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Last Supper (Ultima Cena) by Leonardo da Vinci - Complete Guide and Description

Updated: May 7



Ultima Cena, Leonardo da Vinci


The Ultima Cena or Last Supper, painted by the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most iconic artworks in the world, and yet it lies in such a poor state that centuries of renovations, retouches and restorations have not been enough to preserve its original form and tones.


Why is it so important? Why did it play such a crucial role in giving its author immortal fame? Why is it considered one of the most significant paintings in the Western history of art? And where and how can be seen today? Let's try to answer all these questions!


 

In this article:


Artwork Profile: The Last Supper (Ultima Cena) by Leonardo da Vinci
The Last Supper (Ultima Cena) by Leonardo da Vinci: Bonus Content

 

Artwork Profile: The Last Supper (Ultima Cena) by Leonardo da Vinci



OVERVIEW


Title: Ultima Cena (Italian for Last Supper), Cenacolo Vinciano (Da Vinci's Cenacle)

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Execution: 1494-1498

Commissioner: Ludovico Sforza, known as il Moro, Duke of Milan and the Dominican friars of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan

Style: Italian Renaissance

Subject: Biblical episode of the Last Supper, as narrated by John the Apostle

Technique: Experimental mural fresco (oil tempera on dry gesso, pitch and mastic)

Dimensions: 460x880cm / 181x346in / 15x29ft

Ticket: Yes (full price: 15€)




THE ARTIST AND THE COMMISSION


The Last Supper, one of the most famous works of Leonardo da Vinci, was painted by the Tuscan artist between late 1494 and early 1498 on commission of Ludovico Sforza known as il Moro, duke and lord of Milan, in the refectory of the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.


Santa Maria delle Grazie was chosen by Ludovico il Moro to become his family's mausoleum and a place to celebrate his own power and legacy. Therefore, he wished the entire complex (church and convent) to be finely decorated and up to the latest artistic standards.


The commissioner of the Last Supper, Ludovico il Moro
The commissioner of the Last Supper, Ludovico il Moro

The commission was not the easiest, and not only because of the high expectations the duke put in it.


Leonardo had worked for several years as an apprentice for Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio, had formed himself as a versatile master, skilled in oil painting, drafting and drawing, woodworking and more, and had developed a personal interest in engineering, architecture and mathematics. However, he was not exactly a connoisseur of the fresco technique, which was normally required for church and convent painting.


Moreover, Leonardo, who at the time was in his early forties, was already known for being an ingenious and extraordinary man but was not held in the same high regard as he is today. This was mostly due to the fact that, despite his undoubted talents, he seemed to be unable to finish a job and often left his many projects incomplete, enraging his commissioners.


Despite these premises, Ludovico il Moro nevertheless decided to assign this important commission to him because, although clumsy and not always organized, by 1494 Leonardo had been in Milan for 12 years, and the duke had had many chances to see him at work: among others, while in Milan, Leonardo had previously worked on the Virgins of the Rocks and several painting projects, for the Sforza he had developed a model of an imponent equestrian monument and produced sketches for the Duomo's cupola. Therefore, Ludovico was sure the results, if ever achieved, would have been spectacular.


The subject's choice was hardly Leonardo's but was rather natural for the context involved: refectories, like any other areas of convents and monasteries, could only show religious themes, better if didactical and inspiring for the friars or monks who would see them every single day of their lives.


The Last Supper, the most important meal in the entire New Testament and forerunner of the imminent sacrifice of Jesus, was the most suitable solution for the room where the friars were to consume their every meal.



HISTORY AND CONSERVATION


Leonardo began working on the Last Supper soon after receiving the commission in late 1494.


While in Florence (before moving to Milan), he surely had the chance to see other examples of Last Suppers painted by famous peers and had also recently bought a Bible, making sure to check the official narration of the event right from its main source.


So while the subject was maybe not his primary concern, arranging the scene and painting its protagonists surely was. He spent several months making preparatory studies (a dozen of which we still have) and sketching the figures, as well as deciding which technique could be the best for his intents - as we will see, this latter point would be both the doom and the fortune of the artwork.


Anyway, he must have been slow, as usual. Just to give you some context, on the opposite wall from the Last Supper, Donato Montorfano had started painting his Crucifixion, more or less in late 1494 too. By 1495 he was done, Leonardo would take another two years to do the same. Surely, Montorfano's work was not as innovative nor magnificent as Leonardo's, but in the eye of the commissioner, Montorfano was definitely more reliable and cheaper.


