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TITOLO: Four Lectures on Leonardo da Vinci (lecture 3 of 4)

WRITTEN BY: Lorenzo Matteoli

DATE:

English text edited by Mrs Wendy Charnell

 

 


LEONARDO DA VINCI
University of Western Australia Extension
JANUARY 2005

Four Lectures by
LORENZO MATTEOLI


THIRD LECTURE
The Last Supper
“Amen dico vobis unus vestrum me traditurus est!”

 

 


An objective assessment
The Last Supper (40.50 square meters 450 square feet) was painted in four years, which was a very short time compared to how long it took him to paint other much smaller works (not to mention the Mona Lisa which he kept with him throughout his lifetime, continuously re-touching it). In Milan, while painting the Last Supper, he was also absorbed by his usual many distracting activities - (the Horse, parties, theatrical stage setting, dissecting corpses, pottering about with his flying contraptions, painting Cecilia Gallerani, and Lucrezia Crivelli, the “camere” at the Sforza Castle…) - even a wild guess at the time spent on the Supper is impossible, but it is reasonable to suggest that he actually breezed through it.
Given the great power and renown of Ludovico the Moor and the importance of Milan as a business and trading centre, the painting was seen by a lot of people in the making and when just finished. Some of these people were kings, princes, bishops, dames of the European aristocracy: the “jet set” of the time; the trendy crowd. They were all in awe: The faces, colours, size, and the drama depicted, all contributed to the great impression the painting left on all the visitors.
The incredible fame of this painting is also related to events which are not strictly connected to “art”. The early literary comments indeed contributed to the exaltation of the artistic value of the masterpiece, but they also reveal something else.
Between 1500 and 1600 the “Cenacolo” is defined: “miraculous” by Antonio Billi; “extremely excellent thing” by the Anonimo Gaddiano; again “miraculous” by Gaspare Bugatti in 1570 and Francesco Bocchi in 1571, “miraculous and very famous” by Matteo Bandello in 1554, “subject of veneration by the Milan people” by Vasari and Carducho, “a very great miracle” by Armenini in 1586. At the same time, the painting was also defined as “spoiled” and “a glaring blob” (una macchia abbagliata). According to Antonio de Beatis in 1517 the painting already had signs of decay (cominciava “ad guastarse”)
Goethe, Stendhal, Muntz, Ruskin, Burkhardt, Wölfflin, all issued important critical statements and assessments.
The strange thing is that together with some modern (pre-seventies) critics they did not see the “real Leonardo” but only a shadow of him.
In the 20th century, a number of misunderstandings and negative comments were introduced with the comment of Bernard Berenson.
Bernard Berenson analyzes Leonardo’s Supper more as an art psychiatrist or ethicist than as an art critic. He thinks Leonardo is too concerned about the “faces” and condemns his “dangerous taste for extreme facial expressions”. According to Berenson, Leonardo, during his long Milanese experience, never had the “opportunity to express his greatest asset which was “movement” and remained entangled in a “conspiracy of graciousness’”. Roberto Longhi (one of the most authoritative Italian art historians and critics) had similar ideas and in 1952 confessed his personal problem in understanding Leonardo, wondering how, from the “multifaceted nature of the Florentine sketch of the Adoration of the Magi, he could get himself confined within the magic pyramid of the Virgin of the Rocks and into the legal scenic scanning by groups of three of the Last Supper. It is certainly the old perspective-proportional myth that commands the mystery; it is a prelude to the “Camere” ten years ahead of time; but, with that thrust of bursting vitality, at the end, the compulsive need for a different rule remains difficult to understand.”
Both comments (Longhi and Berenson’s) are reactions to the laudatory eighteen hundreds literature and to the myth of Leonardo as the omniscient and omni-comprehensive genius. However, it should be noted that Berenson’s scarce appreciation of the tonal colouring and of the reduction to the chiaroscuro which he perceived in Leonardo, might have been influenced, once again, by the reading of the painting that he made in 1888. At that time, the masterpiece was darkened and the colours were muted by the many seventeen hundred and eighteen hundred overlays that had consistently lowered the high quality colour tones of the original. In the suspended judgement of Longhi in 1952 we can sense an implicit revision of his juvenile enthusiasm for the futurists. That was also the time when the Pelliccioli cleaning and consolidation of the Last Supper was about to be completed.
