Leonardo Da Vinci
’s “The Last Supper” Essay, Research Paper
Leonardo’s “Last Supper” is a priceless piece of art with much hidden meaning and obvious talents
bestowed upon a wall. Under the study of Verrocchio as a painter and a sculptor, he was able to use his
skills in creating a very detailed and a very naturalistic piece of work that would be remembered for
hundreds of years. He was also able to create characters with amazing individuality. Not only was his
portrayal of the characters magnificent, but the symbolism he used which emphasized the story being told
in the “Last Supper”.
Lodovico Sforza chose Leonardo to create “The Last Supper” in the refectory of the Dominican
Church of S. Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The Abate of the S. Maria delle Grazie saw Leonardo work
from morning until night on “The Last Supper” without eating. Although, there were times he would stop
painting for days at a time; or, he would work on a specific character for just a few moments and then
leave to continue working on it later. He worked on it from 1495 thru 1498 (Strauss, 27).
Before Leonardo began painting the actual portrait, he put down a substance which was suppose to
absorb the tempora and protect the tempora from the moisture on the wall. Unfortunately, the substance
was proved unsuccessful, and by 1517 it began to deteriorate.
In May 1556 a painter Giovanni Batista Armenini said that the painting was ‘so badly affected that
nothing is visible but a mass of blots’(Heydenreich, 18). The painting has continued to decay in the
following centuries. It was further damaged by restorations made by careless artists and by the addition
of a doorway put in the lower part of the painting. Yet even to this day his painting “The Last Supper”
is widely known and visited by many tourists each year.
The remembrance of the “Last Supper” could be due to the sacredness of the parting meal. It is
quite obvious that the skill used in the creation of the “Last Supper” was magnificent. Although, the
way Leonardo allows its viewers to depict the scene from a specific point in the Bible adds to the
importance and significance of the painting in which no other artist could even compare. He does allow
the viewer to recognize this scene by the gestures of both the Lord and the Apostles. The Lord sits ever
so quietly while the Apostles rise in reaction to what the Lord had just announced. It is rather obvious
that Leonardo chose the critical moment after the Lord had stated, ‘Verily I say unto you that one of you
shall betray me,’ because of the emotions that evolve in this specific scene (Matt. 26.21).
He took much time to express every detail of each Apostle and the Lord. Leonardo had even wrote
in one of his notebooks that “A good painter has two chief objects to paint man and the intention of his
soul. The former is easy, the latter hard because he has to represent it by the attitude and movement of
the limbs”(Heydenreich, 27). For example, the Lord is very relaxed with his arms resting on the table
which adds to the portrayal of His greatness. He also emphasized the Lord’s greatness by giving Him a
serious attitude and by presenting Him as untouchable with the space between Himself and the Apostles.
The distance put between them is called the spacial perspective, which is one of the techniques Leonardo
feels is important in naturalistic art. Although, the Apostles are painted in a more restless fashion.
They are all facing different ways and seem to be jumping out of their seats. Even the grouping of the
apostles in three was done intentionally. He used four gr!
oups of three Apostles in each group in order to symbolize the Holy Trinity which means three, and the
four groups were used to symbolize the Gospels and the Cardinal Virtues . He was very cautious in every
aspect of his painting from the placement of the figures to the movement they each possessed. Leonardo
had to create actions and various postures which would be appropriate for each figure in order to keep
them from looking as if they were brothers.
Monica Strauss stated that in her research she had found that “for the first time in the history
of the subject, Leonardo had distinguished each one by appearance and gesture”(Strauss, 27). For each
of the twelve Apostles he had to not only resort to the historical information on their names and on
their appearances but also by the portrayal of their specific qualities as they are known to us from the
Gospels. For instance, Judas was put outside the circle of the innocent Apostles and only his shadowed
profile can be found. He is the only one to be found sitting in the shadows and in solitude. This
allows the viewer to see the guilt he had, for he knew he was the one who would betray the Lord Jesus.
He is also frozen in shock, and he is an outcast in the group. The significance of the portrayal of
Judas is very important because in earlier pictures of the Last Supper, no one had ever been able to show
this (Heydenreich, 57).
Peter and John, located at the sides of Judas, were both painted with bright heads and with
outstretched hands to the Lord Jesus which signify their fateful connection with Him. Yet, he
distinguishes their differences by showing Peter to be more stubborn and argumentative and John to be
more gentle and submissive as the Bible has thoroughly explained. Philip, on the other hand, stands up
in excitement; and, he puts his hands on his chest to express a tender loyalty towards Christ. Andrew is
found next to his brother Peter. Then, there is James the Greater, the older brother of John, who
touches Peter’s shoulder and forms a link with Peter and John. These three are those who witnessed the
Transfiguration and who accompanied Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 17.1; 26.36-37).
Leonardo continued to distinguish each of the Apostles as he felt necessary. He placed James the
Less, ‘the Lord’s brother’ (Gal. 1.19), to the Lord Jesus’s right where he is like Him in feature and
with outstretched arms; but, his gesture is only a reaction and not an expression of a completed action
like the Lord Jesus’s. Behind James the Less stands the doubting Thomas who is known to share a common
feast day . St. Matthew is next and finally comes St. Jude, who is the brother of James the Less and St.
Simon. James the Less and St. Simon were martyred together so they too have a common feast day.
