Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Last Supper

One of the most legendary works of art in all of history is The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. My original intention in writing about it was to forego an analogous approach because of how profound it remains to this day. Far be it for me to attempt to extrapolate some other message than what was originally intended by its creator due to the significance of that moment in time. Therefore, I thought a run through this work's history of abuse and destruction might be an interesting approach, and a bit different than how I've written about art in the past. I mean, it was nearly bombed to oblivion during World War II - that has to be pretty notable, right?

Then it dawned on me: comparing this piece's abuse via metaphor to anything else would do it a disservice and be an atrocity. Why? Because I don't believe it was painted to evoke emotion, but to capture a moment in history that tells a story while revealing a lot of symbolism. And not just symbolism inside the work, but also through its very existence. Instead, I'd like to dive into that symbolism because I think it's important and often overlooked.

Contrast was slightly increased in order to show greater detail.

Let me first note that two copies of The Last Supper were painstakingly created by da Vinci's assistants in order to preserve the details. As you can see from the image above, the original piece has deteriorated quite significantly over time thanks in part to a door being installed at the location which destroyed the lower-middle portion. Also note that this piece was done by da Vinci in tempera on gesso, pitch, and mastic (that is to say, egg-based painting medium on chalk, coal-based resin, and plant resin—more on this later).

Famous nowadays for how often it's been parodied, the original work was completed in the late 15th Century inside the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Depicted is Jesus with His twelve disciples on either side of Him. From left to right—according to notes taken by da Vinci himself—we see Bartholomew, James, the half-brother of Jesus, Andrew, Judas Iscariot, Peter, John, Jesus, Thomas, James, Philip, Matthew, Jude, and finally Simon. The moment being capture is the immediate reaction of the disciples after Jesus, in the Gospel of John chapter 13, verse 21, proclaimed, "Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me."

Now then, the most poignant use of symbolism is that of the Holy Trinity. There are three doors on either side of the room, three windows in the back, the disciples are clearly clumped into groups of three, Jesus' form is that of a triangle, the legs of the table are triangles, and on Jesus' sandals are three lines in the shape of a triangles. Obviously, the number 3 and triangles represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The next symbol is Peter angrily standing and holding a knife pointed away from Jesus. Some experts believe this expressed what was to later occur in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter chopped off the ear of a servant of the high priest who was attempting to arrest Jesus. This then leads to how the other disciples are reacting, as well. Bartholomew, James, and Andrew all seem shocked; John appears flush white and tilts to one side implying he may be faint; Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip appear upset and in search of more reason; lastly, Matthew, Jude, and Simon are turned towards each other in bewilderment.

Next, we have Judas Iscariot. Anyone who knows their history and/or the Bible knows that Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus for a bag of silver, which would have been worth about $200 U.S. dollars today. Some believe the bag he holds in his right hand indicates his position as the treasurer of the disciples, but I believe it symbolizes his forthcoming betrayal. I say this because he is also depicted as reaching for a loaf a bread in direct contrast to Jesus gesturing to a similar loaf in reference to Him being the Bread of Life. A small detail often missed is Judas' right arm knocking over a jar of salt. In those days, the phrase "betray the salt" was commonplace and used to express betraying one's master. Lastly, Judas is the only one obscured by shadow, leaning with his elbow on the table, and with his face turned far enough to make it difficult to see him.

Then there's Jesus. His eyes are clearly gazing downward and most will say at the loaf of bread in front of Him. I say His eyes are on His hand which would be pierced upon crucifixion. His right hand, however, is reaching for a cup and is likely a direct reference to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 20, verses 20-23: "Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 'What is it you want?' he asked. She said, 'Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.' 'You don’t know what you are asking,' Jesus said to them. 'Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?' 'We can,' they answered. Jesus said to them, 'You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.'"

The final example of symbolism is purely speculative on my part. For you see, the materials used to paint this scene were woefully unreliable. Artists in the 14th and 15th Century all had much more reliable materials with which to create works of art that would last a lifetime. Given Leonardo's inarguable genius, I believe he purposefully painted this scene as he did with the full intention of it eroding over time. Why would da Vinci do this, though? I have no clue, but given his reputation for having a feverishly inventive imagination, I suppose it was to send a message. Perhaps this was the first notable use of ancient trolling by having such a powerful work of art vanish over time in order to draw attention to how much people placed value on material things. I guess you can say that I like to think of da Vinci having existed on a much higher existential plain.

I'm sure there are a lot more examples in this piece. My first thought was the varying expressions of the disciples and my guess is that they're based on each one's personality; Peter being the most obvious thanks to his reputation for popping off at the mouth so much. If you see more, I'd be curious to know! Please feel free to share it in a comment below.

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