Leonardo’s renowned mural The Last Supper was painted on the North wall of the refectory in The Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, it is the most ambitious work that da Vinci executed during his first period in Milan. The mural was probably commissioned by Leonardo’s patron Ludovico il Moro Sforza who had provided the newly refurbished refectory for the monks. The subject of Christ’s last meal with his disciples was a popular one for the religious institutions of the time and a dining room was seen as a fitting location for the painting, a place in which the monks could reflect on Christ’s final gathering before his arrest and crucifixion. In addition to the mural Leonardo was also commissioned to decorate the lunettes above the painting with the Ducal, Sforza and Este coat of arms.
Leonardo decided on an unconventional mixed-media technique
for the mural. Instead of the conventional fresco method of applying paint onto
wet plaster he painted on the dry wall with a combination of egg tempera and
oil paint onto a ground of chalk bound with glue. Unfortunately this method
proved to be unstable and the paint began to flake soon after the mural was
completed. Several rather unsuccessful attempts at restoration have been
attempted, these have now been removed in an effort to retain the remaining
parts of Leonardo’s original work.
painting of Christ and his apostles covers one wall of the refectory and
appears to extend the size of the hall. The lifelike depiction of the figures
is equalled by the attention to detail given to the dishes and to the folds of
has presented the biblical story in a way that had never been seen before.
Earlier versions of the same subject had shown Christ calmly dispensing the
Sacrament with the apostles sitting quietly in a row, only Judas was segregated
from the rest. In contrast Leonardo has given us a scene of drama, movement and
excitement. Gathered from da Vinci’s extensive catalogue of preparatory
drawings, each of the figures have individual expressions.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper. Milan (1492-98) (s)
The figures in the painting are; from left to right: Bartholomew, James the Less, Andrew, Judas, Peter, John, Christ, Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon.
has just declared that one of the apostles will betray him, and the disciples
recoil and gesticulate in disbelief at this shocking revelation. At the left of
the painting Bartholomew is stands stooped over the table, James the Less and
Andrew raise their hands while Peter rises angrily from his chair. Judas grasps
the pouch containing the money he has been paid for his betrayal, only John who
sits serenely expresses a modicum of calmness. The apostles at the right of the
table Thomas, James the Elder, Philip, Mathew, Thaddeus and Simon-all express
varying degrees of shock and anger at the announcement.
Grouping the apostles
in groups of three-seen as a divine number-da Vinci has created a harmonious
composition mirrored by the three windows in the back wall and the three doors
placed between the wall tapestries. The central, triangular figure of Christ
appears isolated within the group, he also serves as the vanishing point within
This picture has deteriorated over the years and is now in a poor state of preservation. Leonardo's experiments with different painting mediums on The Last Supper have backfired and, perhaps with hindsight, he should have used the tried and tested fresco techniques of the period.
The painting covers one wall in a hall in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. At the time of its unveiling we can only imagine the impact it must have had on the monks, they certainly would not have seen anything so lifelike. To the monks they must have felt that they were almost taking part in the Last Supper with Christ and his disciples.
Studies for the Apostles in the Last Supper.