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from issue no. 06/07 - 2006

Leonardo’s Last Supper

Years of fanciful and confused interpretations have tainted our gaze on this painting, in which, instead, the author sticks with fidelity to the Gospel of John. It is almost a photogram of the most dramatic moment , when Jesus says to the apostles: «one of you will betray me»

by Giuseppe Frangi

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci, 
Santa María delle Grazie, Milan

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci, Santa María delle Grazie, Milan

With what eyes do we look at the most famous Last Supper painted in all of history? A legitimate question after years of fanciful and confused interpretations have tainted our gaze on the masterpiece of Leonardo da Vinci. The success of Dan Brown’s novel, with its esoteric literary interpretation, has spread like a distorting patina over this work. It has reduced it to a receptacle for indecipherable symbols or the text of an absolutely improbable yet resolutely anti-Christian theorem.
In actual fact, Leonardo sticks in this great painting to a profound fidelity to Gospel detail, as never again in his life. His Last Supper is like a photogram, exactly in line with John, chapter 13, verse 24.
As everyone knows the scene is set in the refectory of a monastery; and as the tradition was, especially in Florence, refectories often hosted large representations of the Last Supper: sufficient to remember the marvelous ones by Andrea del Castagno, of Ghirlandaio or of Andrea del Sarto.
Recruited in Milan by Ludovico il Moro, Leonardo exported this tradition to the refectory of the church of the Dominicans of Santa Maria delle Grazie which was also the church that the Duke had chosen as the family “shrine” and in which he planned to have himself buried along with his wife Beatrice d’Este. The scaffolding was erected in 1495 and Leonardo worked in his own time and style, shunning fresco work which would have imposed quite a different rhythm on him and using tempera instead, with the well known catastrophic results.

Leonardo invented a large and spacious setting that expands and gives breath to a room that reflects a late-Gothic narrowness. But in what looks like an ambience tempered by a wonderful balance, Leonardo inserted one of the most tense and most dramatic representations that the history of art records.
In fact the great artist, with the tenacity of a reporter, sticks to the elements of John’s Gospel account. And in the flux of the account, he chooses an instant, the most anguished and unsettling of incidents. Jesus, seated at the table, has just made the announcement that freezes the blood of his companions: «In truth, in truth I tell you, one of you will betray me». They are words that fall like rocks on the table and explain the agitation that overwhelms the apostles. Many of them have jumped up from their seats like springs. Incredulous looks, also tinged with suspicion, go round the table. «The disciples looked at each other and didn’t know whom he was speaking of», John writes in effect. Leonardo followed him, almost as if he were present and reporting that moment of bewilderment so as to expand the account of the evangelist with a tracking shot of the whole table. The artist notes in the famous Forster II Codex, in the Victor and Albert Museum in London: «One who was drinking leaves his knapsack in its place and turns his head toward the speaker. One laces his fingers together and turns to his companion with a frown… another whispers into the ear of another, and he listens to him turning away and offering his ear, holding a knife in one hand … The other in turning… tosses with a hand a knapsack over his shoulder. The other sets his hands on the table and stares. The other blows out through a mouthful of food. The other leans over to see the speaker… The other draws back behind the one who is leaning and sees the speaker between the wall and the one leaning». Then Leonardo further tightens his shot, to focus on an even more precise moment. The one recounted by the evangelist in verse 24. «One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus»: John remembered that detail well, because in reality he was talking about himself. Among the apostles no one knows how to turn to Jesus, no one knows how to extract the secret of those terrible words from him. Thomas doesn’t know, who with his outstretched finger (the one he will use after the Resurrection to “touch” the body of the Lord) seems to implore a little clarity. James the Zebedee doesn’t know as with arms thrown out he stares, rooted in his dismay. Philip doesn’t know as he somewhat timorously places his hands on his chest, as if to make clear that he has nothing to do with it.

Only Peter, the most practical and most knowledgeable, chooses the only thing to do to get out of the anguishing situation. Thus he beckons John to him and asks him to find out: he is aware that he is the most beloved apostle of Jesus, the one . So, Leonardo catches this instant precisely, respecting in an amazing way the psychologies of the people involved: Peter has beckoned John to him and whispers something in his ear. And if the fresco were a film, we would see in the next sequence the famous and very widely reproduced scene of John laying his head on the breast of Jesus…
Peter himself already grips a knife in his other hand emerging behind the figure of Judas. It is a lucid and fiery Peter, ready for anything to defend Jesus, as he would show some hours later in the Garden of Olives, when with that knife he cut off the ear of Malchus, one of the soldiers come to capture the Lord.
The earthquake that Jesus precipitated by his announcement has already, however, produced a precise order: in the chain of the apostles, Judas appears cut off, implacably alone, with the cursed money clenched in his hand. He is present but it is as if he is already far off, irredeemably estranged, an enemy.
In this way, re-experienced fragment by fragment, that image of Leonardo’s that passed who knows how many times before our eyes, becomes once again what it really is: an exceedingly faithful reconstruction of one of the most dramatic moments in human history. A precise reconstruction like that of a reporter; but above all an exact reconstruction of human dynamics, such as only the intuitive knowledge of a genius could achieve. And, after having looked at it with eyes finally unencumbered, it is difficult to think that it didn’t go truly and simply like that…

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