➜ Check out Montorfano's Crucifixion and more details on the refectory here on the guide to Santa Maria delle Grazie!



The technique and conservation issues over time

As we said, Leonardo thought a great deal about which technique to use.


Normally, the fresco would have been the preferred choice and the safest for this kind of commission, but it was also very limiting for the artist: since the painting was to bind with the wall itself, it was applied on a layer of wet plaster and therefore had to be executed quickly, before the plaster could dry out. Also, the artist had to proceed progressively, dividing the scene into squares and painting one after the other. Lastly, not every color could be used, since some pigments were made of materials incompatible with the wet plaster itself.


Leonardo was one easily prone to second thoughts and basically a virtuoso, unable to proceed in a too rational or ordered manner. He would often retouch the figures and elements he painted and need several nuances to create the right tones - the fresco technique was thus not really his kind of thing.


The 15th century was a century of great cultural turmoil and many innovative artistic techniques were being experimented. Leonardo took inspiration from those and thought of what he believed could be a good compromise, that is using an oily tempera on dry layers of plaster, mixing the fresco and his favorite oil painting technique. This would allow him to work on a dry base and use more colors. He also thought of emulsioning the oil-based tempera with egg yolks for a better result, but this would turn particularly fateful for the Last Supper.


Indeed, as soon as the painting was finished in 1498 (on February 4), it was already deteriorating under its creator's eyes and those of the witnesses. Small cracks were visible in the central area.


The Ultima Cena was enthusiastically welcomed by the artistic community for its magnificence and iconographic innovation, however, the experimental technique used by Leonardo proved not feasible: it could not resist humidity and temperature swings, nor the dry plaster allowed the painting to properly fix.


Since the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie stood close to the kitchens (so with frequent temperature changes), was often full of steaming plates and the Last Supper was placed on a thin wall facing the exterior, its fate seemed sealed.


➜ Considering how fast it was deteriorating, a few important copies of the original were made soon after 1498, so that today we can still have a sense of how the Cenacolo should have appeared:


One of the earliest copies of Leonardo's work, made in ca. 1520. Attributed to an artist called Giampietrino, it was the main source used during the 1977-1999 restorations
One of the earliest copies of Leonardo's work, made in ca. 1520. Attributed to an artist called Giampietrino, it was the main source for the 1977-1999 restorations | Image credits. Wikimedia Commons

In fact, history would not go easy on Leonardo's masterpiece.


In 1532, less than forty years after its completion, an eyewitness found it all colorless and blurred. In 1556, the great painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari said that only a dazzled image was visible, while in 1642 it was reported that only traces of the scene could be spotted.


At that point, a long, unlucky series of restorations began. Unfortunately, not only by the 17th century it was truly difficult to grasp the original form and shape, but also the restorers were hardly as skilled as Leonardo, often not even able to understand that they were not dealing with a traditional fresco, clumsily adding new painting to the wall or cleaning the remains in a way that actually brought more damage.


By the early 20th century, when cutting-edge new restoration techniques were becoming popular and the Last Supper could be meticulously studied, the painting was in such a poor state that those who recently saw it thought it was unsalvagable. By then, colors were all altered, figures hardly attributable to Leonardo, and the layer of painting threatened to disintegrate.


In between the refectory had been used as a stable and military barracks and the Last Supper had been mocked and had become the target of bored soldiers throughout dominations and conquests.


Last Supper as seen from the refectory
Last Supper as seen from the refectory | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

The 1943 bombings and the last major interventions

Despite some good research on the Last Supper in the early 1900s, the World Wars slowed down any restoration processes and in 1943 Santa Maria delle Grazie was bombed by the Allies.


The convent got heavily hit and the refectory partially destroyed but, fortunately, the friars had been scrupulous enough to protect their masterpiece with two layers of sandbags and steel tubes. The Last Supper thus survived the bombings, but the remaining refectory (Crucifixion on the other side partially excluded) didn't. This meant a long exposition to weather conditions and impossible temperatures for the Ultima Cena, which reached the 1970s completely ruined.


In 1977 it was decided that the Cenacolo was definitely in need of a drastic renovation or would otherwise be lost forever. A much-acclaimed art restorer of the time, Giuseppina "Pinin" Brambilla was appointed to the quest and, together with a highly-specialized team, she began a major intervention that would last until 1999.


