THE LAST SUPPER
BY LEONARDO DA VINCI
This week I am going to quote from the book Great Artists that I wrote with Tim Marlow and Philip Rance a few years ago and is now available on kindle and audible.
In spite of the ghostly appearance of the work, itself a monument to Leonardo’s desire to experiment and achieve a lasting technical perfection in fresco painting, The Last Supper still has an extraordinary presence. It is so precisely composed and painted that it resembles a latter-day hologram flickering in and out of vision. Even today it looks as if Leonardo has managed to create another room beyond the refectory in which the work is sited. This is enhanced by the semi-circular lunettes painted about The Last Supper which originally contained the Sforza coat of arms to remind all who saw it who had commissioned the work and had ruled absolutely.
The painted vision is an elevated one: the viewer looks up in awe at a scene which, if rendered strictly according to the laws of nature, would be almost invisible since the most anyone would see would be the underside of the table. Leonardo subtly tilts it forward to reveal the drama unfolding in a deep illusionist space. The scene centres on Christ in every way possible. Each of the disciples either has his eyes or hands pointing forwards towards their Lord and Master who has just revealed that one of them will betray him. Christ is framed by three windows behind him and seems to illuminate the table, its contents and the surrounding figures himself. The twelve figures are broken up into four groups of three, order imposed by Leonardo on an image of unprecedented expressiveness. Each figure is emotionally connected to the others in his group (with the exception of Judas who is slightly pushed forward and thereby isolated by Peter who whispers manically in the ear of John, to the immediate left of Christ as we look at it) but is, at the same time, depicted as feeling something entirely personal. It is almost as if Leonardo is producing a case study in human response to tragedy.
In turn, the work can also be read as a diagram by the artist-scientist who was analysing the workings of sound waves and their impact. ‘Those who are nearer understand better’ scrawled Leonardo in his notes to The Last Supper and ‘those farther away hear poorly’. The work was immediately hailed as ‘miraculous’ and ‘divine’ though it quickly began to deteriorate. But copies were made and artists as significant as Rubens and Rembrandt in the north and Caravaggio in the south, and even, much later, Andy Warhol out west, drew inspiration from the work. It remains Leonardo’s most monumental and significant artistic achievement, even as it continues to fade away.
I have been to see it in Milan – and it continues to pack a powerful punch in its original location. But an alternative for those in or visiting London is a superb replica at the Royal Academy of Arts.
* * *