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The Last Supper – Visiting Milan’s Pride

When you think of Renaissance art, the cities that pop up in your mind would probably be Rome, Florence, The Vatican and Venice. In these cities, merely walking among the treasures of Renaissance art and beautiful palaces will leave you dizzy and speechless. And yet, many tourists pour into Milan to visit this one piece of art – The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci.  Today, people associate Da Vinci with Paris because of The Monalisa. However not many may know that Leonardo Da Vinci lived in Milan from 1482 to 1499. He spent some of his most productive years under the patronage of Milan’s Sforza family.  The Last Supper (Leonardo’s “Il Cenacolo” – original title) completed in 1498 is perhaps the most reproduced work of art ever.

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The church Santa Maria Delle Grazie, that contains the Last Supper was built between 1465 and 1467. It was designed and built by a Milanese architect Guiniforte Solari in Gothic style.  It soon became the favorite church of Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza. An obnoxious and oppressive leader, he built a secret tunnel for his private visits from the Milan Castle to the Church to protect himself from enemies.  His son Duke Ludovico Sforza wanted to add a dome to his family church. By then, Solari was already dead. He identified and chose lesser known  but talented artists to renovate the church. For the dome, the Duke identified a young man named Donato Bramante whom the world now remembers as the architect of San Pietro in Rome. For the refectory mural, Leonardo was chosen.

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With tickets booked way in advance, I managed to get one at a whopping price of 44 Euros pp including the guide.  Standing outside this plain building of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, one would never guess the masterpiece that resides inside.  To protect the painting from humidification, only a maximum of 20-25 people are allowed to visit the room at a time.  As the exterior doors with heavy bars were closed, all of us were cooped inside as we waited for the interior doors to open. In a few minutes, we entered a dimly lit room that housed The Last Supper. Having seen several versions of the painting, it was quite a mesmerizing moment to see the original one in front of my eyes.

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Although the painting is faded and flaky, I could still see the minute details and expressions of each of the disciples. The painting occupies one wall of the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie. The painting depicts the moment of The Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles when Jesus announces that one of them would betray him. Da Vinci portrays the reaction of each of the apostles to this announcement in the painting. Leonardo began working on the painting in 1495 and he completed it in 1498.

Even though The Last Supper is a wall painting, it cannot be called a fresco as Leonardo adopted unique painting methods. As Da Vinci needed more time to work on the Last Supper, he did not adopt the traditional fresco style of painting.  In a fresco, tempera has to be added quickly before the plaster dries forcing the artist to work quickly and making it difficult for him to change later.  Da Vinci, instead added tempera to already dry plaster allowing him to work slowly detailing the expressions of each of the apostles. Due to these experimental techniques, the painting started flaking and rapidly decaying two decades after completion. Centuries later, the church was bombed in World War II but miraculously the monastery wall with The Last Supper painting stood intact.

The Last Supper Milan

The Last Supper Milan

On hearing the announcement from Jesus about the betrayal, one can see the shock and anger on the faces of each of the apostles except for Judas who appears to be in a shadow and clenches his fists on the bag of silver coins. A popular story goes that Da Vinci had trouble portraying the evil face of Judas. After a heated debate with one of the monks from the monastery on the painting’s delay, he decided to use the monk’s face for the villainous Judas !

Apart from Judas, one can see John (first apostle to the right of Jesus) expressing sadness instead of shock, anger and confusion. This does not appear in the Gospels and Leonardo interprets John in a calm appearance to portray that John was intimated earlier by Jesus as he was the beloved one. John was the only one who saw the death of the Christ.

Leonardo seats the diners on one side of the table so that none of them has his back to the viewers. The brilliance of the artist is seen when one stands at the center of the room facing the Last Supper. Every single element of the painting draws attention to the Christ’s right eye which is the vanishing point. His hands are located at the golden ratio of half the height of the composition. The painting has several references to number 3 which represents Christian belief in the Holy Trinity. The apostles are seated in the groups of three; there are three windows behind Jesus and the shape of Jesus resembles a triangle.

When you see the painting from the center of the room, it seems that the painting feels like an extension of the room. As the characters are painted in one and half times larger than life-size, the monks dining in the refectory feel that they are part of the Last Supper.

There are claims that Leonardo used faces of actual people for the apostles. Though it’s not proven but historians find similarities in the resemblances of Leonardo and James the Greater (2nd apostle to the left of Jesus). The luminosity and detailing of the painting is phenomenal and perhaps that is the reason Da Vinci chose the experimental method over regular fresco.  A number of restoration works were carried out to maintain the painting. Very little of the original painting remains today. The restorations were done using watercolors which were subject to multiple criticism and scrutiny mainly because it destroyed the integrity of the piece.

On the wall opposite to The Last Supper is Giovanni Donato Montorfano’s “Crucifixion”. It depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. One could notice the difference in the two styles. While this one is more vibrant and stands intact till today, it lacks the details of the priceless masterpiece of Leonardo.

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In 1652, monastery residents cut a new door in the wall of the painting causing the feet of the Jesus to be removed !! Later in 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers  turned the area in to a stable further damaging the painting of the wall.

The Last Supper is definitely worth  of a visit. One merely gets 15 minutes to admire the masterpiece which stands as a testament to Leonardo’s genius as well as the inevitable passage of time.

Also read my other Travel Experiences in Italy

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Copyright ©2018, Lakshmi Nair. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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