Today, our approach to the Cenacolo must be based on the readings by Lionello Venturi, Kenneth Clark, Ludwig H. Heydenreich, Ernst Gombrich, John Shearmann, Leo Steinberg, and Anna Maria Brizio, on which the various critical assessments of contemporary critics are based, and which today constitute the sharpest interpretations of Leonardo’s painting, even if sometimes, on specific interpretive matters, they conflict.
The comment by Venturi is possibly the best one to introduce an interpretation of the Last Supper based on the values of “movement”, “chiaroscuro” and “rilievo” as it is now feasible after the last restoration:
“It is a known fact that a few years after its completion the painting started to decay, so it happened that its fame was mainly left to copies and prints, which actually spoiled our eyes, notwithstanding our efforts we look at the original painting through copies and prints. Since these reproduce everything but the effect of light and shadow which is truly the essence of Leonardo’s art, the consequence is that in the Supper everything has been seen but his true art. Naturally, given the bad state of the painting, we must rely on external elements to ideally re-build the creation of the painter. But these are produced by different personalities and produce a complex overlapping of personalities which is somewhat whimsical, so the external elements must be his own works. As far as composition, movement and drama, we must refer to the Adoration of the Magi, whereas as far as light and execution are concerned, the reference is the Virgin of the Rocks. The fact that this necessity has not been acknowledged, was the cause of all the misunderstandings - both over esteem and under esteem - of the Last Supper. “
Kenneth Clark based his reading on the values of “unity” and “drama” :
“ The dramatic effect of the Last Supper must depend entirely on the disposition and general movement of the figures and not on the expression of the heads. Those writers who have complained that the heads are forced or monotonous have been belabouring a shadow. There can be no doubts that the details of the fresco (!) are almost entirely the work of a succession of restorers and the exaggerated grimacing types, with their flavour of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement suggest that the leading hand was that of a feeble mannerist of the sixteenth century. …But in spite of the depressing insistence of these facts, some magic of the original remains and gives the tragic ruin in Santa Maria delle Grazie a quality lacking in the dark smooth copies of Leonardo’s pupils. Luminosity, the feeling for atmosphere which distinguishes all Leonardo’s genuine work from that of his pupils, must have distinguished the Last Supper also: and the fresco (!) perhaps from its very vagueness has kept a certain atmospheric quality. As we look at them, these ghostly stains upon the wall, ‘faint as the shadows of autumnal leaves’, gradually gain power over us not due solely to the sentiment of association. Through the mists of repaint and decay we still catch sight of the superhuman forms of the original; and from the drama of their interplay we can appreciate some of the qualities which made the Last Supper the keystone of European art.” (Clark’s book was first published in 1935 with a second edition with no major changes in 1939: his judgement was influenced by readings more than by visual experience) in 1959 there was another edition of the book after Pelliccioli’s cleaning. Clarks adds a note:
“...early restorations have really been removed and the little that remains seems to have been painted by Leonardo, but it is too faint and discontinuous to give much idea of its original effect.” It is a pity that his very subtle perceptions about the “atmospheric quality” of the painting were not based on closer scrutiny of the painted matter (but how could he perceive them through the thick crusted layers left by the restorers?).
Too bad his reading of the painting’s “superhuman” strength was clearly influenced by the pan Germanic ideals and by the Italian propaganda on the “Italian Genius” (Genio Italico) which dominated those years.
Those two comments are very useful to approach the Last Supper today after the last restoration by Pinin Brambilla Barcilon.
But let us follow the very authoritative advice of Lionello Venturi and first have a look at the Adoration and at the Virgin of the Rocks.


