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 the Last Supper typically only miracle-working images were widely copied. Leonardo’s painting did not heal the sick or raise the dead, yet it too was considered miracoloso—four descriptions of the picture in the sixteenth century use that word. It was a miracle of art, and an ideal image of sacred history.

One source of the Last Supper’s power may have been Leonardo’s innovative technique. Abandoning the traditional methods of fresco painting, Leonardo worked chiefly in a mix of oil and tempera paint applied directly to the dry plaster of the wall. This gave the picture subtlety and intensity in color and tone like that of his panel paintings; such effects were unattainable in true fresco. But it also proved to be a highly unstable medium: already in 1517 the Last Supper was said to be spoiling, and by the end of the sixteenth century it was called a ruin. The painting deteriorated steadily; in 1722 Jonathan Richardson the Elder lamented that in some areas “only the bare wall was left.” The Last Supper has been restored eight times since then, most recently in the campaign that ended in 1999. The last restoration freed the Last Supper from centuries of overpaint, but so little of the original pigment remains that the picture now is a ghost of its former self, still hauntingly beautiful, but almost translucent from the lack of detail in many passages.

Because of its condition, scholars in the modern era study the Last Supper in conjunction with the early copies it inspired, and, on the whole, they have continued to emphasize its emotional drama. The most important exponent of this reading is Goethe, who, in a celebrated essay, gave a detailed account of each Apostle, and concluded: “We must admire the artist who was able to lend his painting powerful emotions and passionate movement.” Many eminent Leonardo scholars have analyzed the picture in much the same terms. Sir Kenneth Clark wrote: “…One cannot look for long at the Last Supper without ceasing to study it as a composition, and beginning to speak of it as a drama. It is the most literary of all great pictures.”


During the last forty years, a new line of interpretation has opened. The story of the Last Supper contains not only Christ’s announcement of his betrayal, but also his institution of the holy sacrament of communion:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

(Matthew 26:26–28)

Like other versions made for refectories, Leonardo’s painting seems to depict only the announcement of the betrayal. It does not show Christ blessing bread or wine, there is no eucharistic chalice present, and Pacioli and other early sources unambiguously identify it as representing that moment. Nonetheless, some scholars have come to stress that all images of the Last Supper are by nature eucharistic, no matter the actions they illustrate. In their view, Leonardo’s picture contains implicit references to the sacrament. Christ, for instance, appears to point to bread and wine on the table before him, and the triangular placement of his arms resembles that of the Man of Sorrows, an image of Jesus in his tomb that during the Renaissance was often associated with the sacrament. Whereas before critics chiefly thought of the Last Supper as a model of emotional drama, now some historians see in it an additional layer of symbolic significance.

This change is partly owing to Leo Steinberg, who in 1973 published the first major article in English proposing a sacramental interpretation of the picture.1 In his new book, largely based on that article, Steinberg argues that most scholars are still too timid in their analy- sis. He believes that it is not enough to acknowledge a strand of eucharistic imagery. Rather he wants to prove that the twin themes of the Last Supper are coequal in Leonardo’s picture. “Of course,” he writes, “the Cenacolo represents the announcement of the betrayal…. But…the subject is as fully the grant of his sacramental body.”

Steinberg attacks the standard view of the painting as a modern and secular invention. He claims that “the impoverishment of its content down to pure psychodrama is our legacy from the Age of Enlightenment…. The modern interpretation of the Cenacolo begins in the repudiation of its sacramental component.” Furthermore, he argues that the dramatic mode of interpretation is fundamentally inadequate. Although scholars cite the Last Supper as the supreme example of Leonardo’s ability to depict the passions of the soul, they do not always agree on the specific emotion Leonardo intended by a figure’s gesture or expression. For Steinberg these disagreements show the necessity of a symbolic interpretation in which the actions of each figure are glossed in reference to the sacrament of communion. Philip, the third figure to the right of Christ, rising with his hands on his chest, was seen by Goethe to be insisting on his innocence. Steinberg instead imagines him to be crossing his hands like a recipient of communion.

