History of the Last Supper Painting and the technique used by da Vinci

“The Last Supper,” a seminal work by Leonardo da Vinci, stands as one of the defining masterpieces of the Renaissance period. This mural is housed within the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.

The painting encapsulates a pivotal moment in Christian scripture—the evening before Christ’s crucifixion where he declares that one of his twelve disciples will betray him. This work not only captures a critical biblical scene but also showcases Leonardo’s revolutionary approach to art, characterized by intricate human emotions and advanced compositional techniques.

In the article below, World History Edu delves into the history, deterioration, restoration efforts, as well as the profound impact the painting has had on art and culture.

“The Last Supper” stands as Leonardo’s largest work, apart from his project at the Sala delle Asse.

Historical Context and Creation

Commissioned in 1495 by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, “The Last Supper” was part of a larger scheme to renovate and beautify the church and its convent, which Sforza sought to use for dynastic and memorial purposes.

Leonardo, already renowned for his artistic and intellectual prowess, embarked on the project in 1495 and completed it in 1498. He was not only an artist but also an experimenter; this mural is a testament to his innovative spirit.

Unlike traditional frescoes, which are painted on wet plaster, Leonardo chose to paint “The Last Supper” on a dry wall. He opted for a technique that involved sealing the stone wall with a layer of pitch, gesso, and mastic, then painting over it with tempera. His aim was to achieve a level of detail and luminosity that fresco painting could not accomplish. However, this method led to rapid deterioration shortly after completion.

Artistic Innovations and Symbolism

“The Last Supper” measures 15 feet × 29 feet (4.6 meters × 8.8 meters) and showcases Leonardo’s mastery of perspective and narrative art. The composition directs all attention to the central figure of Jesus, whose head is positioned at the vanishing point of all perspective lines, emphasizing his spiritual importance. Each disciple is depicted reacting in a unique way to Jesus’s solemn declaration of betrayal, showcasing a range of human emotions from shock to rage to disbelief.

Leonardo’s placement of the figures, all within a single, coherent space, broke away from the traditional iconography of the Last Supper, which usually portrayed figures in halos, separated by physical or symbolic barriers.

He grouped the apostles into four groups of three and used their body language and expressions to convey their personalities and reactions to the unfolding drama, a technique that influenced countless artists thereafter.

Commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, as part of renovations to the church and convent, Leonardo chose tempera on a mix of gesso, pitch, and mastic to facilitate adjustments during its creation. Image: Portrait of Sforza.

Deterioration and Restoration

The painting’s deterioration began almost immediately after completion due to Leonardo’s experimental technique and the mural’s exposure to moisture and environmental factors. Over the centuries, “The Last Supper” has undergone numerous restorations.

The most significant restoration began in 1978 and was completed in 1999, aiming to reverse the damage from previous restorations and attempts to stabilize the painting. This restoration has allowed for the removal of centuries of grime, previous overpainting, and attempts at preservation, bringing Leonardo’s original work closer to the modern viewer but also sparking debates about the authenticity and ethics of restoration.

Cultural Impact and Legacy

“The Last Supper” has transcended its religious origins to become a cultural icon, inspiring countless reproductions and interpretations across various media. It has permeated popular culture, literature, and film, often cited and parodied in countless formats.

Its role in modern narratives was notably amplified by Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” which posited controversial theories about the painting’s symbolism and the figures depicted, particularly the identity of John the Apostle, suggesting a hidden narrative involving Mary Magdalene. This interpretation, though widely dismissed by scholars, sparked renewed interest and debate about the painting.

Frequently asked questions about the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

Here are some frequently asked questions about this iconic painting:

What is the significance of “The Last Supper”?

“The Last Supper” depicts the moment Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him, capturing the reactions of each disciple. The painting is significant both for its dramatic subject matter and for its innovations in composition and perspective, which have influenced countless artists.

“The Last Supper” is a mural by Leonardo da Vinci, painted during the Italian High Renaissance around 1495–1498. It is located in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Image: Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519).

Where is “The Last Supper” located?

The painting is located in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. It was commissioned as part of a renovation project for the convent and the church, which was undertaken by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.

What technique did Leonardo use?

Leonardo painted “The Last Supper” using a dry plaster technique rather than traditional fresco techniques, which involve painting on wet plaster. He chose this method to achieve greater detail and luminosity but, unfortunately, it also resulted in the painting deteriorating at a faster rate over time.

Why has “The Last Supper” deteriorated?

The deterioration can be attributed to a combination of the experimental technique used by Leonardo, environmental factors, and historical events, including being exposed to dampness and pollution, and damage during World War II. The painting has undergone several restorations to stabilize and preserve it.

What are some notable features of the painting’s composition?

The painting is renowned for its use of perspective, with all lines pointing to Christ at the center, symbolizing his spiritual role. Leonardo also conveys the personalities and reactions of the apostles through their gestures and expressions, a method that was revolutionary at the time.

The Last Supper painting has suffered from environmental damage, intentional harm, and the fragility of the materials used, leading to significant deterioration. Numerous restorations, the most recent in 1999, have tried to stabilize and preserve what remains of Leonardo’s original vision. Image: The Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan is where Leonardo’s painting can be found.

Are there any hidden meanings or symbols in the painting?

Many art historians and scholars have proposed various interpretations of symbols and hidden meanings in the painting, including the roles of the apostles, the items on the table, and the layout of the room. Some theories even involve elaborate conspiracies or coded messages, although these are not universally accepted.

How has “The Last Supper” influenced modern culture?

The painting has permeated modern culture extensively, inspiring countless reproductions, parodies, discussions in literature, film, and television. It also plays a central role in Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code,” which explores a fictional and controversial interpretation of the painting.

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