Leonardo’s Last Supper: Why it’s Magnificent
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is one of his most admired and recognizable art works. It is iconic, has been reproduced endlessly, parodied, and woven into conspiracy theories. Sometimes we’ve seen an artwork so many times we no longer see the qualities of the masterpiece. We may not be familiar with its place in history, or know why the art challenged the status quo.
Leonardo’s painting is full of symbolic meaning, but perhaps not what you think. There are no secret messages about mysterious societies and hidden clues like Dan Brown wrote about in The Da Vinci Code (2003). This fictional story is so persuasive I have had people ask me if The Da Vinci Code is true. Without a doubt, it is a very entertaining book. However, Jesus did not impregnant Mary Magdalene, and she is not disguised as an apostle. The Roman Catholic church has not been hiding their offspring, nor is St. John disguised as a woman. The apostle St. Peter did not contrive to hide the evidence of their relationship and child. Leonardo did not belong to secret societies such as the Priory of Sion or Knights Templar. He was much too busy writing in his notebooks and studying nature.
Learning to appreciate a masterpiece takes less imagination and more attention to careful observation. The biblical story and visual codes of the late fifteenth century have been mostly lost on us, which lends artwork to creative interpretations. A good place to start is with the gospels and what they tell us happened at that meal, then look at how Leonardo interpreted the story, and his creative process.
The Story of the Last Supper
All four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) tell the story of Jesus’ last meal with his twelve apostles. There are some differences in the texts. John’s account is the longest, almost three to four times longer than the other versions. After the meal, Jesus will be arrested and crucified the next day. Three days later he will resurrect from the tomb. The Last Supper is remembered by Christians on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday.
Jesus summoned his disciples to commemorate the Passover meal upstairs in a house, often referred to as the “upper room.” Four important events happen when they gathered. Jesus conducted the first communion, and told his disciples that he will go back to the Father, but return, which caused confusion and disbelief. He also predicted that one of them will betray him (Judas) which will lead to Jesus' death, and one will soon lie about following Jesus (Peter). They are shocked to hear this. They asked each other, “Am I the one (Matthew 26:22)?” The bread and wine consumed at the meal are the foundation of the Eucharist, as Jesus blessed the bread, broke it into pieces and said, “take it and eat it, for this is my body (Matthew 26:26).”
When asked who would betray him, Jesus responded, I will dip the bread in a dish and give it to the man, identifying him. Judas is the recipient of the bread (John 13:18-30). Judas Iscariot had been cooperating with the chief priests to turn Jesus over to the authorities for thirty silver coins, and Judas awaited a moment when the crowds of followers were not around.
The gospel of John includes a sermon or farewell discussion (13:34-17:25) in which he beseeches them to “love one another…love each other as I have loved you,” the essence of Jesus’ teaching. This lengthy passage implores God the Father to watch over his followers and for his followers to prepare for the Holy Spirit. He advises them that they will have sorrow with his death, as he returns to the Father, but there will be joy when they are reunited with Jesus. The disciples asked, “Whatever is he saying? What is this about ‘going to the Father’? We don’t know what he means (John17:17-18).”
Judas departed the Passover meal early to alert the authorities. The remaining disciples questioned Jesus and each other, stunned that their life following Jesus will soon end and take on an unknown dimension. Jesus then went to pray in the garden of Gethsemane. Judas appeared with an angry mob of soldiers who arrested him. Peter confronted them and slashed the High Priest’s servant’s ear in a rage. Later, Peter is questioned about his following of Jesus, which he denied three times, fulfilling the prophecy.
Two Last Suppers
An artist has different narrative and symbolic components to choose from when representing this event. Bread, wine, a glass, an interior room, a dinner table, a knife, the apostles, emotion or drama. Many of these are employed by Leonardo, with great care and forethought. Gesture, facial expression, placement of individuals, the table setting, perspective, and architecture of the painted room all play into the composition and what Leonardo strove to achieve. Leonardo’s gift was nuance.
In order to understand Leonardo’s place in art history let’s look at two representations of Last Suppers painted prior to his masterpiece. First of all, an artist must decide how to arrange thirteen men around a table while telling a story which is critical to the passion of Christ. Which part of the gospel should be represented? Most painters chose a long table with one apostle seated apart. The most often represented moment in art is the announcement of the betrayal. It’s a natural comparison between good and evil.
Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper was painted for a monastery in the room where they take their meals, which is the same setting for Leonardo’s painting. Only a few of Jesus’ followers are identifiable. Judas sits separately, a few have a gesture of questioning, but on the whole, this looks like a rather dull gathering. A young and beardless John is shown next to Jesus, dozing off, as he is frequently represented. Peter is on the right of Jesus with a knife. The moment is immediately after Jesus proclaims that someone will betray him, but not at the moment of breaking the bread, or giving some to Judas. It is a moment of suspense and suspended action.
Ghirlandaio was a sought-after Florentine fresco painter who completed many large religious cycles. He painted the outdoor scene in the upper room beautifully with trees, birds, and a peacock. The architecture frames the composition. A contemporary of Botticelli, Ghirlandaio (1449-94) brought a naturalism to his figures along with an attentive use of color for balance. His Last Supper is traditional, yet reflects Florentine Renaissance artistic values.
