Last Supper

Leonardo mural, painted upon a refectory (dining hall) wall in Santa Maria delle Grazie (church) in Milan, Italy. When commissioned around 1493, Leonardo was the court painter for Ludovico Sforza, governor of Milan; completing it took him four years. Dan Brown calls The Last Supper a fresco—a painting applied to a surface while the plaster is still wet. It is more accurately a mural; Leonardo’s meticulous style was ill-suited for the quick-drying plaster that is the fresco’s defining element. Leonardo experimented with a mixture of oil and tempera paint that he applied to the wall’s dry stone surface. Unfortunately, the technique was not successful, and reports of deterioration came as early as 1517. Many attempts have been made to restore the original colors and details of the image, resulting in a presentation that contains little of the original paint.

The Last Supper is held up by The Da Vinci Code’s Leigh Teabing as proof of the unique relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (242–43); supporting evidence, allegedly, can be found in (1) the absence of a traditional grail or communion cup, (2) the questionable identity of the figure seated at Jesus’ right hand, and (3) the overall composition and obvious symbology of the painting. Sources provided for this interpretation are several books (DVC, 253), one of which—The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ—is an actual publication, a source Brown used for his strange take on Leonardo’s art.

The mural’s subject matter is the Passover Meal that Jesus shared with his disciples prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Two separate accounts of this event are found in the Christian New Testament. The first is told in the gospels of Mark (14:12–25), Matthew (26:17–29), and Luke (22:7–23); here Jesus raises a cup and says, ‘‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’’ (Mark 14:24). Each gospel says that Jesus held up or referred to ‘‘a cup’’ or ‘‘his cup,’’ and there is no reference to a special chalice used by Jesus alone and then passed around the table—nothing suggests that each disciple did not still have his own cup before him as they all participated. The grail image with which contemporary readers are familiar originated in the 1170 poem Perceval, not the New Testament gospels. The lack of a chalice in Leonardo’s painting is an indicator of his thoughtfulness rather than a scheme to present an elaborate code for future generations.

The second description of the Passover Meal is found in John’s gospel (13:21–30). When Sophie Neveu recalls Jesus’ words that have become part of Communion ritual, she’s remembering the accounts found in the Synoptics (DVC, 236); no such words are recorded by John, whose account includes Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (vv. 4–11) followed by the revelation that one disciple will betray him. It is this description of the Passover Meal that most art historians agree is depicted in Leonardo’s famous mural.

The seating in question is fairly clear in John’s record. The disciple ‘‘whom Jesus loved’’ was close enough to lean upon Jesus (21:20); ‘‘this is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true’’ (v. 24). While Mary Magdalene may have been in the room during the meal, she is not one of the disciples in The Last Supper. John’s feminine appearance is not unique to this painting or to this figure; men in Renaissance art often appear angelic, fragile, and somewhat androgynous. Leonardo’s own notes about the placement of figures in the mural affirm without question that the figure seated next to Jesus is John.

Leigh Teabing also finds mystery in Leonardo’s composition, noting that the space between Jesus and John makes the shape of the letter V, which he claims to be a symbol for the female womb. Teabing then highlights the shape of an M formed by the figures of Jesus and the person seated at his right hand; this M, supposedly, must stand for ‘‘Mary Magdalene.’’

Those who carefully view The Last Supper will see that Leonardo does indeed use composition to emphasize the upheaval and uncertainty elicited by Jesus’ announcement that a disciple would betray him. That Jesus is the central figure is emphasized by the openness around him and the clever use of three open windows for added depth. The disciples are grouped in threes and are turned and twisted in various ways to show their confusion. The ‘‘disembodied’’ hand (DVC, 248) Teabing observes actually belongs to Peter and is holding a bread knife. Leonardo’s notes explain that one disciple turns his hand and its knife so quickly that it knocks over a glass of wine; most art historians interpret the knife in Peter’s hand to be a foreshadowing of the sword he will use a few hours later to defend Jesus in the garden (not of his anger toward Jesus’ love for Mary Magdalene [247]). See also Renaissance.

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