The team carefully studied the painting, pinpointed all successive layers added by the clumsy restorers and proceeded to remove anything not attributable to Leonardo, when possible. In the process, they even made some amazing discoveries:


  • The hole for the nail, used for setting the vanishing point (the point where all lines used to create the perspective in the painting converged), was discovered near the right temple of Jesus.

  • The feet of the Apostles emerged from oblivion (but not those of Jesus, irremediably lost because cut off by the door).

  • The ceiling was understood in its original version - it would have been in the tones of red and blue - and so were many details such as the Apostles' robes and the food on the table.

  • John the Apostle's face was deemed the most retouched and almost fully lost in Leonardo's form.


Brambilla's team realized that circa 50% of Leonardo's original brushstrokes were still traceable, and decided to highlight them by painting all lost parts in a natural watercolor. This, while we are now able to confidently look at Leonardo's original work, also prevents us from having a general view of the painting, which will forever look fragmented and blurred.


Since 1999, and thanks to Brambilla's work, the Last Supper has been open to visitors and can be seen, although many strict rules were introduced to preserve it: visits cannot last more than 15 minutes and only small groups can enter at a time. Also, since a very recent intervention, a controlled microclimate has been created to stop the natural deterioration of the masterpiece.


The resulting experience can be a bit rushed and maybe not the most comfortable, but we surely feel the power of history and time and how we, after all, seem not to be able to stop their course!


The Last Supper and the three lunettes with coats of arms - at the bottom is the door that cut off Jesus's feet
The Last Supper and the three lunettes with coats of arms - at the bottom is the door that cut off Jesus's feet | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons


DESCRIPTION


The Ultima Cena, or Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci depicts the exact moment when Jesus Christ announces to his twelve Apostles (disciples) that one of them has betrayed him and the general confusion that follows that very moment:


"Amen, Amen, I say to you, one of you shall betray me" (John 13:21)

It appears as a large-size painting (460x880cm / 181x346in / 15x29ft), which main scene is inscribed in a rectangle and which additions, three deteriorated coats of arms with botanical details, are placed in three lunettes above. Between them is a ribbon frame.


The main scene is interrupted at the bottom, in the middle, by a now walled-up door, added after the completion of the painting (presumably in the 17th century) and that had therefore damaged it, losing Jesus's feet.


The painting is located on the short wall, facing north, of the refectory (dining hall) of the Dominican convent in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.


The scene, religious-themed, includes 13 figures, Jesus and twelve Apostles, a dining table with food and drinks on it, three open windows in the background, a bare geometrical architecture, and tapestries on the side walls. All figures are sitting on the same side of the table, facing the viewers but not looking at them, all focused on an ongoing dialogue.


The scene is created with a precise use of perspective, giving a sense of depth and distributing all elements and figures on the surface so that together they form a perfect composition. Mathematical calculations were involved in the project and Leonardo, who was a mathematician himself, carefully designed the scene, dividing it into portions and separating the figures into groups:


  • 1st group (extreme left) - St. Bartholomew, St. James the Less, and St. Andrew: Bartholomew looks astonished and moves as if unsure of what he has just heard, Andrew has his hands lifted as if saying: "It wasn't me", and James reaches out to both his neighbours, thus engaging with the next group.

  • 2nd group (left) - St. Peter, Judas Iscariot, and St. John the Evangelist: a young-looking John keeps his hands on the table and leans toward Peter, who is whispering something in his ear. Peter holds a knife in his hand that was used to cut his food and is now pointed at Judas' back. Judas appears as the smallest figure, the most unimportant, leaning back to the shadows, but he is actually the traitor: in one hand he has a small sack with the thirty pieces of silver that were his compensation for betraying Jesus, with the other he greedily grasps a piece of bread.

Detail of Judas Iscariot
Detail of Judas Iscariot

  • Jesus (center): Jesus stands alone isolated, perfectly centered and forming a triangle with his body. The triangle is a symbol of the Trinity, of the Almighty, and is used to represent his divinity. Also, the window behind him makes up a halo of sky and his wistful look betrays both his imminent sacrifice and his godliness.


