Every year on Maundy Thursday our church does a short visio divina around Leonardo DaVinci’s famous mural, “The Last Supper.” This practice, and this painting, have both come a rich part of our Holy Week tradition. Here are a few fun facts about Davinci’s famous masterpiece:
DaVinci didn’t choose the subject matter.
The work was commissioned by the Duke of Milan (Lodovico Sforza), and as was often the case in a commissioned work, the subject matter was chosen for DaVinci.
The painting was a failed experiment.
Begun in 1495, the methodology Da Vinci employed to make the painting was an experiment that didn’t work. Instead of painting in wet plaster, as was the custom of the day, DaVinci chose to paint this on dry plaster. The immediate result was a much more stunning piece. The long term problem was that it was not at all durable. It was not unlike painting on a cement wall with Tempura paint and oil. The painting deteriorated quickly and just 150 years later, it was considered to be beyond saving.
Jesus originally had feet.
In Davinci’s original mural Jesus had feet, but in 1650 another door was added to the refectory and the portion of the painting beneath Jesus (nobody knew how famous it would eventually be), was literally demolished. What you see there is an old doorway.
The food on the table is not simple bread and wine.
Cups of wine and pieces of unleavened bread from traditional Last Supper iconography are on the table. But during the 1999 restoration, it was discovered that the table also holds a platter of sliced eel garnished with pieces of orange.
The painting was vandalized by Napoleon’s officers.
In 1796 the room in which the mural hangs was used as a stable for French soldiers’ horses. Napoleon apparently had given strict orders that no damage was to be done to the mural, but after they left it was discovered that the Apostles had been pelted with clay by rowdy soldiers. After that the room was used for storing hay until, in 1800, a flood covered the entire painting with green mould.
Twenty four years later it was damaged in a flood that covered the entire wall. During WWII (1943) the entire monastery was destroyed by allied bombing. Even thought the painting had been protected by a series of scaffolds and sandbags, it emerged with plenty of damage. After the war, the Monastery was rebuilt around the painting, where it hangs to this day.
The painting was almost never finished.
Leonardo DaVinci was eccentric, notoriously slow, and distracted as an artist. He had a reputation for being a procrastinator, and had a history of leaving works unfinished). It took him about three years to complete the mural, working 1495 to 1498.Legend has it that when his patron and the local monastery pressured him to finally finish his depiction of the last supper mural, DaVinci threatened to use the abbot’s face as a model for the face of Judas. (You can’t rush fine art).
The painting is massive.
The original mural is on a wall of the refectory (dining hall) in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. It is 15 feet tall by 29 feet wide – an area of almost 40 square meters. There are no other works of art in the room.
The painting depicts a specific moment.
DaVinci seems to have meant to capture the moment at dinner just after Jesus has said, “One of you will betray me.” All of the disciples here seem to be having obvious reactions to the charge. However, after years of deterioration their once vibrant facial expressions are to vague to make out.
DaVinci himself is at the table.
This can never be proven, but some art historians believe that St James the Lesser (the second apostle from the left) is a self-portrait. This disciple is shown in profile, and has an uncanny resemblance to a chalk profile drawing of DaVinci done by the Italian artist Leonardo by Francesco Melzi.