The Last Supper has inspired artists for centuries. Indeed, it’s one of the best religious depictions. Ever.
The subject of the Last Supper has been depicted for centuries. As far back as the early Christians in the catacombs of Rome. In the church of Monza, visitors can enjoy a representation from the 6th century. Or the one in Florence, in a Syrian codex at the Laurentian Library.
Of course, by far the most famous ‘Last Supper‘ interpretation belongs to Leonardo da Vinci. Painted in 1498, it still inspires people worldwide. The features of this work express Leonardo’s mastery. His Last Supper is an ideal pictorial representation of the institution of the Eucharist.
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci painted it for his patron, the Duke Lodovico Sforza. Leonardo began working on The Last Supper in 1495. He completed it in 1498. The Last Supper is not a true fresco. In fact, Leonardo painted it on a dry wall rather than on wet plaster.
The painting represents the scene of the Last Supper as recounted in the Christian Bible. The painting is based on John 13:21, in which Jesus announced that one of his disciples betrayed him. As the Gospel says, the evening before the betrayal, Christ gathered his disciples for a final meal. During the meeting, he predicted the next events. They break bread and they drink wine. And Christ gave the disciples instructions on how to remember him through. Indeed, it was through the ritual, or the first celebration of the Eucharist.
Specifically, the Last Supper depicts the immediate moments after Christ announced that one disciple would betray him before sunrise. The apostles react in different ways. Including anger, shock, and horror. The infamous Judas holds a small bag, possibly representing the silver received in payment for the betrayal. Plus, his face is in shadow.
In da Vinci’s work, the disciples are real life persons, with human characteristics. The other major innovation is the use of perspective to highlight and reinforce the images and message. All of the elements of the composition direct the viewer’s attention to the central focus: Christ.
One curious aspect about the figure of Christ is that he has no feet. The painting portrayed Christ with feet. But, during the mid-1600s, works to the building led to the opening a door. Yes, exactly in the spot of Christ’s feet.
Visitors can see this masterpiece at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.
Legend has it that the model for the figure of Christ was a young man in a choir. Leonardo saw him while at mass.
The young man had all the features of kindness and goodness that were needed to inspire the representation of the figure of Christ. However, Leonardo was unable to complete the painting because he could not find someone suitable to sit as model for Judas, and many years went by. Leonardo was seeking a model with features that would exemplify sin and greed, and also despair.
About ten years later, Leonardo found a model with the required characteristics for the figure of Judas. This man was a prisoner in jail, but he was allowed to sit as the model. The legend says that after a period the wretched man wept and confessed to Leonardo that he was the same person who had sat as model for the figure of Christ, but that he had lived a life of sin and degradation which was reflected in the deterioration of his physical appearance.
Although it represents an interesting variation on the theme of artistic creation, this legend appears to have very little factual basis. Historic reconstruction indicates that the fresco was completed in 1498 after 3 years of work. Moreover, in 1499 Leonardo had to leave Milan because of the French invasion, and he did not return to the city until 7 years later. The legend thus seems more of a religious warning about the dangers of sin and absence of Christian values.
As an image, The Last Supper has been put on everything from mirrors, to mouse pads, to musical pillows. If Leonardo were still around, he’d be earning billions on licensing fees alone.