Marginalia: bits of history


There is no record of the contract between Leonardo and Ludovico for the painting, but there are many references in Luodovico’s correspondence. He was probably worried by Leonardo’s wanderings and wanted Leonardo to finish and to commit himself in writing to a date for completion (letter to Marchesino Stanga on June 29th, 1497).
Apparently Ludovico was well aware of the character of his master painter and “court genius” and of his general scarce accountability and reliability.
From many other documents and indirectly a date for the beginning of the work can be reasonably assumed to be around the year 1495. There is no reference to it in Leonardo’s notes, but there are many sketches which clearly prove that he was thinking about a “Last Supper.
If we examine the “last suppers” which were painted before Leonardo’s, we can appreciate the revolutionary conceptual choice that he made, which would influence all the subsequent paintings of the same subject.
Where in all the preceding paintings the Apostles and Christ sit in a very static pose, Leonardo’s scene is dynamic: All the Apostles are excited, agitated and their postures reveal the great emotion which each of them felt: Christ had just said the now famous words:
"Amen dico vobis quia unus vestrum me traditurus est."
“Indeed I tell you that one of you will betray me”



Leonardo’s painting craftsmanship,
technique and the famous blunder


We have a very vivid first hand account of Leonardo’s “style” by Matteo Bandello: when he was a young lad he stayed at the Convent a guest of his Uncle who the Prior and he saw Leonardo working. This is his memory of the encounters:
Matteo Bandello, Italian novelist He was born at Castelnuovo, near Tortona, about the year 1480. He received a good education, and entered the church, but does not seem to have been very interested in theology. For many years he lived at Mantua, and superintended the education of the celebrated Lucrezia Gonzaga, in whose honour he composed a long poem. The decisive Battle of Pavia, as a result of which Lombardy was taken by the emperor, compelled Bandello to flee; his house at Milan was burnt and his property confiscated. He took refuge with Cesare Fregoso, an Italian general in the French service, whom he accompanied into France. Here is his famous comment:
“He sometimes stayed there from dawn to sundown never putting down his brush, forgetting to eat and drink, painting without pause. He would also sometimes, remain up to four days without touching his brush, although he spent several hours a day standing in front of the work, arms folded, examining and criticizing the figures to himself. I also saw him, driven by some sudden urge, at midday, when the sun was at its height, leaving the Corte Vecchia, where he was working on his marvellous clay horse, to come straight to Santa Maria delle Grazie, without seeking shade, and clamber up
unto the scaffolding, pick up a brush, put in one or two strokes, and then go away again…”
Anybody who paints is well aware of this syndrome!
Vasari makes a good point on the matter:
“It is at the moment that they are working the least that higher minds achieve the most; they are then mentally in search of the unprecedented and find the perfect form for the ideas, which they afterward express by tracing with their hands what they have conceived in their minds.”
From a close observation of the Last Supper one can gather a lot of information on Leonardo’s “way” of painting: his craftsmanship, his “gesture”.

