The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1494-1498)

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1494-1498)

The Lord's Supper painted in fresco by Leonardo DeVinci between 1494 and 1498 on the wall of the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, is, despite its poor state of preservation, one of the most famous works of Christian art. Without looking for so-called occult meanings, such as the Da Vinci code, Dan Brown's 2003 bestseller who claimed to see Saint John Mary Magdalene as the hidden wife of Jesus, the work is nonetheless mysterious. and fascinating.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, a revolutionary work

This fascination comes at first glance from its perspective in the refectory, a whole set of perspectives converges the fleeting lines towards the image of Jesus who seems alone, isolated in intense reflection, absent from his apostles who wonder about the revelation by him of his next betrayal. The moment seized by the master is not the establishment of the Eucharist but the proclamation by Jesus of his approaching Passion.

The very composition of the painting is literally revolutionary; Leonardo da Vinci breaks with the iconographic codes of Romanesque and Gothic painting which represented Judas distant from Jesus, spatially separated from the other apostles, placed on the other side of the holy table, to mark that by his imminent delivery from his rabbi to Gethsemane he excluded himself from the circle of the good apostles, he the felon, he who despaired of the Messiah, who sold him for thirty pence. The extraordinary expressiveness of the protagonists of the Last Supper and the geometric construction of the work make it one of the most extraordinary in Christian art. Leonardo’s choice not to feature a halo on the heads of the apostles and not even of Jesus makes a human being at work, although religious.

The comparison of a reconstituted and recolored reproduction of the current state, virtual restoration made possible by old copies or electronic treatments of the original colors, shows the extreme degradation of the pigments due to the wear of the tempera. A few years after its completion the fresco deteriorated. In the Napoleonic era, they went so far as to open a door ruining the feet of Christ!

A bold break with the stereotypes of Christian art

The preparatory drawings for the fresco, mostly kept in the Royal Library of Windsor, show that Vinci broke away, after having considered following the old iconographic canons those of placing Peter to the right of Jesus and John to his left, sometimes asleep in his bosom, and symbolically distancing Judas as much as possible, by bringing Judas, Peter and John closer and even away from Jesus.

To measure da Vinci’s audacity, let’s look at the usual stereotype, one inherited from Romanesque art, as illustrated by the altar of the 13th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta de Volterra in Tuscany. Jesus seated on a cathedral presides over the last meal. The eleven apostles are lined up on the correct side of the table, their names engraved above them. Judas, represented smaller, is kneeling on the wrong side of the holy table, he receives the bite while an infernal monster is about to steal it in accordance with the Gospels indicating that it is during the eating of the bite that "Satan entered into Judas ”. Another common symbolism of medieval art is to represent a black bird entering with the mouthful in the mouth of Judas. Note that the name of Judas on the lintel was, alone, hammered out.

One generation older (1445), the representation of Andrea del Castagno seems, in comparison, a sort of frozen ancient statuary. John is sleeping, Judas is on the wrong side of the table.

We can see from the preparatory drawings the audacity of Vinci who broke with the usual codes of composition of the Last Supper after having duly tried them. In the final disposition of the protagonists of the Last Supper, Jesus takes center stage, alone, immersed in the anticipation of his Passion which he knows is imminent. Around him the apostles are agitated but he is alone in his interior prayer, his gaze turned towards the Eucharistic offering, that of his accepted sacrifice which he knows to be salvific. A preparatory drawing, however, attests that Vinci initially envisaged a very traditional installation; the arm of Peter touches that of Jesus who gives mouthful to Judas placed and shrunken on the other side of the table while John sleeps, slumped, on the table

The painting was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Ludovic Sforza, who intended to make Santa Maria de le Grazie the mausoleum of the Sforza. He had Bramante made a new apse surmounted by a dome, a tiburio lombardo, which would receive the remains of his wife Beatrice d'Este who died prematurely in 1495. The duke's coats of arms surmount the fresco.

The moment when Jesus announces the betrayal of Judas

Vinci hesitated during the preparation of his work about when the last meal he wanted to perform. A preparatory drawing kept in the Royal Library of Windsor shows John asleep in the lap of Jesus who hands the bite to Judas who gets up to take it. It is not either the establishment of the Eucharist that the fresco shows, the absence of a chalice attests to it, but the astonishment of the apostles at the revelation that Jesus has just made to them "In truth, I say it to you, one of you will deliver to me ”announcement reported by the four evangelists but it is more precisely the Johannine version (John, 13,21-26) that Vinci follows“ One of the disciples, the very one Jesus loved, was next to him. Simon-Peter made a sign to him: "Ask who he is talking about." "". Simon Peter addresses John and asks him to question the Master about which of them is the one who will deliver Him up; Judas recoils and does not participate in this meeting, he anticipates and points to himself already by his purse that he tries to hide. Vinci thus follows the chronology of John which suggests that Satan took hold of Judas not during the last meal, at the time of the bite but from the washing of the feet.

Vinci focuses the attention of the spectator on the attitude of Judas who alone does not seem surprised because he knows how to be the traitor. At this moment, two characters do not participate in the general confusion, Jesus whose serene face contemplates his coming Passion and Judas who has decided to deliver Him. Vinci thus highlights the parallel and united destiny of two men who are heading towards death, one infamous, the other glorious, the damnator, the other salvific. Jean is painted with great beauty, youthful, almost androgynous.

