Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495-97) is one of the most famous paintings in the world. The original mural can still be seen in its original location: the refectory wall of the former Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.
Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper in what was the order’s refectory, now called the Cenacolo Vinciano, from 1495 to 1497.
The dome was added by Bramante, along with a cloister, about the time that Leonardo was commissioned to paint The Last Supper.
The ambitious plan to turn Santa Maria delle Grazie into a magnificent Sforza family mausoleum. But it was not to be: two years after Leonardo finished The Last Supper, Ludovico il Moro Sforza fell from power and was imprisoned in a French dungeon for the remaining eight years of his life.
For his masterpiece, Leonardo chose to work slowly and patiently in oil pigments, which demand dry plaster, instead of proceeding hastily on wet plaster according to the conventional fresco technique.
The Last Supper is an extremely complex and ambitious undertaking, so Leonardo did extensive research and created many studies and preparatory sketches before completing the painting. Twenty of these drawings have survived and are kept in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, where they have been stored since 1600. The priceless collection is surely just a small part of the immense preparation that was carried out.
Since its completion, the magnificent painting has had an almost unbelievable history of bad luck and neglect. Its deterioration began before the paint was even dry on the moisture-ridden walls. The fresco got a lot of well-intentioned but poorly executed “touching up” in the 18th and 19th centuries, which only caused further damage.
Then came war: Napoleon’s troops used the wall for target practice and an Allied bombing in August 1943 tore off the room’s roof, leaving the fresco exposed to the elements for three entire years. Novelist Aldous Huxley (d.1963) called The Last Supper “the saddest work of art in the world.”
But finally, after years of restorations – involving careful attention to one square centimeter after another – Leonardo’s Renaissance masterpiece is free of scaffolding and centuries of repainting, grime, and dust. Although it remains only a faded shadow of its original glory, The Last Supper is still a breathtaking sight.
What to See
It may only receive a cursory look by most visitors, but Santa Maria delle Grazie is a handsome church with a fine dome by Bramante. There is also a lovely cloister.
The last meal shared by Jesus and his disciples was a common theme used to decorate convent refectories, especially in Florance, but Leonardo presented the subject in a completely innovative form. He made drastic modifications to the layout of the scene and, most notably, presented this episode from the Gospels with astounding realism.
Despite Leonardo’s carefully preserved preparatory sketches in which the apostles are clearly labeled by name, there still remains some small debate about a few identities in the final arrangement. Most recently, novelist Dan Brown claims in The Da Vinci Code that the figure on Jesus’ right is not John the Apostle, but Mary Magdalene. Brown also claims that Peter is making a threatening gesture towards “Mary,” representing a fierce battle between the two figures in the early church. Most art historians, however, point out that St. John is commonly represented with feminine features and there is no reason to think the figure is Mary.
Whatever the case, there can be no mistaking Judas, small and dark, his hand calmly reaching forward to the bread, isolated from the terrible confusion that has taken the hearts of the others. One critic, Frederick Hartt, has said the composition works because it combines “dramatic confusion” with “mathematical order.”
The amazingly skillful and unobtrusive repetition of threes – in the windows, in the grouping of the figures, and in their placement – does indeed add a mystical aspect to what at first seems simply the perfect observation of spontaneous human gesture.
Across from The Last Supper on the southern wall is the large Crucifixion, painted by Donato Montorfano. The two great scenes are linked by a painted frieze of plant garlands with Bible quotations supportive of monastic life.
Tips for Visiting
Be sure to take the time to book ahead to the see The Last Supper; you may not be able to get a ticket otherwise. Contact the reservations office, your travel agent, or your hotel several days ahead for weekday visits and several weeks in advance for a weekend visit.
Only a small group is given access to the painting every fifteen minutes, allowing you to enjoy the masterpiece in peace. Photography is not allowed in the Last Supper Room.