria” in this painting, is straightforward, relatively unambiguous and easy to grasp.

Castagno, Cenacolo
Castagno, Cenacolo

The rest of the painting is architectural setting, a sumptuous-looking hall whose size and realistic details create a trompe l’oeil.  Castagno employs linear perspective in the abundant rectangular forms of the architecture.   But he goes beyond—what, by then, may have been conventional—one-point perspective.   Some other parts of the setting have different converging lines and  this multi-point perspective seem more effective in giving the not-too-deep space a sense of realism and orderliness.  This use of perspective might have been Castagno’s outstanding innovation in a painting that is otherwise text-book Renaissance—clarifying a scene with only the necessary number of figures, creating realism in figures by modeling through light and shadow to create volume, using gestures and body postures to depict emotions, and producing impact with a large tableau.

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