The Judas da Vinci, a complex Judas

Leonardo da Vinci's relationship with the Prior who received the work in his refectory was poor. Vinci was slow to finish the fresco started in 1494-1495 and which he would not finish until 1498, occupied by other sites including that of the equestrian statue of the duke. According to Vasari, Leonardo da Vinci was late in completing his fresco because he was reluctant to confront himself in the face of Christ and would have struggled to find a model for his Judas. Asked by the Duke of Milan about this, he reportedly replied: “For over a year, I have been going to the Borghetto (the red light district of Milan), morning and evening, because all the scoundrels live there. (...) I have yet to find a face that satisfies me [for Judas]. (…) But if my research is unsuccessful, I will take the features of the father prior who complains about me… ”anecdote from which Léo Perutz drew a novel Le Judas de Léonard (1988).

Judas had been appointed by Jesus as treasurer of the community. His hand clutching the purse points to the thirty denarii he received as the price for his delivery - the Greek term in Mark (3,19) παρέδωκεν paradounai was deliberately misleadingly translated as treason by Jerome in the Vulgate. With his elbow, he spills the salt, a symbolic gesture found in other representations of the Last Supper, not according to the popular belief of bad luck, but, in the religious sense, by reference to the parable on "the salt of the earth ”in Matthew (5,13-16). His other hand comes forward to sneak up on the bread before Jesus gives it a bite, following the topos of Christian art denouncing Judas as a thief.

Judas is identifiable at first glance because, if he is on the right side of the table, he stands three-quarters, his face hard, his nose arched; if her hair is, not red, but dark brown, Vinci retains the convention of the green coat, that of treachery. A preparatory drawing for the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci showing Judas, dated 1494 is kept by the Royal Library of Windsor; we see a hairless man in the bust in the posture of Judas in the fresco, his neck turned and the tendons protruding. This is obviously an after nature drawing of a model; Was this model a rapier train unearthed at the Borghetto Milano, we do not know but it is quite plausible. This drawing shows how much Vinci personalized each apostle. Judas is not so ugly as he was conventionally portrayed as possessed of dark energy. Pierre is a shabby man and Jean an ephebe. The trio so different brings out their personalities. They are men of flesh and blood, not stylized hieratic figures as too often in Christian art. Judas da Vinci receives from this proximity of Peter who questions John about the meaning to be given to the astonishing words of Jesus a specific, complex personality, far from the excesses of incrimination and caricature.

A work copied but never equaled

The da Vinci fresco has been copied by many artists, Giampertrino, Marco d´Oggiono, Bossi, among others; copied but not imitated; Leonardo's innovation was so great that none of his contemporaries dared to follow him, reverting to old stereotypes.

There are several copies of Leonardo da Vinci's work, a work recognized in its time as a major masterpiece. Yet the boldness of the triangulation of Peter, Judas, and John was so great that most later artists reverted to more traditional compositions. Thus Andrea del Sarto rejects Judas at the end of the table on the right Judas in his fresco of Saint Salvi in ​​Florence in 1520.

The originality of Da Vinci's composition did not escape Rembrandt, who brought it out with a drawing from 1635 preserved by the British Museum which only sketches the two groups of apostles to the right and left of Jesus, without even showing Christ.

Joos van Cleve, representing at the beginning of the 16th century, the same episode of the announcement of the delivery, shows Jesus surrounded by John and Peter, while Judas, his hand tightened on the purse which contains the thirty denarii of the betrayal, fixes Jesus with a hostile look because he knows that in a moment this one will indicate him as the traitor by offering him the bite. The intention is identical to that of Vinci but less daring in the spatial arrangement.

Salvador Dali follower of Leonardo da Vinci

Salvador Dali with his Last Supper painted in 1955, now on deposit at the National Art Gallery in Washington, completely renews the composition of the Last Supper by taking up Vinci's spatial perspective but breaking the codes by representing the twelve apostles in prayer with his face bent, dressed in an immaculate mantle, which makes it impossible to distinguish the apostles. Judas is one of them, but which one? Dali refuses all incrimination.

As in Da Vinci's Last Supper, the work is inscribed in precise geometric proportions, in a dodecahedron, one of Plato's five solids, considered to be perfect form because it conforms to the golden ratio. A Vitruvian man in the background testifies to what Dali claims of artistic filiation to Vinci. Deeply charged with occult symbolic meaning, this work is one of the most striking in modern art.

Pastiches, diversions and cinema

Leonardo da Vinci's fresco is so founding, so unique, that it has inspired many pastiches as well as multiple serigraphs by Andy Warhol (1986), a painting by Zeng Fanzhi (2001), photographs by Renée COX (1996-2001 ), Raoef Mamedov (1998), Ad Nesn (1999), Bettina Rheims (1999), Marithé and François Girbaud (2005) to name only a few significant works. Also note a Volkswagen advertisement from 1997.

Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana caused a scandal but won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1961. The film recounts the setbacks of Viridiana, whose monastic vocation is prevented by the incestuous concupiscence of her uncle. Diverted from a future as a nun, Viridiana decides to dedicate her life to the needy, who will take the opportunity to try to overthrow the social order, taking advantage of the absence of the privileged to indulge in a Dionysian orgy, during which Don Luis will give his own, and scandalous, interpretation of The Last Supper. The people she has helped get drunk, loot the house and try to rape their benefactor. Saved by her cousin, she gives in to his charms and in the end accepts to settle down with him and the maid in a threesome. Luis Buñuel ostensibly, with even alacrity, the work of Leonardo da Vinci in the composition of his Last Supper.


This article is an excerpt from the book:

- STENER Christophe, Antisemitic iconography of the life of Judas Iscariot, Christian art, BOD, 2020

Christophe Stener is a former student of the National School of Administration and currently a professor at the Western Catholic University.


Video: Music from Last Supper - Leonardo da Vinci - 1 Hour Version!