Leonardo not only arranged the Apostles in four groups according to kinship and the personal links they
shared, but each of the twelve Apostles exhibit an emotional and temperamental reaction appropriate to
the character attributed to him in the Gospels. Each disciple reacted in his own way, as men. Leonardo
had said, ‘Emotions move the face of man in different ways, for o!
ne laughs, another weeps, one becomes gay, another sad, one shows anger, another pity, some are amazed,
others reflective. In these the hands and the whole person should follow the expression of the face,’
(Heydenreich, 57). He made sure he portrayed this in his “Last Supper”.
The Lord Jesus was also given qualities that distinguished Him from everyone else. The Lord
Jesus’s hands are laid in a resting fashion on the table. His hands lie between the filled cup and the
unbroken bread, the symbols of sacrifice, as if pointing in a silent gesture towards them. He seems to
relay a message that His business has not yet been completed. Only the objects in front of Him remain in
order, as does He remain calm, unlike the objects in front of the Apostles which are in disarray, as are
the Apostles also in an unorderly emotional state of confusion. Leonardo uses the description of the
table to symbolize the state in which the Apostles and the Lord Jesus are in. For this reason, Leonardo
not only uses the characters to portray the story but also the objects and the structures which encampeth
Leonardo used the beautiful background motif of the pedimented doorway, which was centered behind
the Lord Jesus, in order to emphasize the Lord Jesus’s greatness. It acted as a crown of glory hovering
over His head. The surrounding walls and ceiling, where tapestries hung, were not in natural perspective
but in an idealized one. The surroundings were unrelated to any spectator in the room. The same can be
said of the characters in the portrait. Their scale and grandeur is other worldly, but their emotional
distress is obviously human. He created the characters as if they were each on their own frontal plane.
He also put a painted border around the painting which cut off most of the ceiling and the walls. These
two modifying factors caused the characters to seem to leap out of the portrait.
The “Last Supper” portrayed very individualistic characters which have made Leonardo’s piece of
work stand out from all the others who also have tried to create the Last Supper; but, talented Leonardo
was able to perfect his creation with his perspective of atmosphere and color.
Leonardo had said, ‘If we see that the true quality of colours is known through light, it is to be
concluded that where there is more light, the true quality of the illuminated colour is better seen; and
where there is more darkness, the colour is tinged with the colour of that darkness,’ (Heydenreich, 65).
Later he concluded with, ‘Nothing ever looks to be its real colour, if the light which strikes it is not
all of that colour,’ (Heydenreich, 65). He used his theory in his painting to make it more realistic.
He used two sources of light which came from the last gleams of the dying day which entered from behind
the window with its charming view of the countryside and from the window in the refectory itself. He
claimed to have ‘painted in tones of light,’ when he created his “Last Supper” (Heydenreich, 66). Rosci
had said that it is possible that he may have given the advice on the construction of the rectangular
refectory because of the illusion the light gives the paint!
The two zones of light make it possible for Leonardo to give his characters a very finely
“graduated relief” (Heydenreich, 70). Leonardo caused the colors of Christ’s garments, a red tunic and a
blue cloak, to reflect in the pewter plate in front of him; and, similarly the plate in front of Philip
reflects the red of his cloak. The colors of the Apostles’ robes are distributed across the painting in
a wonderful array of colors. To the right of the Lord, the pale green tunic of James the Less forms a
transition between the Lord’s blue cloak and the red robe of Philip, whose blue sleeves are just a shade
brighter than the tone of Christ’s cloak.
There is also a mixture of colors in the second group on the right of the Lord. Matthew is
clothed in bright blue, which together with Jude’s ochre tunic and Simon’s violet cloak forms a perfect
“three note” chord. Even in the group to the left of the Lord, consisting of John, Peter, and Judas;
emphasizes the blending of colors. Judas’s greyish blue garment is the only one whose tone remains
indefinite and dull which was formed from John’s dark, rust red cloak and bluish green tunic and Peter’s
dark blue sleeve. In the outer left hand group, which stands in the darker background, Andrew’s green
cloak over a yellow garment, James the Greater’s reddish clothing, and Bartholomew’s violet blue tunic
and dark olive cloak form a “carefully equivalent” to the outer right hand group, which stands in bright
light. From one side of the Lord Jesus to the other the colors go from light primary tones to dark
subtle blends. All of this coloration is due to the effect that light has o!
n colors. Leonardo really believed that the perspective of light was important because it ensured to
make the “Last Supper” as realistic as possible.
Leonardo believed that naturalization was “harmony between mental and physical motion.” He
accomplished the correspondence between physical movement and mental emotion by the pause between two
great emotions which are the “momentarily stiffening” at an extreme point of excitement and at the horror
of being “startled out of tranquility” (Heydenreich, 67). The painting portrays both expression and
emotion. This combination complements each other. The expressions allow the viewers to see the emotions
the characters are feeling. Their frozen movement allows one to see they are human. We can see both
their outward and inward reactions. It is as if Leonardo had been there, and he had taken a picture of
the marvelous meal. He definitely accomplished his goal in portraying his “Last Supper” as a realistic
piece of art. The symbolism, the individualized personalities of the characters, and the skills such as
the light perspective and spacial perspective blended together to fo!
rm a photograph-like painting.