Leo’s Last Supper

Leonardo’s Last Supper was unlike any image of the scene ever made before. In most earlier paintings, Christ and the Apostles are lined up along the table and appear relatively inert and inexpressive. Their gestures are restrained, their faces impassive; there is little sign of communication between them. In some versions, the participants look almost sleepy or bored. If one did not know, one could not tell that the climax of a great drama has begun.

Overturning tradition, Leonardo invested his picture with pathos and energy. In his version every figure is in action. Seemingly impelled by fervent emotion, some jump up, all are gesturing. The gestures the Apostles make are big and passionate and engage the entire upper body; for example, James Major throws his hands open wide, Matthew sweeps his arms to one side, Thomas stabs the air with his finger. Goethe commented rightly that the Apostles appear to talk with their hands. Their faces, too, are vivid with emotion: wonder, fear, love, anger, alarm.

The movements of the Apostles join to form a rhythmic line that runs across the picture. Leonardo was fascinated with the motion of water, and this line crests and falls like a wave. Even at a glance one can see that the Apostles are reacting to something that Christ has just said or done. According to the first description of the painting, written in 1498 by Leonardo’s associate Luca Pacioli, it depicts “the Apostles at the sound of the voice of the infallible Truth, when he said, ‘One of you will betray me.’” The painting indicates the next moment of the drama as well. Christ is extending his right hand; he is about to identify Judas as the betrayer.

Leonardo painted the Last Supper —the Cenacolo—between circa 1495 and 1497 on the north wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. It was recognized at once as a masterpiece of truly exceptional importance. Giorgio Vasari and other writers marveled at the vividness and the variety of the reactions of the Apostles. Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo praised the representation of “the passions of the souls of the Apostles, in [their] faces and in the rest of the body.” Cardinal Federico Borromeo declared “the principal glory of this work” to be “the varied expressions and diverse emotions of the soul.”

The picture was considered so extraordinary that almost as soon as Leonardo had finished it, people began making copies. By 1530 several prints and at least twenty painted or sculpted versions had been produced; by the early seventeenth century, the number was twice that. All the copies share one feature: the distinctive pattern of gesture, expression, and motion made by Christ and the Apostles. Clearly, this was seen to be the essence of the picture. The artists who copied it felt free to change almost any other element, including the perspective, the architecture of the room, and the items on the table. No other Renaissance masterpiece inspired such frequent imitation; before …

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Letters

Leo’s ‘Last Supper’ November 7, 2002