Unfortunately, Steinberg’s interpretation of the Apostles is at times tendentious. Simon, at the extreme right in the picture, raises his hands to chest level and extends them slightly forward with the palms up. A figure making a similar gesture appears in the same place in several earlier versions of the Last Supper by Florentine painters, including such well-known examples as Taddeo Gaddi’s fresco in Santa Croce, and Andrea del Castagno’s painting in Sant’Apollonia. Steinberg does not accept that the gesture in Leonardo’s picture might indicate surprise or the like. Rather, he argues that “Simon’s hands anticipate, or rehearse, a ritual performance common in traditional iconography—the gesture of the disciples receiving the wine from Christ’s hands in representations of the Communion of the Apostles.” Steinberg adduces two pieces of evidence to support his case. One is the use of this gesture in medieval Byzantine wall painting. (The painting Steinberg reproduces was made in Bulgaria in the fourteenth century.) Yet this precedent is simply too remote to be considered relevant. Did anyone in late-fifteenth-century Milan care about the communion ritual in medieval Byzantium? It seems unlikely, but Steinberg takes it for granted.

The second is a drawing after the Last Supper by a follower of Rubens who has eliminated all the figures except Christ and Simon and has added a chalice and bread in front of Christ. Steinberg says this shows that Simon’s gesture was understood in Rubens’s circle as eucharistic. This is part of an important line of reasoning in his book. Steinberg draws attention to a handful of copies in which artists changed or added something to Leo-nardo’s picture in order to make it explicitly eucharistic, and he argues that in doing so they were articulating, rather than altering, its content. This assumption is questionable in itself, and it also is at odds with Steinberg’s view of the critical reception of the picture. When copyists change something, he says they are highlighting the inner truth of the painting. When critics differ in their descriptions of the Apostles’ expressions, he says they are revealing the fundamental unreliability of their method.


Steinberg even interprets things that are not actually in the painting as signs of its sacramental subject matter. Thaddeus, the figure next to Simon, holds his right hand chest high; his left hand rests palm up on the table. Goethe compared this gesture to that of simple folk who “in response to some unexpected event…exclaim with emphatic hand slap—’What did I tell you! Didn’t I suspect it all along!'” Steinberg instead imagines the exact position that the hands might momentarily form:

Goethe rightly perceived that Thaddeus’ hands produce one compound gesture…. But the speed of that gesture I think he misjudged. What if we slow it down, think of it ritardando? This Thaddeus is ancient, more likely to stir at a solemn pace. Suppose the motion of his upper hand not prompt, rapid, assertive, but reverential—a right gently descending to be cupped in the waiting left? Thus consummated, not as a slap but as a coming to nest, the gesture, like Simon’s, anticipates another ritual form of Communion-taking: the hollow right hand “resting upon the left as on a throne to receive Christ the King.” In Byzantine art, from the sixth to the fifteenth century, it is such double-cupped hands that receive the Host.

“What if…Suppose”: Steinberg’s analysis is hypothetical and speculative, significantly more so than Goethe’s. Goethe describes what Thaddeus is doing; Steinberg predicts what the Apostle is about to do. The eucharistic parallel Steinberg draws is once again with medieval Byzantine art. He also claims that Saint Paula in Castagno’s Vision of Saint Jerome makes this same gesture as a sign of “eucharistic reception.” But quite clearly the placement of her hands is different from that of figures receiving communion in Byzantine painting (compare the illustrations on page 86 of Steinberg’s book), and Castagno’s picture, in any case, does not depict the sacrament of communion.

Sometimes it seems that any piece of evidence will do so long as it fits Steinberg’s thesis. He observes that Leonardo depicts Judas spilling a salt-cellar with his elbow and he compares this with a note for a figure Leonardo made while preparing the picture. The artist wrote: “Another, as if turning around, while holding a knife in his hand, upsets with his hand a glass on the table.” Steinberg speculates:

If the motif of spilled wine (rather than salt) had once been thought of, and thought of for Judas, it would have meant more than stage business. In the context of the Last Supper, wine spilled by Judas would have symbolized shedding Christ’s blood. And if Leonardo vis- ualized the betrayer’s left hand at the dish and the other arm in single reflex accidentally overturning the wine and spurning the bread, then Judas’ action—like the protagonist’s but under a negative sign—would have expressed the duality of Passion and Eucharist embodied in the Lord’s Supper.