He painted with his left hand, his strokes were at times elegant, quick and light, or in different situations he used long firm strokes. He changed his mind while working: the process of painting was itself a design and thinking process, the work done suggesting the work to be done. Having completed a section he could get ideas on changes that should be brought to already completed parts. Changes of mind were progress: continuous changing was the essence of his creativity. No other Renaissance artist has produced so many “exploratory” cartoons or sketches.
This is why he had prepared the wall for the Last Supper with a special fine plaster topped by lead white priming. He wanted to have a surface that would allow him his normal painting process of “changing” re-thinking and re-touching finished parts. He wanted to paint on the wall as if it were a board.
He neglected, underestimated, or chose to ignore the fact that the thick wall was subject to a complex condensation problem: the inner mass of the wall would get very cold during the winter and, during the warm, early spring, condensation would form inside the wall.
In normal conditions the condensation would be dried up by ventilation, but the lead white priming was waterproof so the condensed water would build up beneath the priming layer and, in time, resulted in mould growth and decay.
Many authors refer to the Last Supper as a fresco. With this technique the pigments are laid in the plaster and when the plaster is dry there is no way to re-touch or to make any change. If you want to make changes you have to scrape off all the plaster and start from scratch (which is probably where the very idiom comes from), exactly what Leonardo did not want.
His way of painting was very similar to a thinking process - new thoughts induced by previous thoughts. Leonardo’s painting was the development of a continuous discovery fed by the sight of what he had already painted. He tried to reduce the complexity of the process with many preliminary cartoons, sketches and studies, but even so, there were many changes in the course of the final painting. This could not be done with a fresco technique. His ideal medium was oil on board, but the mere size of the Last Supper (8.82 x 4.59 meters) made this impossible.
This is the reason for the specific preparation with the fine plaster and white lead paint priming: the whitest available, that gave light and shine to the faces and figures as nothing else could at the time.
For many years the Last Supper has been referred to as a “fresco” and Vasari is responsible for this mistake.
in 1935 Kenneth Clark used the same term which probably means that he did not then know the true technical nature of the painting.
The actual medium used for colouring was an untested recipe: a very thick tempera diluted in an emulsion of oil and egg-white. The egg-white, with the water from the condensation, caused the disastrous decay that began while Leonardo was still finishing the painting in 1499.Leonardo’s strange secret.
It is difficult to believe that Leonardo, a mature and experienced master of his craft, (who, at the age of 43, wrote a Treatise on the Art of Painting), could make such a horrific mistake. He prepared 450 square feet of wall (40.50 square metres) for the Last Supper and painted it with materials and techniques utterly untested, that would not endure.
It is perhaps more difficult to believe that he wilfully operated in a way that would not grant a very long life to his masterpiece: That would really be a dark secret worthy of “Da Vinci Code” fantasies.
In any case, the four years of painting the doomed masterpiece must have been a harrowing experience for him.
If, at the beginning, he was not aware of the looming disaster, after one year of work it must have been obvious what was going to happen, as he would clearly have seen the beginning of the disastrous effects of the condensation on the egg white medium of his colours. In the following three years, while completing the huge scene, he must have been the first to fix the early signs of mould growth.
He knew that the painting was doomed, but he could not tell anybody nor could he do anything to prevent the ongoing disaster.
He had to keep painting, aware of the possibility that, after a short time nothing would be left of his work.
Bearing this in mind, the short account of Matteo Bandello can be interpreted quite differently: Leonardo, helpless, contemplating his work at length, letting weeks go by without touching a brush and then working in a desperate frenzy day after day, from the break of dawn to late at night.
Leonardo left Milan in 1499, but returned to the city many times until 1509. There is no record of him visiting the refectory but certainly, while in Milan, he must have been informed of what was happening and probably he may have also suggested some remedy or attempted some repainting of the damaged parts. It is easy to understand the mental process of “removal” that took place. Nothing is to be found in his notebooks about the decaying Last Supper, nor mention in any official record. He recorded grocery lists and many other rather menial accounts. But again the “dark secret” theory could be an explanation for this behaviour.
The Theme of the Last Supper is a “classic” of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries: Every painter of renown and even minor ones had to paint one “Ultima Cena”.
The episode as reported in the New Testament by all the evangelists - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - was a must and is a powerful religious statement for Christianity.
For the Church, the Last Supper represents the institution of the Communion: … “Drink this wine “ he said “ since this is my blood that I will shed so that all sins may be forgiven…” They ate in silence…
So most of the painters depicted the breaking of the bread and blessing of the wine as the highlights of the Supper and as the “institutional” gesture of the Communion.
Leonardo, in his customary fashion, does not follow the tradition of representing the “Eucharistic” moment: the presentation of wine and bread as the blood and body of Christ.
His Last Supper depicts the situation right after the words “Unus vestrum me traditurus est!” (One of you will betray me), seconds before the second statement: “He is the one whose hands are on the table with mine.”
Each one of the Apostles reacts to the terrifying forecast
in his own specific way and according to his own personality. Let us see some of them:
Christ lowers his arms in resignation. His ministry is finished - the drama of the Passion is next. (page 139 of Incessant…) This gesture has become the liturgical stereotype of the Eucharistic celebration in the Catholic Mass.
There have been several interpretations and meanings given to the position of Christ’s arms, here are some:
1. Christ lowers his arms in token of willing surrender
2. the gesture accuses the traitor
3. it contours a triangular figure in sign of the Trinity
4. the arms directed to bread and wine announce the sacrament of the Communion
5. the open hand extends the promise of life to the dead
6. the palms, alternatively down- and upturned to the dark and light side of the room, prefigure the Judge of the Second Coming
7. they combine the figure of Christ with the forced trapezoidal floor plan of the room thus enhancing his presence as the dominating figure of the composition
Leo Steinberg gives us this list of seven functions and he himself warns the reader of the danger of “interpretative overkill”: an exercise he certainly is a master of throughout his book (Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper).
James the Elder is stunned and seems to deny the possibility: “Oh my God! What do you say my Lord !?! …nobody will ever betray you!”
Philip seems to be saying, “Not me, not me, believe me, how could I ever!?”
Thomas, pointing to the sky, has an incredulous puzzled look on his face.
Andrew seems to be saying “Did you hear what He said?”
Simon and Taddheus confer anxiously as if asking the question “Who could the traitor be?”
Peter is indignant. What has never been explained is the strange depiction in Leonardo’s painting of Peter holding the wrist of a hand appearing on the back of Judas. The interpretation according to which the hand with the knife is Peter’s right hand is not consistent with the position of Peter’s elbow and does not explain the clear scraping on the wrist of the knife holding arm: somebody did not want approve of Leonrado’s mysterious message? His other hand is in front of John ‘s (Maria Magdalena’s) face. The meaning of this gesture is unclear: menacing ? protecting ? comforting?

