Leonardo, The Last Supper – Smart Story (2023)

Leonardo da Vinci,last scene, Öl, Tempera, Fresko, 1495-1498 (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Mailand)

Leonardo imagined the desire that arose in the minds of the apostles to know who betrayed their master and managed to express it. Thus, on each face one can see love, fear, indignation or pain because one cannot understand the meaning of Christ; and this causes no less admiration than the obstinate hatred and treachery seen in Judas.Jorge Vasari,artist lives, 1568; Translated by Jorge Bull

Leonardo da Vinci,last scene, Oleo, Tempera, Fresko, 1495–1498 (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Mailand; Photo:Stephen Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


the theme oflast sceneesof Christlast meal with his apostles before Judas identified Christ to the authorities who arrested him. The Last Supper (an Passover)seder) is remembered for two events:

Felipe (detail), Leonardo da Vinci,last scene, Oleo, Tempera, Fresko, 1495–1498 (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Mailand; Photo:Stephen Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Christ says to his apostles, "One of you will betray me," and the apostles respond, each according to his own personality. Regarding the Gospels, Leonardo portrays Philip asking, "Lord, is it I?" Christ replies, "Whoever puts his hand into the bowl with me will betray me" (Matthew 26). We see Christ and Judas simultaneously pick up a plate that is between them, even as Judas defensively backs away.

Leonardo also represents Christ blessing the bread and saying to the apostles: “Take, eat; this is my body ”and he blessed the wine and said:“ Drink it all; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26). These words are the founding moment of the sacrament of the Eucharist (the miraculous transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ).

Detail, Leonardo da Vinci,last scene, Oleo, Tempera, Fresko, 1495–1498 (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Mailand; Photo:Stephen Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

identified apostles

by Leonardolast sceneit is dense with symbolic references. Attributes identify each apostle. For example, Judas Iscariot is recognized for approaching a plaque next to Christ (Matthew 26) and for taking a bag containing his reward for identifying Christ to the authorities the next day. Peter, sitting next to Judas, holds a knife in his right hand and indicates that Peter will cut off a soldier's ear as he tries to protect Christ from arrest.

References to Celestial

Christ (detail), Leonardo da Vinci,last scene, Oleo, Tempera, Fresko, 1495–1498 (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Mailand; Photo:Stephen Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The balanced composition is anchored by an equilateral triangle formed by the body of Christ. It sits under an arched pediment that, when completed, traces a circle. These ideal geometric forms relate to the Renaissance interest in Neoplatonism (an element ofhumanist renaissanceaspects of Greek philosophy reconciled with Christian theology). In his allegory "The Cave", theAncient Greecethe philosopher Plato emphasized the imperfection of the terrestrial realm. The geometry used by the Greeks to express celestial perfection was used by Leonardo to celebrate Christ as the incarnation of heaven on earth.

Leonardo portrayed a green landscape behind the windows. Often interpreted as paradise, it has been implied that this heavenly sanctuary can only be reached through Christ.

The twelve apostles are arranged in four groups of three and there are also three windows. The number three is often a reference to the Holy Trinity in Catholic art. In contrast, the number four is important in the classical tradition (eg Plato's four virtues).

André del Castano,The last supper, 1447, fresco, 453 x 975 cm (refectory of the monastery of Sant'Apollonia, today Museo di Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia, Florence; photo:Stephen Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Last Supper in the Early Renaissance

Andrea del Castagnolast sceneit's typical of thembeginning of the renaissance. The use ofstraight line perspectivein combination with ornate shapes like sphinxes at the end of the bench and marble plaques, they distract from the spirituality of the event. In contrast, Leonardo simplified the architecture by removing unnecessary and distracting details so that the architecture could increase spirituality. The window and the arched pediment even suggest a halo. By bringing all the figures together, Leonardo uses the table as a barrier to separate the viewer's spiritual realm from the earthly world. Paradoxically, Leonardo's emphasis on spirituality leads to a more naturalistic painting than Castagno's.


During World War II, in August 1943, theallieslaunched a massive bombing campaign in and around Milan. The explosions and subsequent fires killed more than 700 people and destroyed many of the city's most important buildings and monuments, including a significant part of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Miraculously, the wall with the painting survived, presumably because it was propped up with sandbags and mattresses, but the dining hall ceiling was torn off and the other walls were decimated. For a few months thelast sceneremained exposed to the weather, just covered with a tarp, until the cafeteria(the dining room of the monastery, wherelast scenewas painted)It was rebuilt and a team of restorers began to preserve and restore the painting.

