Restoration of the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519 -- The Last Supper 1498
Tempera on plaster 460 x 880 cm
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Refectory), Milan


Restoration of the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci


The most recent restoration of Leonardo's Last Supper was completed in May 1999. Work on this most recent restoration began in 1979 to repair areas where paint had flaked away, and quickly expanded to uncover fragments of the original painting covered by repainting from the above "early restorations."

Pinin Brambilla Barcilon has conducted this latest restoration of Leonardo's Last Supper under the auspices of Milan's Superintendent for Artistic and Historic Heritage. She is a renowned restoration artist who made use of various new technologies to bring life back into Leonardo's masterpiece. 

Brambilla's task was first and foremost to stop further deterioration. Chemical analysis suggested that the over-painting which remained, was still eating away at Leonardo's original paint, and areas that were flaking away were taking parts of Leonardo's work with it as well. So, she decided the most pressing project was to remove everything that had been added after Leonardo finished the painting in 1498. 

The restoration therefore demanded accuracy at the micron level, and attention to the smallest details. Microscopic pictures were utilized to magnify most areas of the painting. Such pictures demonstrated how mold, glue, repaint, and smog collected on the painting while infrared reflectoscopy enabled restorers to see the artist's original painting under layers of paint. Small diameter coring surveys also were performed. Samples taken from the corings were analyzed in laboratories to provide information on colors and materials utilized by Leonardo da Vinci. Miniature TV cameras inserted in the boreholes also provided information on the cracks and cavities. Sonar and radar surveys were also taken to provide information about the elastic and structural characteristics of the masonry and base that the painting resides upon. 

Therefore using the above technologically advanced techniques for analysis and employing the use of solvents to remove multiple layers, Pinin Brambilla faced an extremely slow and meticulous process. Often, only an area the size of a postage stamp was cleaned each day. The twenty year project has proved to be quite successful however. 

Once referring to Leonardo's Last Supper as a sick patient, Brambilla has proclaimed that she and her colleagues have been able to give back a reading of the dimensions, "of the expressive and chromatic intensity that we thought was lost forever." Brambilla, besides letting the original colors come through, added some basic color to blank areas in a way that the addition cannot be confused by the viewer with the original color. In certain areas, blank spots were left and not even painted over. Most importantly, the restorer believes that the luminosity of the original painting has been regained. 

Leonardo's Last Supper was reopened to the public in May 1999. The painting is now preserved by a sophisticated air filtration system, moistured monitored environment, and dust-filtering chambers. Visitors must make reservations and groups are limited to 25 people for viewing times of only 15 minutes.


Schematic Diagram of the Last Supper

Schematic Diagram of The Last Supper -- Names of the Apostles

The identification of the disciples is based on an old copy of the Last Supper in Ponte Capriasca with the relevant names. Leonardo himself avoided inscriptions of this kind since, like haloes, they detract from the pictorial effect.


Commentary from Art Historians

Martin Kemp on The Last Supper:

The Last Supper's primary purpose was that of Biblical story-telling. It was what Alberti would have termed an istoria, that is to say, a controlled and significant exposition of a worthy subject....

The ebb and flow of movement in the Last Supper is the outward effect of the inner causes of motion; the individual movement of each disciple speaks the bodily language of their individual minds, as each is propelled into motion by the dynamic coursing of "animal spirits" from their cerebral recesses. Look, for example, at the group to the left of Christ: the impulsive surge of shock expressed by Peter's angular motion, as he elbows his way towards Christ, is carefully contrasted with the sleepy curves of young John, and set in counterpoint to the tense recoil of Judas, those tendons contract like taut bow strings.....

Most obvious are ripples caused by Christ's pronouncement,

'I say to you that one of you is about to betray me' (Matt 26:21).

But other implications are clearly present: Judas' left hand, hovering above a dish, echoes Christ's continuing words,

'He that dippeth his hand with me into the dish, he shall betray me' (Matt 26:23).

Christ's own hands, his right closing towards a glass of wine and his left directed towards a piece of bread, suggest his institution of the Eucharist, either immediately after his betrayal announcement (according to Matthew) or immediately before (in Luke's Gospel); and over an even wider temporal range, Peter holds a knife which prefigures his severing of a soldier's ear, and which is also pointed towards Bartholomew at the end of the table, perhaps in anticipation of the latter's martyrdom by flaying....

