I saw Leonardo’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, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece has been kept under controlled conditions to slow down its deterioration; hence, the 15 minutes. The time is, arguably, more than enough for most people.
One essentially joins a tour when going to see this painting. 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. I found it quite annoying, wasteful of my allotted 15 minutes. All I wanted to do was look at it for myself. Come to my own judgment. When we were finally released and allowed to get closer—behind the barrier, of course—I looked at as much detail of the painting as I could, within whatever time was left. I started from the center, the usual focal point.
A couple of things crossed my mind: How much of the original was I looking at? As early as 20 years after it was painted, the work showed clear degradation. Restorations 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. (How about embracing the idea of ephemeral art? No, probably not in this case.)
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 them is calculated to incite the same reverential attitude. Each is just another art work you could include in your sightseeing tour. How much of the hapless history of Leonardo’s cenacolo has given it its venerated status?
But no matter how Leonardo’s Last Supper affects you, its attributes as a High Renaissance exemplar are obvious.
Leonardo’s Last Supper shares some characteristics with Castagno’s. In both versions, the scene is situated in a hall with architectural details (three lunettes) and is, thus, a part of a larger building. But Leonardo’s elicits a sense of much deeper space through one-point linear perspective evident in the coffered ceilings and windows (doors?) on the two side walls. It is also huge, about the same height as Castagno’s and only somewhat less in width (28 feet).
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 elicits tension. But Leonardo intensifies the drama with other formal elements. Although like Castagno, he shows emotional reaction in hand gestures, facial expressions and body postures, Leonardo sculpts his figures, as well, 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 underscoring spiritual meaning. (The medium is the message? Did Leonardo presage McLuhan, too?)
Placing Judas with the other disciples also results in greater symmetry in the composition. Jesus is now clearly the center of the group. Then, Leonardo enhances the symmetry. He 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 Last Supper. Not only does he use most of the same devices as Castagno, he has carried them further. Creating an impact is of utmost importance to the “istoria” and Leonardo brings the drama in his painting several notches higher.