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  • Last Updated: March 2, 2014
  • Originally Published: July 17, 2012
  • The Last Supper

History

The Last Supper is a larger-than-life wall mural painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan, Italy, from 1495 to 1498. It depicts the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before he was tried and crucified, as described in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22.

Da Vinci was not the first to paint the scene, but his version is the most well known and most often reproduced. Using a technique called tempera, he mixed paint with a binding medium such as an egg yolk and then painted it directly onto the wall. This technique was chosen over the traditional fresco style that required uninterrupted concentration and painting. Although da Vinci's method allowed him to work at a more leisurely pace and make alterations as he progressed, the paint began to deteriorate quickly. In the beginning of the 16th century, the painting was declared ruined because so much deterioration had taken place. It was not until a renovation project from 1980 to 1999 that the painting was restored.

Despite the shortcomings of the medium, da Vinci's The Last Supper was judged to be so magnificent that it became one of the most famous (and frequently copied) paintings of all time. He received much recognition from other artists due to the composition of the painting, the narrative quality, and the life-like emotional expressions of his subjects.

Da Vinci painted The Last Supper in the convent of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church at the request of the Duke of Milan. The mural is located on the north wall of the refectory. Directly across, on the other main wall in the refectory, resides The Crucifixion by Donato Montorfano, an appropriate and dramatic complement to The Last Supper.

The Last Supper is on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations [UNESCO] World Heritage List and is viewed by over 300,000 visitors per year. Due to the large volume of tourists and the sacred nature of the painting, one must reserve tickets well in advance to see the painting during a fifteen-minute timeslot. Only twenty-five people are allowed to see the painting during each timeslot so that visitors may enjoy the painting in peace.

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Description

The event depicted in the painting is not only significant because it was the last meal that Jesus shared with his followers before the crucifixion; it was also the precedent for the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in which Jesus instructed his followers to break bread and take wine in remembrance of him.

Da Vinci focuses on the moment of the Last Supper when Jesus announces to his apostles that one of them will betray him. The apostles are shocked, while Jesus remains at peace due to his divine nature. Da Vinci's painting portrays Jesus, located in the center of the table, as calm and serene, while the surrounding apostles express looks of confusion, fear, and anger. In addition to capturing their facial expressions, da Vinci also captures the poses and gestures of his characters in a way that tells the story of the moment, adding a narrative component to the static medium of portraiture. Da Vinci spared no detail—including the bread and wine on the table and the expression of Judas Iscariot, the only other person who was aware of the plan to betray Jesus. Judas is the only disciple found without a confused expression on his face. Instead, he looks both guilty and shocked that Jesus is aware of his plan. Judas is also pictured carrying a bag, which is thought to be a bag of coins that he was said to have received upon betraying Jesus.

Da Vinci's work was traditional for his time, with the presence of the chalice (goblet) of wine and the wafer (bread), which together represent the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Before the 15th century, a fish on a table was the symbol for the Eucharist in Christian art.

Leonardo's exquisite attention to detail—especially in the facial expressions of the disciples—was and still is revered by other artists, including Rubens, Rembrandt and Goethe. In fact, many of Goethe's later works of art were inspired by this piece. Leonardo's real genius was the ability to translate the emotions of each character and the tension of the moment to the beholder. Constantly reproduced for centuries, Leonardo's The Last Supper is unquestionably the iconic depiction of that uniquely Christian event.