But we have no reason to believe that Leonardo did this; and even if he did, he obviously rejected the idea since it does not appear in the painting. This is nothing more than a flight of fantasy. Steinberg admits that Leonardo’s note more likely refers to Peter than to Judas, and that the whole thing is “a remote possibility.” He offers it in evidence nonetheless.

Since Pacioli, most writers have concentrated on the Apostles’ emotional reaction to Christ’s speech. Wanting to shift attention to the symbolic significance of Christ’s gesture, Steinberg believes that the Apostles are responding more to what Jesus is doing than to what he has said. Steinberg writes:

Leonardo expects us to recognize the protagonist as the speaker…. But what is immediately manifest, what we are made to see as the impetus to all motion, is not a word but a gesture. That gesture is causal. Visually, choreographically, the motive force in the picture is the flare of Christ’s arms, and it is to their action that the whole picture responds.

In a beautifully written and brilliantly argued chapter, Steinberg says that Christ’s gesture carries a multilayered message. Pointing to the bread and wine on the table, it is a reference to the eucharist. Forming the shape of a triangle, it is a sign of the Trinity. Christ’s blessing in the direction of the church, he writes, is a token of the promise of resurrection to the dead buried there. Placing one palm up and the other down, moreover, is a reference to the pose of Christ’s hands in countless images of the Last Judgment. The gesture in the Last Supper thus embodies “the continuum of Christian salvation.” It is both the visual center and symbolic fulcrum of the entire picture.

At the end of the chapter Steinberg throws down a challenge: “Cautious colleagues will dismiss the above as ‘interpretative overkill.’ They will not specify which of the seven functions here attributed to Christ’s gesture they regard as unlikely. Few will assert that this or that action is not being performed.” Yet I think we can ask whether some of the perceived functions are real. As Steinberg notes, there is a potential problem with the reference to the Last Judgment. In the Last Supper Christ’s right hand faces down and his left hand up. But in paintings of the Last Judgment, the placement of the hands is the other way around. There he is regularly shown offering his right hand, palm up, to the blessed souls at his right, and extending his left hand, palm down, toward the wicked ones at his left.

Steinberg attempts to surmount this problem by saying that Leonardo had to respect the “side of blessedness” as it had already been established in Montorfano’s fresco of the Crucifixion, which was painted on the opposite wall of the refectory in 1495. But the side of blessedness in one painting does not affect it in other paintings. (Steinberg offers no precedent for this, and I cannot think of one.) Moreover, although Montorfano’s fresco was finished almost three years before Leonardo’s, there is reason to believe that they were commissioned or planned at the same time. An even more basic problem with Steinberg’s theory is that the pose of Christ’s right hand in the Last Supper does not closely resemble the pose of his left hand in the images of the Last Judgment that he cites. It is doubtful that Jesus in the Last Supper can be seen as Christ in Judgment; hence it is also questionable that we were meant to see him as blessing the dead in the church.

Steinberg believes that even the space in the picture should be understood as responding to Christ’s gesture. The viewer knows that the room depicted in the Last Supper is rectangular, but the perspective makes it look somewhat trapezoidal. Steinberg observes that this apparent shape resembles the “ground-plan” of Christ’s gesture; the walls seem to mirror and am- plify the motion of his arms. For Steinberg, this reflection is fully intentional and profoundly significant. It is as if Jesus were generating the entire space around himself. Steinberg writes: “He moves his hands—no more than that; and at their motion, the very order of space, the laws governing visibility, are received as an emanation.” Steinberg calls it a “participant space,” and says, “The very chamber grows sacramental.” This perception is a fundamental part of Steinberg’s personal response to the painting. He calls Christ’s gesture the “motive force” of the picture, and his intuition that this is so is the motive force behind much of the book.

In Steinberg’s opinion, earlier critics have been blinded by the positivist assumption that Leonardo’s art favored simplicity and clarity. Steinberg believes instead that nearly every feature of the painting suggests multiple and contradictory possibilities. Others wanted to see it as an illustration of one moment of the narrative, while he sees it as depicting two. In a similar manner, he says that the gestures, space, and architecture “ambiguate” and demand more than one valid interpretation. Over and over he stresses the artist’s instinct to join contrary principles in one union. For Steinberg, this emphasis on ambiguity is a key to Leonardo’s intellect and part of the power of the picture. In the title of the book, Steinberg calls the Last Supper “incessant”—apparently referring to his view that, like a visual paradox, the painting continuously shifts back and forth between its multiple possibilities, refusing ever to settle on only one.