Detail of Jesus in the Last Supper
Detail of Jesus in the Last Supper

  • 3rd group (right) - St. Thomas, St. James the Great, St. Philip: the three Apostles here form a pyramidal composition. James, in the middle, makes a theatrical gesture of who, having nothing to hide, offers himself for scrutiny. Thomas is behind him, stunned, and points up one finger to show his incredulity and thirst for truth. On the right is Philip with his hands on his chest, proclaiming his innocence.

  • 4th group (extreme right) - St. Matthew, St. Jude and St. Simon: Matthew points to Jesus with his hands and looks at his close neighbors in disbelief. The dialogue rotates all around the hand gestures of the Apostles.


Last Supper with names of the 13 figures


On the table is a white tablecloth with blue stripes, a reference to the Jewish people (as were Jesus and the Apostles). Bread loaves and glasses are all geometrically distributed to support the perspective scheme.


Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci
Detail of the tablecloth


The above lunettes were painted by Leonardo first thing in 1494-95 and contain the coats of arms of the commissioner Ludovico Sforza (central one, biggest and best preserved) and his sons. It is executed in a rather traditional way for the time, with no specificity except for the great botanical details.


Lunetess with the coats of arms (Ludovico's one is central)
Lunetess with the coats of arms (Ludovico's one is central) | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons


THE SUBJECT


As we mentioned, in his Ultima Cena Leonardo portrayed the Last Supper, a biblical episode where Jesus gathers with the twelve Apostles to dine one last time before heading to the cross. During this supper, Jesus reveals that someone among the group has betrayed him, meaning that one person (alas Judas Iscariot) has disclosed his identity to the Romans, who were chasing Jesus, thus condemning him to death.


Like many other events in the New Testament, the Last Supper is described by all four Gospels but the versions slightly differ, especially when it comes to the Gospel of John, which was written a few years later.


However, all Gospels agree in saying that the Last Supper took place at Passover or slightly before it (Passover is a Jewish holiday celebrating the escape of the Jewish people from Egypt, where they were being enslaved), that all Apostles were present, and that during that supper Jesus announced the betrayal, foretelling his own end.


What the Gospels do not say is the name itself, Last Supper, which was given to the important event later on, to easily identify it.


What they do not always report is whether Jesus actually revealed the identity of the betrayer, as well as the performance of one of the most important rites of Christianity, the Eucharist, which is not included by John.


Leonardo, as it was custom in the 15th century, followed the Gospel of John to paint his Last Supper, and this is why, despite putting bread and wine on the table, he did not paint a Jesus actually performing the Eucharist but only announcing the betrayal, with all the confusion that followed.



WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?


There are so many reasons why the Last Supper has become one of the most popular artworks of all time and a mainstay in art history!


First of all, of course, the artist, his extraordinary mind and genius, and the innovations he never failed to add to his every work. As we have seen, the Last Supper, despite not being exactly a successful experiment, is the perfect mirror of an era where minds like Leonardo's flourished more often than usual and where experimentation and curiosity would bring humanity to great achievement in the fields of art, science, architecture and engineering.


The technique itself, although disastrous, gave way to that long and intricate series of restorations, interventions and mass attention that alone has become part of history, proving how much attention and care people are capable of giving to a piece of art.


The scene in the way Leonardo painted it in the Last Supper is unique for his time and would, together with his whole work, inspire the generations of artists to come, who would rush to copy the Cenacolo.


In fact, Leonardo took a subject that was rather static and normally destined to silent places where severe religious rules were followed and turned it into a dynamic scene. In his Last Supper, the Apostles are quite traditional in their poses and gestures but, unlike any other Ultima Cena of the century, they seem alive, and their emotions are not only recognizable but even perceivable. The poses and the expressions betray a long and careful study Leonardo did on actual men he met on the streets of Milan and Florence and that he had been drawing for years when he started working on this masterpiece.


Last but not least, here Leonardo took the fixation for perspective and mathematical rules applied to art to the next level, showing his true nature as a mathematician and engineer.


To follow perspective parameters and to give the whole scene a sense of depth and unity, he changed the traditional iconography of the Last Supper in at least two ways:

  1. He changed the position of Judas, who was normally and since ancient times depicted on the other side of the table, alone, to symbolize his non-sanctity and leave no doubt to the viewer on who the traitor was.

  2. He changed the depiction of John the Evangelist, who was normally shown as a young unbearded boy (and this Leonardo kept) leaning over Jesus' bosom, asleep. In his Last Supper John is awake and leans toward St. Peter, who is whispering in his ear. By doing so, Leonardo left Jesus alone, perfectly centered to form the triangle of Trinity.