But Leonardo's work was in disrepair long before bombs threatened to completely destroy it. Shortly after its completion on February 9, 1498, it began to fall into disrepair. Striving for more detail and luminosity than traditional frescoes, Leonardo covered the wall with a double layer of dry plaster. He then added a lead white primer, in a manner reminiscent of panel painting, to bring out the shine of the oil and tempera applied to it. This experimental technique allowed for exceptional brightness and color accuracy, but because the paint is on a thin exterior wall, it magnified the effects of moisture and the paint did not adhere properly to the wall. Mold grew between the paint and the surface, and the presence of moisture caused constant peeling. For the second half of the 16th century, Giovanni Paulo Lomazzo confirmed that "the painting is completely ruined". The first restoration works took place from 1726 and several others followed over the centuries.

Over the past five hundred years, the state of the painting has been seriously affected by these early restoration efforts, as well as its location (the church is in an area subject to heavy flooding); the materials and techniques used by Leonardo; occupation by Napoleon's army (which kept horses in the mess hall and supposedly threw bricks at the apostles' heads); humidity, dust and air pollution; and more recently, the cumulative effect of tourist accumulation.

Bartholomew, James Minor and Andrew (detail), Leonardo da Vinci,last scene, Oleo, Tempera, Fresko, 1495–1498 (Santa Maria delle Grazie, Mailand; Photo:Stephen Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

After it was destroyed by bombing during World War II, restorers covered the paint with a thick layer of shellac (a type of resin) to counteract moisture problems and prevent the paint from chipping. They then proceeded to scrape off some of the layers of paint that had been applied over the years, revealing what they believed to be Leonardo's original brushstrokes. Finally, in 1977, the Italian government partnered with private companies to fund a major project to fully uncover the original painting. Chief restorer Pinin Brambilla Barcilon took more than twenty years to complete the work, meticulously scraping the surface of the painting inch by inch using surgical tools and a microscope. When the fully restored painting was officially unveiled in its new, air-conditioned environment in 1999, it was met with critical acclaim from around the world.twowhether now faithful to the original or irrevocably deformed, as only about 42.5% of the current surface is Leonardo's work, 17.5% has been lost and the remaining 40% has been added by previous restorers. (Most of this finishing work is found in the tapestries and ceiling painting.)

ANDlast sceneis an excellent example of how public and professional attitudes towards restoration efforts are not only frequently contested, but change over time. While restorations in the 19th century and earlier focused on painting to give the illusion of a perfectly finished work, modern approaches tend to reveal missing parts and make any additions visible and distinct. The current version oflast sceneIt bears little resemblance to what Leonardo created in 1498, but it makes the painting's wonderful and troubled history visible.

health statistics

Number of years after completion that deterioration was observed: 18
Number of bombs that hit the cafeteria: 1
Number of years it will take to complete the most recent conservation project: 22
Number of years it took Leonardo to complete the painting: 4
Number of research produced during the conservation project: 60
Number of hours dedicated to the conservation project: 50,000
Percentage of lost surface: 17.5
Percentage of painted surface in the last seven restorations: 40
Percentage of the surface painted by Leonardo: 42.5

backstory of dr. Naraelle Hohensee

additional resources

Rei Ross,Leonardo and the Last Supper(Walker & Company, 2012)

Critical evaluation of the restoration by ArtWatchUK

"After a 20-year purification, a brighter and clearer 'Last Supper' emerges"Los New York Times, May 27, 1999

Seite der UNESCO for Santa Maria delle Grazie

UNESCO-sponsored video on the recent restoration

Final scene of Universal Leonardo

The Crucifixion and Passion of Christ in Italian Painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Art History Timeline

360-Grad-Panorama of the Refektoriums of Santa Maria della Grazie

British Library Leonardo da Vinci Online Gallery

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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More photos from Smarthistory…

Cite this page as: Dr. Steve Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Leonardo,last scene," Emsmart story, August 9, 2015, accessed February 6, 2023,https://smarthistory.org/leonardo-la-ultima-cena/.

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