The Arts

The Interesting Origins of The Last Supper

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper is one of the paintings that were created by Leonardo da Vinci during the 1490s. The mural was commissioned to be painted at the refectory or dining hall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a church located in Milan, Italy. The Last Supper is considered as one of the most recognizable paintings in the art world, and it also serves as a staple wall-décor for the homes of most Roman Catholics or Christians. Despite being a relatively simple painting depicting the last meal of Jesus Christ with his twelve apostles, there have been many interpretations about its hidden meanings over the years. To know more about how the popular painting came to be, here are the interesting origins of The Last Supper.

Origins

Although the exact date of the painting’s commission is currently unknown, it is speculated that The Last Supper was commissioned around the early 1490s. The painting was commissioned by da Vinci’s patron, Ludovico Sforza, who served as the Duke of Milan from 1494 to 1499. Sforza wanted to renovate and remodel the Santa Maria delle Grazie from a church to a family mausoleum, and one element that he wanted to add to the building is a mural of Jesus Christ’s last supper. Unfortunately, the plan to remodel the church did not work out due to unknown reasons, possibly due to lacking funds, but a smaller mortuary chapel was built near the church.

The Last Supper was planned to serve as a decoration for the walls of the mausoleum, and it would be located right below the Sforza coats-of-arms. On the opposite side or wall of da Vinci’s The Last Supper is painted is Giovanni Donato da Montorfano’s painting called Crucifixion, which was finished in 1495. Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci added several members of the Sforza family in the Crucifixion painting after da Montorfano finished painting it.

Given that da Montorfano was already finished with the Crucifixion by 1495 before da Vinci painted the Sforza family figures, it is speculated that da Vinci started working on the last supper around the same year of the year after. Until today, there are no surviving records that reveal when da Vinci began painting The Last Supper, as the archives of the Santa Maria delle Grazie have been destroyed. However, there is a record saying that da Vinci is almost done painting the mural by 1497.

Most of Leonardo’s paintings created using oil paint, and some historians believed that it is his favorite type of paint since he could make changes to the painting quite easily if ever he makes a mistake. However, because The Last Supper is a fresco painting, da Vinci used gesso, pitch, and mastic to seal the wall, and white lead to brighten up the background and the figures that will be painted using oil and tempera.

The Subjects

cropped imaged of The Last Supper

The subjects of The Last Supper are Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles who are sitting in front of a table. The twelve apostles are depicted being in a state of disbelief, anger, and worry, as this was supposed to be the time during The Last Supper, where Jesus Christ said that one of them would betray him. Before the 19th century, there were only four figures that were correctly identified, namely Peter, John, Judas, and Jesus. However, thanks to a manuscript found in the said period, all of the apostles depicted in the painting were positively identified. Here is a list of the figures on the painting from left to right:

  • Bartholomew, James, son of Alphaeus, and Andrew – they are forming a group of three that is at the far left of the table. All three of them have a surprised expression.
  • Peter, Judas Iscariot, and John – these three are arguably the most notable of the twelve apostles. Like the first three apostles, they also form a group of three. Sitting farther from Jesus is Peter, who is leaning towards John and is holding a knife (symbolizing his actions in Gethsemane where he cut off a servant’s ear to stop Jesus’ arrest). At the center of the group is Judas Iscariot, who is seen taken aback by Jesus’ statement and spilled the salt cellar on the table (symbolizing his betrayal). John is sitting next to Jesus, but because Peter seems to be saying something to him, he is seen leaning away from Christ.
  • Jesus – depicted with eyes staring at his open left hand.
  • Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip – these apostles are sitting to the left of Jesus. Thomas is behind James the Greater and is pointing his right hand’s index finger upward (the same finger is the one he used to feel the wounds of Jesus when he was resurrected). James the Greater is in a state of shock with his hands in the air. Philip is depicted with a tilted head and seems to be asking Jesus for an explanation.
  • Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot – these apostles are three of the four apostles that are not looking towards Jesus, with the other one being John. Like most of the apostles, they are in a state of disbelief.

We should also take note that the particular scene depicted in The Last Supper is the one where Jesus presents a piece of bread to the apostles using his left hand. Jesus then states that his betrayer will pick up a piece of bread at the same time as him. In the mural painting, it is clearly seen that Judas Iscariot’s left hand seems to be reaching towards a piece of bread to his left, although it is speculated that he did this action subconsciously while being distracted by the conversation between Peter and John.

There is a common belief among art experts that Leonardo da Vinci’s use the faces of people that he regularly sees on the streets to depict figures in his paintings. For Judas Iscariot, da Vinci is said to be having a hard time finding a face for the betrayer. However, during a particular day where da Vinci is finding the perfect face for Judas, the prior of the convent complained that da Vinci was lazy since he was just walking around the streets instead of finishing the painting. As a retort, da Vinci wrote to the head of the monastery that he would use the face of the prior for Judas if he failed to find other possible faces. It is currently unknown if da Vinci did paint the prior’s face as the face of Judas.

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