Ghirlandaio’s contemporary painted a different version just a year later in the Sistine Chapel. Cosimo Rosselli chose a semi-circular table; however, he has included extraneous people, objects, and decorative elements. A cat, two dogs, two men standing at each side of the scene, and wine containers provide more decorative elements. The architectural components have ornate gold decorations that creates a different atmosphere, dignified for the event and for the room in the Vatican.
The focus is again on Judas, sitting opposite Jesus, who look directly at each other. There is no glimpse into the outside world. Instead, three panels above the dinner scene foretell, from left to right, praying in the garden, the arrest and attack on the servant, and crucifixion. Judas and Peter are featured directly above in the act of betrayal and attack. As if we couldn’t tell which one is Judas, a little devil appears on his shoulder, and his halo is no longer golden, but darkens. Jesus appears to be holding a piece of bread while a gold chalice is placed between Judas and Jesus, contrasting the good of the Eucharist with the evil of Judas.
In both these paintings the betrayal is the focal point. The threesome of John, the beloved disciple of pure goodness, Jesus, and the evil of Judas form a moral grouping. Rosselli (1430-1507) paints a traditional central Italian Last Supper. Rosselli was chosen by Pope Sixtus IV to paint this scene on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, alongside contemporaries such as Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and others. Largely forgotten now, he painted in a more conservative style, popular with patrons.
What Leonardo did Differently
Leonardo envisioned the Last Supper scene in a different way. The painting is viewed out of context today. The monks of Santa Maria delle Grazie would eat their meals in this dining room, probably in silence, and contemplate Leonardo’s scene and the other paintings in the room. They had plenty of time to think it over in their lifetimes.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, detail, 1495-97/98, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy, Pixabay, open access.
Leonardo rejected a number of elements in previous formats and challenged the viewer to discern what is happening. His painting isn’t only about good versus evil, its more than that. The closer one looks, the more one sees. To simplify the composition he excluded decorative elements, and moved the table up closer to the viewer. This makes the figures’ expressions key to the painting.
He ingeniously groups the twelve into four groups of three, so on each side of Jesus there are two small groups. This arrangement allowed Leonardo to put his studies of human emotion and facial expression to good use in each apostle. No longer is this a somber dinner, but a moment of heated discussion. Looking carefully, the groups of three on the far left and right are spaced father apart, while the inner two groups next to Jesus are tighter together, forming triangular mini-compositions. This deft solution breaks up the monotony of thirteen men sitting in a row at a table, and places more emphasis on the one figure not in motion. The use of groups of three can also refer to the sacred Trinity, while four refers to the four gospels. Three plus four equals seven, the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The view from the upper room is efficiently rendered into three rectangular windows, with the middle window and its atmospheric blue sky framing the figure of Jesus. The four painted tapestries on each wall recede into the background, provided perspective that focuses on Jesus. All orthogonal lines converge on Jesus. He’s done away with the halos. Each figure has individual features and gestures; no two are alike. Each group of three is unlike the other groups. If you imagine a horizontal line across the top of the heads of the thirteen, there are height variations in Leonardo’s painting, whereas there is a static level in the other renditions. Some apostles stand, others lean in, or reach out. Similarly, if you look only at their hands from left to right there is a variety of gesture. This are real people communicating with each other. Leonardo used science and nature to compose the painting, and is less reliant, if at all, on any religious beliefs he held.
There are three areas of significance when the painting is read from left to right: the six figures on our left, Jesus, and the men on our right. The gestures of the men foreshadow the passion, Eucharist, and resurrection. To the right of Jesus (our left), Peter grabs a knife in anticipation of his outburst. Judas holds on tightly to his bag of silver. He also is the only apostle who does not react in shock to the announcement of the betrayal. In his effort to grab his money bag he has knocked over a salt cellar by his right wrist. Jesus referred to his apostles as the salt of the earth. The overturned salt refers to Judas breaking with the apostles.
Giampietrino Rizzoli and Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, The Last Supper, c. 1515-20, Royal Academy of Arts, London, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Some scholars propose that the figures on Jesus’ left refer to John’s sermon, after the betrayal announcement. Thomas, who will not believe Jesus resurrected from the dead, holds up the finger he will press into Jesus’ wound in disbelief. The three at the end of the table (Simon, Thaddeus, and Matthew) are huddled in their own discussion, not focused on Judas. It appears they could be reflecting John’s gospel by saying, “What did he just say? What is this about returning to the Father?”
In the center, Jesus neither breaks the bread, nor lifts the wine glass. Leonardo ambiguously refers to the Eucharist with Jesus’ gesture towards the bread with his left hand while the right motions towards the wine. Judas’ gesture mimics Jesus’ and creates a tension in the space between their two hands. In between their hands is the dish Jesus will dip the bread in before handing it to Judas.
Leonardo created a snapshot of the Passover dinner that is not time specific, but references all that has happened and will happen. It’s not a narrative story, but subtlety refers to betrayal, divinity, and redemption. For some this analysis may appear to be splitting hairs, but the intent is to understand how Leonardo re-defined a traditional visual interpretation. In that sense, his Last Supper is a very modern painting.
