The Last Supper

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. PICTURE: Via Wikipedia/public domain

One of the most famous artworks in the world - and most copied, in both high art and pop culture, The Last Supper was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and da Vinci's patron, and can still be seen on a wall of the dining hall or refectory of the Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

Da Vinci is believed to have completed the work - which measures 8.8 metres long and 4.6 metres high - between 1495 and 1498 but he didn't work on it continuously (a matter which one story says caused some concern among convent heads). It was was created using tempura and oil on a gypsum preparation - a then experimental technique in an era when frescoes were usually painted on wet plaster (the experiment didn't prove a great success, however, because the paintwork was soon flaking).

The work depicts the table of The Last Supper with Jesus Christ sitting at the centre surrounded by the 12 apostles - the painting's 'vanishing point' is located right behind Jesus' head making Him the image's key focal point. The scene represents the moment after Jesus had informed the disciples, as recorded John 13, that one of them would soon betray Him.

The various reactions of the apostles can be seen in the depiction - from Peter's apparent anger (he holds a knife pointing away from Jesus, perhaps in anticipation of the subsequent incident in the Garden of Gethsemane in which he cuts off an ear of one of those in the party who had come to arrest Jesus) to that of the boyish-looking John, seated on Jesus' right, who looks as though he is fainting (and who some have suggested was not John but Mary Magdalene - a conclusion most scholars have rejected) and the questioning looks of Matthew and Jude who, on the painting's far right, have turned to Simon the Zealot apparently seeking clarification. Judas, seated next to Peter and John, is leaning back in shadow.

The exact identity of most of those in the image - with the exception of Jesus, Judas, Peter and John - was a matter of speculation for many years (it was known they were the apostles just not who was who) until notebooks written by Da Vinci were discovered in the 19th century. 

While there had previously been many images of The Last Supper, Da Vinci's was a breakthrough work in the way in which the characters are represented, not as static figures but as real people responding in animated fashion to what must have been staggering news (it was also notable that Jesus wasn't given a halo as was common practice).

The personalities aside, much has also been made over the years since its creation of the symbolic meaning of the painting including the prominence of the number three in the image - such as in the groupings of the disciples (a reference to the trinity perhaps?) as well as the food and objects on the table, including a spilt salt cellar, and even the hand gestures employed by various apostles (the speculation that the painting carries a "hidden meaning" hit the headlines early in the new millennium with the publication in 2003 of Dan Brown's book - and subsequent film - The Da Vinci Code).

The painting is a survivor - in the late 18th century, French revolutionary troops used the building as an armoury (and apparently, in an expression of their anti-clerical views, scratched out the apostles' eyes and threw stones at it), while a bombing raid in World War II saw the roof torn off the refectory, leaving it open to the elements (although protective sandbagging shielded the work).

It has been much restored meaning that very few of da Vinci's actual brushstrokes are said to remain. The painting deteriorated quite quickly after it was created - within 50 years it was described as "ruined" - and at one stage a doorway was even cut through the middle just below the table, removing Jesus' feet (it was later bricked up). The first restoration was attempted in the early 18th century but the most recent comprehensive restoration spanned the period between 1978 to 1999 and saw the work of previous - poorly done - restoration efforts erased.

The painting can be seen in the World Heritage-listed Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, but a maximum of 25 people are admitted every 15 minutes, so it can be advisable to book in advance.