WHERE AND HOW TO VISIT


Today, the Last Supper can be visited by purchasing a ticket to the Cenacolo Vinciano Museum, which entrance stands right beside the façade of Santa Maria delle Grazie church, in Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.


Due to the extremely fragile conditions of the painting, your visit can only last 15 minutes and groups of no more than 35 people can enter at a time.


To book your visit, you need to plan everything quite in advance, since tickets only become available every three months and sell out very quickly!


Here on the complete guide to Santa Maria delle Grazie and the Cenacolo Museum, you can find all information and details regarding opening hours, pricing options, reservation process, how to reach your destination and more!


Santa Maria delle Grazie church, part of the complex that hosts the Last Supper - entrance to the Cenacolo Museum is from the light building on the left
Santa Maria delle Grazie church, part of the complex that hosts the Last Supper - entrance to the Cenacolo Museum is from the light building on the left



 


The Last Supper (Ultima Cena) by Leonardo da Vinci: Bonus Content



THEORIES AND CONSPIRACIES


The Last Supper has always been quite famous but, if possible, it became even more popular after one book, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, was published in 2003 and became the talk of the town.


I was too young at the time but I vaguely remember how much chattering bursted around the book, its story and theories and how fervent was the whole situation when this sensational publication was turned into a blockbuster movie with Tom Hanks playing Robert Langdon - even my mother, not exactly a fan of art history, got all excited and rushed her way to the theater....


Da Vinci Code made all its plot rotate around the work of Leonardo and so many impossible stories were invented on that occasion. Among them there was one focusing on the Last Supper, supposing that John the Evangelist - the young feminine boy sitting near Jesus and leaning towards Peter - was actually not John but Mary Magdalene. According the Dan Brown's theory, Leonardo disguised Mary Magdalene as John in the Last Supper because he believed she should have been present during that meal, as she was actually Jesus's wife.


John as Mary Magdalene: is it possible that Leonardo portrayed Mary Magdalene and not St John in his Last Supper? No!


John indeed shows a rather feminine look, is unbearded and at a quick glance may even be mistaken for a woman. However, the iconography of the 1400s wanted John depicted in that exact way and, moreover, being unbearded was absolutely the norm for the period. Paintings, especially when religious-themed, followed strict rules that were needed to make the subjects immediately recognizable and that could change according to epochs and tastes.


When Leonardo was alive, that was simply the way St. John was portrayed - and marked androgynous looks for boys were also much of Leonardo's style.


Detail of John in the Last Supper
Detail of John in the Last Supper

Leonardo worked for an important commissioner and painted in the refectory of a Dominican convent, monitored and surveilled by those who were paying him. He introduced a great deal of innovation and novelty in his Last Supper but going against the biblical narration (where no mention of Mary Magdalene as the the wife of Jesus exists) would have been too much even for him!


Symbolism in the Last Supper: as we said, the Ultima Cena was created with the employment of mathematical and geometrical rules, and everything in the painting is accurately designed. Of course, this kind of scheme has been easily associated with symbolism and esoterism, attributing to Leonardo a willingness to add hidden codes and messages in his painting. Might this be actually true? No.


Leonardo lived at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, in a moment in history when maths, algebra and geometry were once again heavily used in art and architecture as they had been in ancient times. This "rediscovery" created a rush for innovative techniques and methods and an omnipresent search for perspective and uniformity. Leonardo, who was an engineer and mathematician, could not exempt himself from applying this to his every work!


Elements like the triangular shape that Jesus forms with his body to symbolize the Trinity were absolutely normal and well-understood by 15th-century viewers. Also, Leonardo was a polymath engaged in many different activities and fields, and his knowledge ranged from astronomy to botany, from engraving to music - he could have well decided to add some off-topic mentions in his works but, again, this hardly had any hidden or second purpose.


Botanical details in the lunettes above the Last Supper
Botanical details in the lunettes above the Last Supper



 



References:
  • Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper, Walker & Company 2012.

  • Pietro Mariani, Roberto Cecchi, Germano Mulazzani, Il Cenacolo. Guida al Refettorio e a Santa Maria delle Grazie, Electa 1999.

  • Federico Zeri, L'Ultima Cena di Leonardo, Rizzoli 1997.



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