The author presents his case with eloquence and force. But I think there is a problem with using ambiguity as a principle of interpretation. It provides the critic with an excuse when his evidence is weak or contradictory. An important possible obstacle to a broadly sacramental interpretation of the Last Supper is the fact that the glass of wine Christ seems to be pointing toward does not belong to him, but to John at his side. Faced with this difficulty, Steinberg’s first retort is that this detail is not relevant, because no one would read the painting in such a meticulous and literal fashion (although he otherwise believes every detail of the picture, no matter how small, to be significant). But he also explains it away as another example of ambiguity: “It is in keeping with such counterpoint thinking that the wineglass in front of St. John is both his to use and the cup of the sacrament.” Thus the problem is solved.

Steinberg’s conclusions about Leo-nardo and the Last Supper are remarkably similar to his conclusions about Picasso and the Women of Algiers series, especially Version “O.”2 Painted in late 1954 and early 1955, the series consists of fifteen canvases inspired by Delacroix’s two pictures of that title. The last in the series, Version “O,” represents Picasso’s lover Jacqueline Roque and three other nude females in a space broken into large rectilinear units, somewhat reminiscent of cubism; and the paint is boldly applied in stripes and blocks of vivid color. Regarding the Last Supper, Steinberg comments that “reconciled contrariety pervades the design,” that “coincident opposites abound in the picture,” that “Leonardo elaborates to bring opposites into states of union.” Regarding Version “O,” he speaks of a “billeting of incompatible presences…under one roof,” of a “symmetry of cancellations” and a “concord of contradictions…the principal of reciprocal counterchange.” He sees a “participant space” in the Last Supper; a “responsive space” in Version “O.” The frontispiece to one chapter in The Incessant Last Supper is a drawing by Leonardo of an allegorical figure with two heads, two sets of arms, and two upper torsos. Steinberg describes it as “the physique of contrary principles.” It calls to mind the two-part female figure, lying simultaneously prone and supine in the foreground of Version “O,” whose genealogy Steinberg explored in his essay on the Women of Algiers series. He published that essay in 1972. His essay on the Last Supper first appeared in 1973.

In another article of the same period, Steinberg discussed his own propensity to see the art of the past in light of modern concerns, such as ambiguity.3 His models for interpretation are twentieth-century masters, especially Freud and Joyce, who have taught him to look for multilayered symbolism. He admits this may lead to the danger of explanation that is not anchored in history. But he defends the subjectivity of his approach because, he says, it enables one to rediscover the complexity of Renaissance art, so often overlooked by earlier scholars. Steinberg presents himself as a corrective to their limitations of method and imagination. He thus believes it to be his duty to announce what he sees, even at the risk of being wrong.

In Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper Steinberg writes,

We may well be reading in more than the painter intended. Conversely, resistance to multiple meanings may be projecting our preference for simplicity upon Leonardo. The risk of projecting attends both alternatives, and, judged by the historical record, the Last Supper has been more grossly wronged by simplistic underinterpretation than by surfeit of subtlety.

The complexity or simplicity of our reading of the Last Supper is not the issue. The problem is that a highly subjective interpretation based on the experience of twentieth century art leads to a uniformity of emphasis, whereby artists as utterly singular and dissimilar as Picasso and Leonardo are seen to manifest the same underlying principles. For all its intricacy, the resulting interpretation is not expansive, it is reductive. Steinberg presents his theory as the truth, heroically unveiled after centuries of neglect. He is right and everyone else is wrong. Unfortunately, the evidence he offers to demonstrate the truth of this theory is often unconvincing.

Leo Steinberg is among the most brilliant art historians at work today, and the book is full of what we have come to expect from him: dazzling perceptions eloquently revealed. He will make readers more aware of the eucharistic imagery in the painting. But in seeking to find that imagery in every feature of the picture he overstates his case, undermining its credibility. He expounds an elaborate vision of Leonardo’s Last Supper, yet he fails to show that this vision was meant by the artist or that it was understood by those who saw the painting some five hundred years ago.

This Issue

July 18, 2002