University of Western Australia Extension
Four Lectures by
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
) - even a wild guess at the time spent on the Supper
is impossible, but it is reasonable to suggest that he actually breezed
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 Leonardos 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 Berensons) 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 Berensons
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 Leonardos 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 Leonardos 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
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 Michelangelos Last Judgement suggest that the leading
hand was that of a feeble mannerist of the sixteenth century.
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 Leonardos pupils.
Luminosity, the feeling for atmosphere which distinguishes all Leonardos
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. (Clarks 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 Pellicciolis 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 paintings superhuman strength
was clearly influenced by the pan Germanic ideals and by the Italian propaganda
on the Italian Genius (Genio Italico) which dominated those
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 Luodovicos correspondence.
He was probably worried by Leonardos 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
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 Leonardos 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 Leonardos,
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, Leonardos 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
technique and the famous blunder
We have a very vivid first hand account of Leonardos 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
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 Leonardos way of painting: his craftsmanship, his
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
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
His way of painting was very similar to a thinking process - new thoughts
induced by previous thoughts. Leonardos 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.Leonardos
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
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
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 Christs 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 (Leonardos
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
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 Leonardos 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 Peters right hand is not consistent with
the position of Peters elbow and does not explain the clear scraping
on the wrist of the knife holding arm: somebody did not want approve of
Leonrados mysterious message? His other hand is in front of John
s (Maria Magdalenas) 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
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 (Christs
brother) is trying to understand whats 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 Moors
court. James the Elder is said to be Leonardos 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
In my opinion, the most thorough and complete report on this matter is
by Leo Steinberg (Leonardos 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. Its 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.
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
The room in which the last supper is depicted appears to be above the
floor of the Refectory, but the observers 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
Leonardos 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 Leonardos 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 viewers 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 arms reach from the table.
A book review
historian Leo Steinberg claims the last word on Leonardo's Last Supper
Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper
MIT Press, 312pp, $40
reviewed by Susannah Rutherglen
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.