The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper for his patron, Ludovico Sforza, from 1495 to 1498. Situated on the north wall of the monks’ refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, it is one of the most famous paintings of a biblical subject in Western history.

The Last Supper depicts Jesus Christ celebrating the Passover meal with the twelve apostles just before Judas betrayed him to the Romans. According to Christian theology, this event marked the first celebration of the Eucharist, for it was at this meal that Jesus transformed the bread and wine at the table into his body and blood.

All the figures are arranged on one side of the table, which acts as a sort of barrier separating the sacred event from the living monks who ate their meals in the refectory before the picture. From left to right appear the disciples Bartholomew, James the Minor, Andrew, Peter, Judas, and John. Jesus appears in the exact center. He is followed by Thomas, James the Major, Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus, and Simon.

According to the sixteenth-century author Giorgio Vasari, who wrote biographies of the most famous Italian artists of the Renaissance, da Vinci’s fresco was meant to capture the precise moment of Jesus Christ’s pronouncement, “One of you is about to betray me” (Matthew 26:21). The apostles are thus shown reacting to His words, each one expressing a different emotion—denial, doubt, rage, disbelief, or love.

In older depictions of the scene by other artists, Judas had been depicted isolated from the rest of the group, either seated alone on the opposite side of the table or stripped of a halo. Da Vinci distinguished him from the other apostles in a more subtle manner, focusing on his psychological state rather than on external attributes.

The mural began deteriorating not long after it was made. Da Vinci, who worked with painstaking precision, had not used traditional fresco techniques because they required painters to work with great speed. Instead he experimented with an oil-and-tempera-based medium, which proved to be highly unstable; cracks and mildew appeared within a few years. Moreover, a doorway was cut through the wall in 1652, destroying the area where Christ’s feet once appeared. Attempts at restoration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had only partial success. During World War II, the refectory was struck by a bomb that caused further damage. In 1978, a major restoration campaign was undertaken by the Italian government and overseen for more than twenty years by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon. The newly restored fresco was reopened to the public in 1999 after the refectory was equipped with climate control.

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