The Life and Times of The Last Supper
One of Leonardo's signature paintings, The Last Supper is also one of the most accident-prone and least well preserved. Leonardo completed this giant wall painting in 1498. It depicts the moment at which Jesus announces that one of his disciples is going to betray him (ultimately, it is Judas).
A Speedy Finish
Duke Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo's patron at the time, commissioned the painting. Sforza had selected the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie as his family chapel, and Leonardo was hired to paint a large mural of the Last Supper on one wall of the refectory (a room where meals are served).
Although the work was to be done on a grand scale—thirty feet long and fourteen feet high—Leonardo was not one to turn down a challenge.
Leonardo completed The Last Supper, certainly one of his great masterpieces, in only three years. This time scale seems especially miraculous when compared to many of Leonardo's other projects, which either were never completed or dragged on for many years; this speedy execution points to the depth of concentration that Leonardo put into this project.
Telling a Story
The work's design is one of Leonardo's most innovative. The perspective makes the painting appear to be a logical extension of the room, with the eye invariably drawn to the head of Christ at the center. The Apostles are crowded around the table in natural poses, in contrast to the stiff appearance of most versions of this scene during Leonardo's time.
Each Apostle has a distinctive appearance and character. Apparently, Leonardo modeled each of their faces on a particular individual. The two main figures, Judas and Christ, gave Leonardo the greatest difficulty. Christ's expression, a model of serenity, is a dramatic contrast to the Apostles’ stunned and conflicted faces.
One legend tells of Leonardo's difficulty with modeling Judas, Jesus’ betrayer. Supposedly, when the chapel's prior complained about how long it was taking for the painting to be completed, Leonardo retorted that it was because he was lacking a model for Judas, but the prior seemed to him a good candidate! Leonardo got away with this slight, but luckily doesn't seem to have made a habit of it.
Leonardo worked on The Last Supper in his characteristic style. Days of frantic work, during which Leonardo worked all day without stopping, were followed by days during which Leonardo was not seen at all. After being absent for several days, he would sometimes appear, gaze silently at the painting for several hours, excitedly add a few brush strokes and then disappear again. Leonardo did eventually finish the work, however, and the public immediately recognized it as the masterpiece that it is.
So all was well—Leonardo finished this sacred artwork and everyone was happy. Right? Unfortunately, The Last Supper began to deteriorate almost as soon as it was finished, once again due to Leonardo's love of innovations. Instead of using the usual method of fresco painting, in which paint was applied to a wall of fresh, wet plaster, Leonardo designed a new method where he applied paint directly to dry plaster.
This new method let him work much more slowly and methodically than the wet plaster required and allowed a wider range of colors and tones in the paint. Unfortunately, that's where the good news stopped. This method proved unstable, and the paint began flaking off the wall during Leonardo's lifetime. The deterioration was exacerbated by the room's humidity and the moisture in the wall upon which The Last Supper was painted.
By 1586, the masterpiece had degraded to such an extent that it was hardly visible. Over the years, a number of attempts were made to restore the painting. Unfortunately, these methods often caused more harm than good, or they involved so much over-painting that little of Leonardo's masterpiece remained visible. The work also suffered out of more practical concerns in the church. For instance, at one point, workers cut a door opening through the bottom of the image—at the expense of Christ's feet, which were removed because of it.
An initial restoration was completed in 1954, and finally a twenty-two-year-long project was completed in 1999. The restoration attempted to remove centuries’ worth of preservation and repainting, in order to reveal Leonardo's original intent. The process was truly painstaking, requiring restorers to reattach tiny flakes of the original paint in their originallocations. Unfortunately, parts of the work are beyond repair, including the facial expressions of the Apostles. However, a number of copies exist, some dating from before the deterioration had become problematic. If you compare these views to the currently restored version, you can imagine how spectacular the original of The Last Supper must have been right after it was painted.