The Last Supper: Art for Holy Week (Leonardo da Vinci)

Cher’s Famous Art

01 April 2021

The Last Supper

by Leonardo da Vinci, High Renaissance, Italy, late 1490s

The Last Supper by Italian Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci, is one of the most recognized paintings in the world. It portrays Leonardo’s version of Jesus and his disciples, as they celebrated the Jewish Passover Feast, their “last supper” together. (John 13:21)

This painting depicts the moment in time when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him, hence the finger-pointing. Leonardo’s captivating rendition is unique in that he captures the very personal reactions of each of the disciples during this revelation. The culmination of this meal set off the events of the next three days including the arrest, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, life-changing events for not only the disciples, but for the history of the world.

The Last Supper & Maundy Thursday

To commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples, Christians observe Maundy Thursday–or Holy Thursday. It also commemorates Jesus washing the feet of his disciples during this occasion. “Maundy” is derived from the Latin word “command,” and refers to Jesus’ commandment to his disciples to “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Side note: This was a very interesting discovery for me! As as child I thought it was “Monday Thursday” – a most peculiar name!)

Celebrating the “Last Supper” is a Christian observation. The “first” Last Supper was actually the observation of the Jewish Passover Seder, the feast of unleavened bread, derived from the Jewish heritage of Jesus and his disciples. It commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, leaving so quickly there was no time for the bread to rise.

Maundy Thursday is observed and identified by different Christian denominations in various ways: the Lord’s Supper or Communion is observed by Protestant Christians; the institution of Holy Eucharist is observed by Catholic Christians. Scripture describes it in Luke 22 when, at the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus breaks bread, saying “This is my body,” and pours wine, saying “This is my blood.” He then asks them to “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Foot-washing is also associated with the observance of Maundy Thursday. Foot-washing is the ultimate act of servant leadership as seen in John 13, when at their Last Supper, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, teaching them to be servants. Many Maundy Thursday services will include the washing of feet along with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper/Communion/Eucharist.

The dark side of Maundy Thursday is revealed by Leonardo to the viewer in his painting. It marks an act of betrayal when, at their Last Supper together, Jesus says, “One of you will betray me.”

Judas Iscariot, seen here at the left, is pointed out by Jesus as the one who will betray him.

It is at the Last Supper that Jesus foretells his death.

Oops! Wrong technique! As was his nature, Leonardo was known for experimentation. When he took on the project of painting this mural, he did not have much expertise. He used a technique called tempera-on-stone where pigmentation was applied to a dry plaster wall. It was not very successful; the painting has not stood the test of time very well. It began flaking even while it was in progress.

Had he used the fresco technique, the paint would have become part of the plaster and been much more long-lasting.

Over time, it has undergone numerous restoration attempts, sadly leaving little of the original painting intact. The last restoration was completed in 1999.

The Last Supper – where is the Painting?

Where can I see The Last Supper?

The Last Supper cannot be found in any museum or private collection. It can also NEVER go on tour and leave its home base in Milan, Italy! (So you don’t need to worry about planning to see it only to discover it is “on tour.”)

Painted on the end wall of the original refectory (cafeteria) of a convent in Italy, Leonardo used his talents in precise perspective to line it up as if it were an extension of their lunchroom! (The door cut into the table by the feet of Jesus was added later, post-Leonardo.)

To get a full appreciation of the whole scene and what one can expect on a visit, this is a great photo. (Google Images)

The location…Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

The Last Supper resides in a Dominican convent in the Santa Maria delle Grazie, a church in Milan, northern Italy. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the church itself is interesting to visit as one waits for your timed slot to see the painting.

It is highly recommended to get the timed tickets well ahead of time of your visit to Milan. See my TRAVEL TIPS below for suggestions.

The Last Supper – the Painting

Numerology & Math

The painting is intriguing on many levels, aside from the subject. Leonardo used math and numerological aspects in his artwork, including The Last Supper. There are whole books written on the symbolism etc. within this one painting!

The Number Three

One example would be how the number 3 has been depicted in several ways. The disciples are clustered in groups of three. Three windows line the walls behind Jesus and his disciples.

Jesus & the Holy Trinity

Three represents the Holy Trinity, a biblical concept believed by Leonardo. Jesus is positioned to form a triangle in the painting both in the way his body is in the shape of a triangle and the triangular “V” shape formed between Jesus and John on his right.