John/Mary Magdalene has an ineffable expression as if she had known the terrible news in advance and is already resigned to accept the sacrifice of Christ.
Judas fakes astonishment, clenching the money pouch, but he also knows only too well what will happen. He appears arrogant and defiant.
Bartholomew, at the left end of the table, has apparently not heard the words and seems to be asking his neighbours what is happening,
Andrew is denying any responsibility and James Junior (Christ’s brother) is trying to understand what’s going on.
Surprise, shock, horror, fury, denial - and in the midst of the turmoil the serene and composed face of “John” (alias Mary Magdalene) - are some of the reactions that Leonardo describes. The gallery of portraits is impressive and is probably the best example of his teaching. The painter must be able to represent the thoughts of his subjects, or else he will not deserve any praise.
The speculation is that all the faces were actual characters of the Moor’s court. James the Elder is said to be Leonardo’s own self portrait which was a common habit of painters at the time.
Nobody knows who was the model for Judas face but there is a well known anecdote on the subject. When the Prior of the Convent complained about Leonardo taking too much time to complete the painting with the Moor, Leonardo wrote to Ludovico that he had problems with some of the faces, particularly of Judas. If he could not find the right face to represent Judas he suggested he would probably end up using the Prior as a model. There were no more complaints!
The perspective: theory and practice
The geometry of the painting has been the subject of many studies and much research.
In my opinion, the most thorough and complete report on this matter is by Leo Steinberg (Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper), but there have been recent interesting exercises carried out by a team of researchers at the Milan Poli that may be worth checking. It’s an interactive study that allows the observer to move in the space and see the scene from any point of view, even from the table where the Apostles are sitting.
http://mercurio.srv.dico.unimi.it/~marini/imaging/LAST_SUPPER/lastsupper.html
Leonardo knew the rules of perspective and was a master at it. So much so that he was also able to “force” the rules to obtain his results.
The room in which the last supper is depicted appears to be above the floor of the Refectory, but the observer’s viewpoint is placed well above floor level so that the surface of the table can be seen.
This means that the faces of the Apostles and of the Christ are actually seen from the floor level of the refectory, but they must be painted as if the observer were above them.



