Why Did Leonardo da Vinci Paint "The Last Supper"?
Because his employer requested he do so. Leonardo da Vinci worked for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, for nearly 18 years (1482-99). The Duke decided he wanted this particular religious scene of Jesus and the Apostles at the Last Supper painted and Leonardo, who was not stupid, decided painting it made perfect financial sense.
How Big Is It?
It's huge, really -- 460 x 880 cm (15 x 29 feet). It covers an entire large wall, very unlike reproductions sized to hang neatly behind one's sofa.
Where Is It?
The original mural is on a wall of the refectory (dining hall) in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.
If you'd care to see a reproduction, they're easily found. As an image, "The Last Supper" is the most reproduced religious painting of all time and has been put on everything from mirrors, to mouse pads, to musical pillows. If Leonardo were still around, he'd be earning billions of (insert your currency here) on licensing fees alone.
How Long Did It Take Leonardo To Paint This?
He began working on it in 1495, and finished "The Last Supper" in 1498. This is worth noting, as Leonardo was a known procrastinator with a marked tendency to leave projects unfinished.
Why Is the Composition Remarkable?
First, it is remarkable because the disciples are all displaying very human, identifiable emotions. "The Last Supper" had certainly been painted before. Leonardo's version, though, was the first to depict real people acting like real people.
Secondly, and of major importance -- the technical perspective in "The Last Supper" is incredible. You can see that every single element of the painting directs one's attention straight to the midpoint of the composition, Christ's head. It's arguably the greatest example of one point perspective ever created.
What Does Last Supper Depict?
"The Last Supper" is Leonardo's visual interpretation of an event chronicled in all four of the Gospels (books in the Christian New Testament). The evening before Christ was betrayed by one of his disciples, he gathered them together to eat, tell them he knew what was coming and wash their feet (a gesture symbolizing that all were equal under the eyes of the Lord). As they ate and drank together, Christ gave the disciples explicit instructions on how to eat and drink in the future, in remembrance of him. It was the first celebration of the Eucharist, a ritual still performed.
Specifically, "The Last Supper" depicts the next few seconds in this story after Christ dropped the bombshell that one disciple would betray him before sunrise, and all 12 reacted to the news with different degrees of horror, anger and shock.
Who's In It?
Looking across the picture from left to right:
- Bartholomew, James Minor and Andrew form a group of three. All are aghast, Andrew to the point of holding his hands up in a "stop!" gesture.
- Judas, Peter and John form the next group of three. Judas, you will note, has his face in shadow and is clutching a small bag (of silver?). Peter is visibly angry and a feminine-looking John seems about to swoon.
- Christ is the calm in the midst of the storm.
- Thomas, James Major and Philip are next. Thomas is clearly agitated, James Major stunned and Philip seems to be seeking clarification.
- Matthew, Thaddeus and Simon comprise the last group of three figures. It appears that, when a situation turns ugly, Simon is the "go to" guy for explanations.
Why Is It Falling Apart?
Leonardo, always the inventor, tried using new materials for "The Last Supper." Instead of using tempera on wet plaster (the preferred method of fresco painting, and one which had worked successfully for centuries), he thought he'd give using dry plaster a whirl. His experiment resulted in a more varied palette, which was his intent. What he hadn't taken into account (because, who knew?) was that this method wasn't at all durable. The painted plaster began to flake off the wall almost immediately, and people have been attempting to restore it ever since.
Why Doesn't Jesus Have Feet?
Rest assured, Leonardo intended for Christ to have feet and, in fact, painted them. Around 1650, some unnamed, woefully misguided soul -- on a mission to insert another door into the refectory -- apparently decided that the only logical spot for said door was smack dab in the middle of that wall. We probably shouldn't grumble and just consider ourselves lucky that he wasn't engineering windows.
I Heard This Story About "The Last Supper." Is It True?
Do you mean the story in which Leonardo first paints Jesus Christ, after searching many months for the perfect model? And then, years and years later, after painting all 11 other disciples, has an even more grueling search for the perfect model for Judas? And -- amazingly -- the same person ends up being the model for both? That story?
No, it's not true, and for so many reasons (all of which are detailed in a piece at Snopes). It's a neat bit of fiction, though, complete with a moral.
Related FAQ Gallery: A Guide to Leonardo and Art in The Da Vinci Code.