It was Leonardo's desire for richness of tone and colour which led him to abandon the traditional fresco method for wall painting in favour of an experimental technique, more akin to tempera painting on a gessoed panel.....All the factors we have described so far -- narrative skill, psychological expression and colouristic control -- convey the impression that we are dealing with a supremely rational depiction of natural phenomena. This is undoubtedly the impression which Leonardo aimed to produce, and corresponds to the effect which his contemporaries recorded.

(Leonardo Da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man by Martin Kemp [Harvard Univ Press, 1981], pages 190-194)


A. Richard Turner on The Last Supper:

The most tangible, if severely damaged, work of the Milanese years is his mural The Last Supper, in the refectory of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, probably begun in 1495 and finished in 1498....Painted in an experimental medium that proved to be disastrously flawed, the mural began to disintegrate during Leonardo's own lifetime....the mural is being painstakingly conserved as of this writing, although at best it can be only a shadow of its original appearance.

Picture: refectory (interior) of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan (see also Turner, page 38)

Refectory of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan (Interior, Last Supper in background)

Leonardo conceived the painting's setting as a trompe l'oeil extension of the end wall of the actual dining hall, with Jesus and the apostles understood as being at the head table, in the traditional Tuscan manner....The painted space, however, belongs to an ideal world: the perspectival viewing point is well above a viewer's head, and the walls are skewed inward to create a trapezoidal rather than rectangular room, which has the visual effect of pushing the table with its thirteen men to the immediate foreground.

There has been much written about the narrative and theological nuances of the interpretation, but the basic point could not be more clear: Jesus has announced that one of the gathered company will betray him, and waves of emotion roll through his apostles. The calm figure of Jesus is the emotional center of this storm....

Leonardo, however, brilliantly conceives several contrasting types, from the beautiful young man to the grizzled elder, disposed in four groups of three persons each. These groups in turn establish a rhythm, from right to left: one group whose motion is toward Jesus, a second that pulls back, a third (of whom Judas is to the left) that again pulls away, and the last that inclines toward Jesus.....

It is a story of anguish on the verge of explosion, but also anguish subsumed as a moment in the eternal stability of God's beneficence, reflected in the harmonic proportions of the mural's overall scheme.

The Last Supper is the locus classicus of the power of painting's mute testimony to challenge the effectiveness of verbal narrative. Whatever the niceties of theological interpretation, the painting immediately proclaims the theme of betrayal: twelve men variously react in posture, gesture, and facial expression to the announcement of Jesus that one of them will betray him. The scene is a conversation of hands, as if Leonardo unconsciously or otherwise were aware of the ancient rhetorician Quintilian's reflections on the potency of speaking hands.

(Inventing Leonardo by A. Richard Turner [Alfred A. Knopf, 1993], pages 37-41, 194)


Serge Bramly on The Last Supper:

The Last Supper depicts the final meal that Jesus took with his disciples, when he instituted the communion service. This was a traditional subject for the decoration of convent refectories. The earthly tables of the monks echoed the sacred table of the Gospels; the temporal world met the eternal....

He chose to represent not Jesus' institution of the Eucharist (although the bread and wine are there in front of him) but the moment when he tells the disciples that one of them will betray him.

'Now when the even was come,' says the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 'he sat down with the twelve. And as they did eat, he said: 'Verily I say unto you that one of you shall betray me.' And they were exceeding sorrowful and began every one of them to say unto him, 'Lord, is it I?' And he answered and said, 'He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me.'

Painting, according to Leonardo, was "silent poetry." His task was to transpose the Scriptures, to tell the story -- the drama -- through the gestures, attitudes, and physiognomies of the characters. He organized their "action" like a theater director. He noted the apostles' names and distributed roles:

"One who has just been drinking," he writes in his notebook, "has put down his glass and turned his head toward another, who is speaking. Another, entwining his fingers together, is turning with a frown toward his neighbor. Another displays the palms of his hands and shrugs his shoulders up toward his ears, struck dumb with amazement. Another whispers in the ear of his neighbor, who turns toward him and inclines his ear, while holding in one hand a knife and in the other a bread roll partly cut." (Leonardo's Notebooks)

Note the prime importance of the ear and the mouth: the word provokes and carries the "action," while the hands translate and underline the words exchanged and the speaker's reactions.