This implies some complex geometry; to paint a subject which is seen from below but appearing as if it were seen from above.
This is the reason why many restorers who did not perceive/understand Leonardo’s subtle control of perspective and geometry corrected some of the faces of the apostles with montruous results.
Also, the geometry of the room is subtly manipulated by Leonardo: The tapestries and windows on the sides should be five and not four if they are to be consistent with the perspective. Leonardo forced the geometry to give a different feeling of the depth of the room and to pull forward the back wall with the windows and the lovely landscapes behind them.
One of the many ambiguities of the painting is the contradiction between it and Leonardo’s teachings: Keep the point of sight far because if it is too close: ”.. it is impossible for your perspective to look correct, with every imaginable false relation and disagreement of proportions”. ( For the Last Supper, he chose a point of sight 10,29 metres away from the projection plane).
Leonardo, consistent with his teaching, does that in the Adoration of the Magi where the ruins in the background are safely distanced and thus insulated by the viewer’s caprice (Steinberg).
It is impossible to speculate as to what suggested this dangerous choice in the Last Supper: anyway, Leonardo controls the image forcing the rules and successfully gives the viewer a dramatic closeness to the scene, the viewer seemingly within arm’s reach from the table.


Appendix 1
A book review

Art historian Leo Steinberg claims the last word on Leonardo's Last Supper
Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper
Leo Steinberg
MIT Press, 312pp, $40
reviewed by Susannah Rutherglen