The Last Supper – the Disciples

Viewers cannot help admiring the look of the apostles in the painting. There is a theory that each of these apostles was modeled on real life people. Leonardo reportedly chose a criminal for depicting Judas.

Judas, Peter & John

Just to the right of Jesus is seated the threesome of Judas, Peter and John (left to right).

Interestingly, Leonardo depicted Judas in a typical way to make him resemble a cliché of a Jew. He is the only person among the apostles with dark skin. He has a crooked nose. Others are sipping wine; he is seen drinking milk. He is also seen with a bag of money.

John – or is it ???

To the right of Jesus in the painting is the Apostle John. Scripture often refers to John as being very close to Jesus, and along with Peter and James, was in Christ’s inner circle, so this makes sense.

A small section of biblical scholars feels the person depicted in the painting is not actually John the Apostle but rather a woman, possibly Mary Magdalen in disguise. The person is the only one among the apostles who appears to be wearing a pendant or necklace. (Then…where is JOHN?)

Bartholomew, James (Minor) & Andrew

Forming the trio on the far left of the painting are Bartholomew, James the Minor (to differentiate him from James the Major who had a more prominent role in the group) and Andrew.

They are attentive to what is going on next to them as they are seated to the right of Judas and the discussion of Jesus’ betrayal.

Thomas, James (Major) & Philip

Forming the trio just to the left of Jesus (our right) are Thomas (the Doubter), James the Major (one of Jesus’ inner circle), and Philip.

They too are leaning in rapt attention to the conversation transpiring next to them.

Matthew, Thaddeus, & Simon

The three on the far right of the painting, Matthew (the former tax collector), Thaddeus and Simon (not to be confused with Simon Peter, known now as simply Peter).

Furthest away from the discourse going on between Jesus and Judas, I find it interesting that while Matthew’s gestures imply reference to the topic at hand, they are engrossed in their own private dialogue.

The Last Supper – The Survivor

Damaged by warfare

Poor artistic materials and climactic weather elements are not the only thing that have ravaged the painting over the centuries. It was damaged by French revolutionary soldiers in the late 17th century. (Sorry, no photos available on that one!)

In World War II, bombing vibrations damaged the church that houses the painting.

The sandbags and bracing used to successfully protect and preserve the wall of The Last Supper during the bombings of World War II are clearly shown in this photograph.

Damage done by the World War II bombings to the refectory surrounding the wall with The Last Supper which had been successfully reinforced by sandbags can be seen in this historic photo.

The preservation of art and architecture–and cultural history as a whole–are the topic of some wonderful films. I encourage you to check out my blogs on two wonderful films that focus on saving art during World War II

The Monuments Men has interesting insight into heroic attempts to save art across Europe during World War II.

Tea With Mussolini specifically relates to saving art and architecture in Italy during World War II.

The Last Supper – the View from across the Room!

Prone to personification, I am often curious what famous paintings have to look at when there are no visitors to observe? For example, the Mona Lisa has the gigantic Marriage of Cana across from her wall at the Louvre in Paris.

Side note: For more on Mona Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci, check out my blog post on the Mona Lisa.

What do Jesus and his disciples sharing the Last Supper have to look at when there are no visitors? Appropriately, it is the crucifixion scene, ominously looming in their immediate future.

Covering the wall opposite Leonardo’s Last Supper is a majestic fresco of the Crucifixion (1495) by Giovanni Donato. It is said to have some of the figures of the Duke and his family painted by Leonardo.

Traveler Tip: When visiting The Last Supper, take a few minutes to turn around and enjoy the details of this massive fresco.

The Last Supper – Art & Travel

Inspirations after seeing the Real Thing!

One of my favorite memories our our first trip to Italy is the Student Traveler Rendition of The Last Supper outside of Milan, Italy. YEAH Educational Tours, 2006.

Yes! They were paying attention! Right down to the positioning of the heads and hands!

TRAVEL TIPS: Seeing the Last Supper while in northern Italy should be on everyone’s Bucket List. Don’t let the naysayers who tell you how difficult it is to get tickets discourage you. Yes, you will need to purchase your timed ticket in advance – you can do it online from the official website, the cheapest way to buy tickets. (It first shows up in Italian, but click around a bit and you’ll find it in English!) You can book a ticket three months in advance; take advantage of this since tickets sell out quickly due to its limited capacity. The electronic tickets include the reservation of a time slot so there won’t be any queue at the entrance door. The booking process is straightforward the entrance is not chaotic.

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