Leonardo’s Creative Process
To say that Leonardo worked quickly and efficiently is far from the truth. He contemplated and thought deeply about the effect he wanted to create. He made sketches of the composition, individual expressions, and the gestures. In his writing he advised against repeating the same patterns and facial types because the figures should reflect nature. He worked carefully and had no problem with changing his mind if it perfected the result. The painting is large, but not massive, measuring 15’ x 28’, and it took him two to three years to paint it. (As a point of comparison, Michelangelo painted the Sistine ceiling frescoes in four years.) An eyewitness stated that Leonardo wouldn’t work on it for days, sometimes contemplated it for a few hours, then would add a brush stroke or two.
Leonardo felt most comfortable, and successful, working with oil paints. He had never done a wall painting in fresco before, and hadn’t done anything this large before. Prior to the Last Supper he had gained a reputation as a portrait painter, and inventive engineer. He had worked in Milan since 1481, primarily for the Sforza family, until their downfall in 1499. When Lodovico Sforza commissioned a wall painting for the dining hall of the monastery, Leonardo carefully considered the medium he would use. He was keen on the medium of oil painting to softly blend shapes and forms as there were no hard outlined figures in his work. Fresco just doesn’t lend itself to that.
Leonardo decided to take a risk using an egg tempera hybrid technique on the wall. The primer consisted of chalk and glue base over which he applied a thick egg tempera. He drew a thin outline of black paint over the primary coat to indicate the shape of the figures. Egg tempera is used on a wood panel, as this was the first and probably the last time it was used on a wall. Fresco painters apply pigment to wet plaster, working on one section at a time, with no chance for a do-over. That did not suit his style. He also was not the kind of artist who worked by section, instead he liked to see how the work evolved and needed the ability to go back and adjust. He did this by painting over the dry sections, which did not adhere well. In addition, the pigments he used were incompatible with traditional fresco technique.
There is a nail hole just to the right side of Jesus’ temple (our left) which indicates the vanishing point for perspective. Scored into the top section are lines indicating where to paint the structured ceiling. Leonardo chose to converge the perspective on Jesus. The perspective in the painting is not an extension of the refectory room; instead, the painting exists in its own spatial dimensions. Leonardo knowingly sacrificed some realistic elements for the greater good and in order to emphasize the gesture and emotion. There are a few elements that do not adhere to reality. The table is way too short in length to accommodate thirteen men. Jesus would be a giant if he stood up. Most of the apostles are outsized compared to the dimensions of the table and ceiling height. However, these do not detract from the overall effect, due to Leonardo’s superb handling of the composition.
To truly appreciate the Last Supper and his innovations, one needs to look closely and carefully at the painting, which is difficult in its poor condition. Art historians are perplexed as to why he would use unproven wall painting techniques when he was a perfectionist recording nature and details. Leonardo had never trained in fresco. Observers recorded the deterioration of the work within his lifetime. By the late 1550s, it was practically disappearing. In 1568 Giorgio Vasari described the painting looking like a stain. Future re-paintings didn’t help. Contemporaries immediately recognized the genius of the artwork. Numerous copies were made, including prints, engravings, and paintings. The Last Supper was the artwork that propelled him into fame.
It is nothing short of a miracle that the painting survived at all. The monastery survived a direct bombing hit in World War II. Previous to the war a door was added which involved cutting out a large section of the wall, including Jesus’ feet. (What were they thinking?)
If You Visit
The exterior of Santa Maria delle Grazie looks like a rather plain red brick church in the heart of Milan. The interior is lovely, but most come for Leonardo. About a twenty-minute walk from Milan’s glorious gothic Duomo, the church faces an open piazza in a busy urban center with motor scooters, buses, and cars whizzing by.
About 460,000 visitors a year saw the Last Supper (pre-pandemic). At this writing, advance reservations are necessary and appointments are timed. Visitors are ushered into a long room for a short fifteen minutes facing the painting on the far north wall. The next group of thirty-three visitors are then allowed to visit, for the bargain price of E15. Tickets are available up to three months in advance from the Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano (Museum of The Last Supper). Their website includes high-def details, historical information, and restoration about the most recent cleaning completed in 1999.
Hartt, Frederick and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art. Seventh edition. Prentice Hall, 2011.
Kemp, Martin. Leonardo. Oxford University Press, 2004.
Kemp, Martin. Leonardo by Leonardo. Callaway, 2019.
King, Ross. Leonardo and The Last Supper. Bloomsbury USA, 2012. A popular book written for non-academics.
Polzer, Joseph. "Reflections on Leonardo's 'Last Supper'." Artibus Et Historiae, vol. 32, no. 63, 2011, pp. 9-37.
Quiviger, François. Leonardo da Vinci: Self, Art and Nature. Reaktion Books, 2019.
Zöllner, Frank and Johannes Nathan. Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings. Taschen, 2017.
Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Leonardo, Last Supper," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015. Smarthistory videos are a great resource for introductory art history information.