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is the greatest work of art there never really was. "Today the painting is in a state of total ruin," wrote the historian Paolo Lomazzo in 1568, just seventy years after Leonardo finished the picture; a decade later, the painter and writer Giorgio Vasari lamented that "it's nothing but a blurred stain." In following centuries, the plot thickened: nineteen successive painters put their brushes to Leonardo's fresco, obscuring it with a palimpsest of thick pigments. When an Italian conservator, Dr. Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, set to work twenty years ago on the latest restoration, she confronted little more than an inchoate smear. "It's enough to make a person want to shoot herself," she despaired in a scholarly journal.
Two years ago, Dr. Barcilon, by then aged over eighty, put down her scalpel, descended her ladder, and published a long and pessimistic report on the restored state of Leonardo's fresco. Many of the close-up photographs are indeed depressing, like a desert view from an airplane: scrubby bits of Leonardesque vegetation amidst vast reaches of washed-out plaster. But they belie the exquisite job Barcilon has done on the work as a whole. I walked into the refectory in Milan last January prepared, like the Snow Man, to behold "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is"; instead, the painting fairly palpitates inside the dry room. Christ intrudes magisterially into the space of the refectory, and the apostles gesture madly, frieze-like, their postures of living horror frozen against the tunnel of space behind them.
Barcilon has filled in gaps between the original flecks of paint with carefully researched suggestions in watercolor, in the hope of offering a coherent sense of the painting's story without losing what threads of Leonardo remain. So the picture continues to exude both life and distilled mystery. One gets the feeling that its simultaneous evanescence and immortality--uncannily similar to the story of Christ himself--have been fundamental to its meaning from the very beginning, only deepening with the torrid history of loss and damage.
Indeed, a curious thing happened in the wake of the Cenacolo 's almost immediate destruction: its existence began to proliferate. In woodcuts and engravings, painted copies, poems, and essays--works by everyone from Goethe to Andy Warhol--the picture acquired an infinitely varied second life. It survived thanks to, not in spite of, the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; and each successive copyist interpreted and reconceived the painting quite differently, so that it came to reverberate in important ways through successive cultural generations. Like Hamlet --that other Occidental masterpiece of multiple versions and uncertain dimensions--Leonardo's painting has inevitably come to be about the process of interpretation itself, about fundamental questions of provenance, meaning, and artistic intention.
In 1973, the art historian Leo Steinberg published an important article reflecting on these very matters. His essay, which was meant to deliver the painting from the shackles of Enlightenment-era criticism, has gained weight over the years, and has recently reappeared in book form as Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper . Steinberg's work is essentially Talmudic, negotiating, in a lithe and amusing way, the five centuries of art and scholarship that have sprung up around the picture. At the heart of his argument lies a belief in ambiguity and paradox, in the intermingling and suffusion of opposite meanings, gestures, and forms. His thoughts amount to a long art-historical elaboration on the mystical notion of "coincident opposites": the fleeting and the eternal, the betrayal and the sacrament, the human drama and the mystical revelation, the work of art and the act of criticism.
We must note first of all a "coincident opposite" running through Steinberg's own text. For all its expansiveness and generosity of interpretation, the book has a selfish and narcissistic tone; it stands as a seminal contribution to that most self-congratulatory of scholarly genres--the lengthy, fond reconsideration of one's own youthful essay, which has invariably aged like a fine wine. Steinberg's egotism being built into the very structure of the book, it's difficult at times to know which Leo really interests him. Matters aren't helped by excessive mud-slinging at the work of previous scholars--including such no-accounts as Vasari, Goethe, Rembrandt, Jacob Burckhardt, Walter Pater, Kenneth Clark, and Bernard Berenson--or by Steinberg's harsh attitude toward his own critics. "There are unitarians who suspect my attention to paradox in the Cenacolo to be clinically obsessive," he informs us parenthetically. "A recent polemic against complex interpretation in general and this present blight in particular concludes that I show 'all the signs of a patient who can articulate, but not control, his neurosis.'" Oh, well; Steinberg is really only as insane as Leonardo himself: "whether the observations presented agree with the picture is not the author's concern. He has his hands full diagnosing a case."
Steinberg's book does, at times, read like the calculated ravings of a madman. It contains a Lear-like "superflux" of patterns, persons, themes, and words. But this excess clearly arises from a long, ardent appreciation of Leonardo's painting, supplemented by bounteous scholarly energies. Despite its tone, Steinberg's text abounds in complex, minuscule observations and intimations, which fit into an argument of great depth and imagination; his thoughts can perhaps only be contained in an eccentric book.
Misinterpretation of Leonardo's picture, Steinberg believes, commenced early. In the first surviving copy, a Milanese engraver attempted to pinpoint the "moment" described in the painting, by inscribing a passage from Matthew on the tablecloth in front of Christ. In fact, though, it wasn't at all clear which excerpt of Scripture Leonardo had illustrated. Was it in fact the passage from Matthew, "...and Christ said, one of you shall betray me"? Or perhaps he had depicted the moment just after this announcement, when the twelve apostles "began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?". Goethe, whose essay on the Last Supper was to define the way generations of critics looked at the picture, picked the first option; he declared that Leonardo had painted the split-second moment after Jesus had uttered the words "one of you," unus vestrum . The apostles, with their unmistakable, individual gestures of horror, were responding to the terrible personal implications of this remark. As one painter affirmed, "the passions of loyalty and treachery" immediately dominate and overwhelm the scene.
