From the outside, the building resembles any Catholic elementary school gymnasium in America, the kind of building that is the center of many communities.
This unassuming building in Milan, Italy, is home to one of the world’s greatest art treasures, “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci. On our recent trip to Italy, my husband and I were privileged to see this amazing piece of art on the last day of our tour.
Tickets are hard to come by; when I began planning our trip in January 2012 the individual tickets were already sold out. At the suggestion of our travel agent, we booked a Milan tour which included a visit to the famous refectory. (We also saw the great La Scala Opera House, where Caruso and Callas graced the stage, and where Arturo Toscanini first conducted before his defection to the Met in the 1930s.)
At the appointed time, we gathered with thirty other people and went through two air-lock rooms. All 30 visitors gather in one room, and the glass doors are shut tightly behind us. This happens a second time to avoid any errant humidity from coming into the room.
We had a marvelous English-speaking docent who talked about the painting the entire time. My husband and I loved paintings and spend considerable time in art museums. The tour allowed for 15 minutes with the painting — most people think that doesn’t sound like a lot. But it was fine because our docent was so skilled and gave us a gret deal of information as well as the opportunity to see the mural up close and from a distance.
After the airlocks we were escorted into the high ceiled room, which has only a few windows at the very top. There on the far wall was da Vinci’s masterpiece.
I cannot begin to tell you how moving seeing this was for us on so many levels — as a Christian, this tells a story that is familiar and meaningful to us and conveys a great sense of differing, conflicting human emotions. As a lover of paintings, this was a mountain-top experience, and frankly, supersedes for me seeing any of da Vinci’s other works (Mona Lisa, Madonna on the Rocks, Ginerva de Benci, etc.).
What the docent shared with us was information about each apostle and Christ himself. Because I have an eye disease that keeps me from seeing low contrast things in low light, I was unable to see Judas at all. Did da Vinci paint him in such a dark way on purpose?
Each of the other apostles conveys a particular emotion, i.e., John, the youngest and apparently most beloved, rests on Jesus’ shoulder (we won’t get into that messy business stirred up by Dan Brown in “The da Vinci Code.”)
What else is remarkable about the painting is the perspective that da Vinci is able to achieve. All one has to do to fully understand what a marvel the perspective is, is to turn around ok at the painting on the opposite wall of the crucifiction by one of da Vinci’s assistants. Of course I can’t remember his name (nor can anyone else) because the painting is one typical of the times with the flatness associated with the painter of the day.
(One of my favorite things about the painting, and of course this is something true in much Renaissance art is that da Vinci chose a home boy background for the painting. No Jerusalem here, no, it’s an Italian scene complete with Tuscan Hills, no Mount of Olives here.)
It doesn’t come to life as “The Last Supper” does.
A Little History
“The Last Supper” (Il Cenacolo or L’Ultima Cena in Italian) was painted by da Vinci in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, Italy. Artists in the Renaissance depended upon work from the Catholic church to keep themselves afloat – this iconic mural was commissioned as part of renovations to the church complex, which included the refectory. Used primarily as a dining room, behind the wall on which “The Last Supper” is painted was a kitchen.
The mural is 15 by 29 feet and is believed to have been painted between 1495 and 1498. Because the painting is a mural, it has not enjoyed the travel of other famous paintings. According to a PBS Timeline report, In 1963, Da Vinci’s most famous work, that of the Florentine housefrau, La Giaconda, Mona Lisa visited the United States for seven weeks – first at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and then at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was viewed by one million six-hundred-thousand visitors.
Unlike similar art in Italy, “The Last Supper” is not a true fresco. da Vinci painted on a dry wall, rather than on the wet plaster that indicates a fresco. According to Wikipedia (okay I’m lazy so I chose the easy source), da Vinci sealed the stone wall with a layer of pitch, gesso and mastic, then painted on to the sealing layer with tempura. As most people know, the painting began to deteriorate almost immediately. This is in part because of the media used and the humid air of Italy, where no one is more than 150 miles from a coastline.
Multiple restorations have kept the painting for those of us lucky enough to view it in person. The refectory was bombed in August 1943; proactive Italians put sandbags around the building and the painting was not damaged by the bombs or splints, though some speculate that the vibrations caused problems.
In my lifetime, I remember a major restoration that took 21 years from 1978 to 1999. The art world was not without controversy as this major renovation was unveiled — many art critics felt the depiction of Jesus was too altered from the original.
The mural is widely emulated and has been for centuries.
Two paintings by da Vinci’s assistants thought to still exist. The National Gallery in Washington DC has Salvador Dali’s version, “The Sacrament of the Last Supper” painted in 1955.
Because I have family living in the DC area, I’ve been able to “visit” the incredible work a number of times. This work stands on its own apart from the da Vinci work, though Dali was clearly influenced by the master. Why the National Gallery chooses to display it, nearly hidden, in a stairwell between the East and West buildings blows my mind.
The National Gallery is also lucky to have, from the Mellon Collection, a painting reminiscent of “Mona Lisa” in Ginerva de Benci. Long after the original portrait was made, art historians discovered another painting on the back, so this exquisite portrait is displayed in the middle of a gallery and both sides are shown.
The flip side painting shows a sprig of jupiter with the Latin inscription “Beauty Adorns Virtue.” The Latin work for juniper resembles Ginerva’s name. Worth the trip to DC to see the only da Vinci painting in the Americas.