Last Supper, Refectory, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

   Painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the scene portrays the moment when Christ declares to his disciples that one of them will betray him. They react by gesticulating and discussing the announcement with each other. Some point to themselves as if to ask "Lord, is it I?" while others raise their hands in astonishment. The only figure who does not react is Judas, placed by Leonardo in the shadows and clutching his money bag. Though Leonardo eliminated the figures' halos to bring them to the viewer's realm, he placed a segmented (semicircular) pediment above Christ to isolate him from the rest of the figures. The vanishing point is at Christ's head to define him as the physical and spiritual center of the work. Leonardo's interest in numerology and mathematical order is reflected in this painting. The 12 apostles are divided into four groups of three. Also, there are three windows behind the figures and four doorways on the lateral walls. The number three refers to the Holy Trinity and the Theological Virtues. Four are the elements, the seasons, the Gospels, the Cardinal Virtues, and the rivers of paradise. Seven, the sum of these two numbers, refers to the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the joys and sorrows of the Virgin. The product of the two when multiplied is 12, the number of apostles, the months of the year, the hours of the day, the hours of the night, and the gates of Jerusalem. With this, Leonardo sought to demonstrate the perfection of the universe and its spiritual and material components, as created by God.
   Supposedly, the prior of Santa Maria delle Grazie complained to Ludovico "il Moro" Sforza, Duke of Milan, that Leonardo was not working fast enough to complete the Last Supper. Leonardo explained to Ludovico that, although he had not been to the monastery in a while, he had been at the Borghetto every day searching for a suitable model for Judas from among the riffraff. He then added that if he could not find an individual whose physiognomy showed the wickedness of the traitor apostle, he would then use the features of the prior who had complained. Though this may be nothing more than an anecdote, Leonardo did plan his work very carefully, as attested by the large number of surviving sketches. In his Trattato della Pittura Treatise on Painting, Leonardo described the poses and gestures he intended to include in the fresco and then proceeded to identify the models he used for each figure. So, for example, Christ's head was based on that of a Count Giovanni who lived in the house of the Cardinal of Montaro, and his hand was that of Alessandro Carissimo of Parma.
   The fresco, though recently restored, continues to deteriorate. Leonardo, who incessantly engaged in experimentation, used an oil tempera medium applied over dry wall plaster. Almost immediately, the paint began to flake off. The fresco has also suffered several travesties. In 1652, the monks of Santa Maria delle Grazie cut a door through its lower portion. In 1796, Napoleon's army used the refectory as a stable and his soldiers amused themselves by throwing bricks at Leonardo's figures. In 1800, a flood in the refectory caused further damage and little effort was made to bail out the water. The work was heavily repainted in both the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, in 1943, the Allies bombed Milan and most of the refectory was destroyed. The fresco survived because it had earlier been braced with steel and sandbags. In spite of these major issues of conservation, Leonardo's Last Supper remains as one of the great icons of Renaissance art.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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