Thus was inaugurated the Enlightenment-era perception of the picture's meaning. Scholars set out with their stopwatches, looking for the precise narrative second Leonardo had set out to paint. None of them, Steinberg claims, considered the possibility that multiple moments might appear in the same pictorial space. In fact, he believes, the painting consists of a dense interpenetrating tissue of events, which alternately supplement, contradict, and meditate on each other. Jesus's announcement, the apostolic questioning ("Lord, is it I?"), and the identification of Judas as traitor all plausibly exist in the very same set of gestures, objects, and expressions. The ambiguity amounts to an extension of Leonardo's famous painterly technique, sfumato --the shadowy union of light and dark, a luminescence which smokes through dark colors. In the Last Supper , time itself is sfumato . We see multiple moments shade into and suffuse each other.
Enlightenment scholarship erred further, Steinberg believes, by relentlessly focusing on the secular. Goethe and his followers declared that the scene amounted to an expression of universal human passions, and thus ignored a major subject of Leonardo's painting: the institution of the Eucharist. St. Paul had inextricably entwined this event with the Last Supper, writing that "the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread and said, 'Take, eat: this is my body.'" Even as Jesus announces impending death, his upturned left palm, gesturing toward a stray dinner roll, points to the eternal. (This is one of some seven functions which Steinberg ascribes to Jesus's hands; see Chapter Seven, of course, which pre-empts accusations of interpretive overkill by informing us that "it's the septemfluity that appalls.")
Steinberg's point about the sacramental theme of Leonardo's painting is well-taken; too often in modern scholarship, the religious meanings of works of art are pitted against their emotive, human qualities. The Milanese painter Giuseppe Bossi, for instance, argued in 1810 that "the passions of loyalty and treachery, touching as they do our essential humanity, furnish a far greater artistic theme than the founding of a specific cult action, which only appeals to 'religious souls' and leaves the emotions unstirred." In fact, though, Leonardo's own contemporaries spoke of Christian feeling and human passion in the same breath; and the painting pairs them in a quite purposeful way, so that "submission to death and the grant of redemption...come partnered into very coincidence, like the two natures of Christ."
This intersection--the sacramental act with the narrative of human passion and betrayal--is the most prominent of Steinberg's beloved "coincident opposites," and it presents a kind of interpretive requirement. From now on, any observation of the painting must consider the "ever-present alternative" of eucharistic meaning. Steinberg progresses through each of the twelve apostles, sublimating their gestures and expressions into markers of the Resurrection. They enact their emotions; but every posture, gesture, expression, and Balanchine-like conjunction of bodies reminds us, in both subtle and overt ways, of the coincident drama of the Eucharist.
So, too, does Leonardo's perspective construction, perhaps the most famous illusionistic space in all of Western art. The receding banquet hall, with its darkened wall tapestries and faint far-off apertures, presents a huge disjunction. The space is internally coherent, a mathematically exact projection of a rectangular room onto a two-dimensional screen. But it is also radically severed from our visual experience, so that no matter where one stands in the refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie, the painting refuses to "come right." Always, the perspective construction swerves dramatically inward, as if on hinges: "no depicted interior in Renaissance painting is so prone to distortion as one shuffles about."
In fact, as Steinberg shows with the help of a shoebox diorama, the perspective "comes right" at a single spot in the room: on eye level with Christ, several meters elevated over the floor of the refectory. From every other vantage point, the perfectly rectangular perspective construction is "driven toward triangularity" by the eye; the space cranes toward the perfection of the Trinity, and achieves it only at the level of Christ himself. Leonardo's construction is thus both mathematically precise and mystically inclined: "perspective becomes narrative symbolism, becomes choreography, iconography, homily, riddle, and mystery."
This species of interpretation, however ingenious, raises important questions about the practice of iconography, or "writing with images." Leonardo's wacky perspective, Steinberg says, has relevance and beauty insofar as it gives us information about the picture's story. This kind of scholarly judgment arises from a very long movement to make the discipline of art history look more like its imperious older cousin, the Study of Literature. Scholars like Erwin Panofsky elaborated on the method of "reading" works of art, just as we read novels or poems, by finding profound meanings disguised in painted objects. (Seeing a single candle in a chandelier, for instance, we find the meaning "marriage ceremony.") Iconographical readings have come under fire in recent decades for tending to shortchange the paintings in question, for treating them not as objects in their own right but as veils hiding significant meanings. The beauty of the paint itself gets lost in the search for what it represents.
Steinberg's book is an iconographical study extraordinaire , discovering, in the tiniest gesture or form, deep and relevant statements of theology, narrative, and emotion. Ultimately, the practice works here, because the Last Supper is one of the greatest iconographical episodes in all of Scripture: the moment at which symbolic meaning and human emotion absolutely infuse and saturate each other, becoming in all respects perfectly identified. So the Last Supper asks to be looked through for concurrent meanings, at the same time that it remains an immense visceral experience, an exquisite and immediate rendering of human emotion. In this sense, iconographical appreciation sublimates into appreciation of the transcendent beauty of the painting itself. It is Steinberg's important achievement to show us, in deep detail, exactly how this sublimation occurs: to explain the mechanism by which multiple gradations of meaning come to arrive at the same species of pure visual power.
This achievement extends to the larger character of the book itself, with its sweep of thought and many entry-points of interpretation. Just as every perspective from the floor of the Milan refectory is rewarding, every mode of examining the painting bears fruit; and Steinberg's book, with its thousands of strands of meaning and flights of scholarly fancy, seems finally just a suggestion of what might lie beyond. It takes up the familiar dictum that interpretation is infinitely divergent, and shows us that the greatest works of art reward our excursions in every direction.


Susannah Rutherglen is a senior in Trumbull and the associate editor-in-chief of the Yale Review of Books.