Thus we can "read" into the work surprise, incredulity, fear, anger, denial, suspicion: which of the disciples has betrayed? Thomas the skeptic naturally challenges his master's words; Philip has risen to his feet, dismayed by the foreseeable consequences of the treason; Bartholomew, too, has jumped up and is questioning Simon, who indicates that he knows nothing. Some ask questions and react with shock; others are angry and protest their loyalty and innocence. It is as if two human waves are unfurling and rolling this way and that on either side of the equilateral triangle formed by the figure of Jesus -- whose calm contrasts with the agitation in the assembly. Only John, the disciple whom Jesus loved sitting beside him like a mirror image of his master, eyes closed and face tilted, seems to understand that the Son of Man must go to meet his fate -- "as it was written," Saint Luke says.

Leonardo divides the apostles into four groups of three. But one of the disciples, although he enters (or pretends to enter) into the general movement, is distinguished from his peers: the dark Judas, in the shadow of John, his hand almost touching that of Jesus: in another moment they will be putting their hands into the dish, and the gesture will give him away, as has been prophesied.

(Leonardo: Discovering the Life of Leonardo da Vinci by Serge Bramly [Edward Burlingame / HarperCollins, 1991], pages 276-278)


Bruce Boucher on The Last Supper:

Leonardo's composition points, in fact, in another direction, for it conforms to traditional Florentine depictions of the Last Supper, stressing the betrayal and sacrifice of Jesus rather than the institution of the Eucharist and the chalice. At the same time, St. John was invariably represented as a beautiful young man whose special affinity with Jesus was expressed by his being seated at Jesus' right. Leonardo's St. John conforms to this type, and parallels for the absence of a chalice appear in earlier Italian examples.

("Does 'The Da Vinci Code' Crack Leonardo?", from the New York Times, August 3, 2003)


Elizabeth Lev on The Last Supper:

One thing for sure, nothing in Leonardo's writings suggests that the person next to Jesus is anyone other than John.

[Author of The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown's] preposterous theory that the figure of the Apostle John is really Mary Magdalene also founders in the face of the facts...The painting happens to be on the wall in the refectory of the Dominican convent annexed to the church, where the monks ate all their meals. Not only would such a place be ill-suited for subversive art, given that it was never viewed by the public, the Dominican order had the responsibility of seeking out heresy before it spread. Only a colossal fool would paint a heresy where the monks could study it day after day. While no evidence suggest that Leonardo held the church in contempt, proof abounds that he was no fool.

("Leonardo's Real Intention" February 12, 2004, and "The Real Leonardo" article from JesusDecoded.com sponsored by the U.S. Catholic Bishops)


Comparison with other paintings of a young St. John:

unknown artist -- Jesus Christ and the Apostle John c. 1320
unknown artist "Jesus Christ and the Apostle John" c. 1320
Jaume Baco Jacomart c. 1450
Jaume Bašo Jacomart c. 1450
Dieric Bouts the elder c. 1464 - 1467
Dieric Bouts the elder c. 1464 - 1467
Martin Schongauer c. 1470 - 1475
Martin Schongauer c. 1470 - 1475
Cosimo Rosselli c. 1481 - 1482
Cosimo Rosselli c. 1481 - 1482
Domenico Ghirlandaio c. 1486
Domenico Ghirlandaio c. 1486
Leonardo c. 1495 - 1498
Leonardo c. 1495 - 1498
Fra Bartolommeo c. 1504
Fra Bartolommeo c. 1504
Andrea del Sarto c. 1517
Andrea del Sarto c. 1517
Correggio c. 1520 - 1524
Correggio c. 1520 - 1524
Andrea del Sarto c. 1520 - 1525
Andrea del Sarto c. 1520 - 1525
Hans Holbein the younger c. 1524 - 1525
Hans Holbein the younger c. 1524 - 1525
Jacobo Bassano c. 1542
Jacobo Bassano c. 1542
Juan de Juanes c. 1560
Juan de Juanes c. 1560
El Greco c. 1608
El Greco c. 1608
Joachim A. Wtewael c. 1610 - 1615
Joachim A. Wtewael c. 1610 - 1615
Daniele Crespi c. 1624 - 1625
Daniele Crespi c. 1624 - 1625
Philippe de Champaigne c. 1630
Philippe de Champaigne c. 1630
 

Last Supper c. 1486 of Domenico Ghirlandaio

Last Supper (portion showing three apostles) c. 1486 Fresco in San Marco, Florence
by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494 Firenze)


Scholarly Books on Leonardo:

The World of Leonardo da Vinci: Man of Science, Engineer, and Dreamer of Flight by Ivor B. Hart (Macdonald, 1961)
Leonardo the Scientist by Zammattio / Marinoni / Brizio (McGraw-Hill, 1980)
Leonardo da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man by Martin Kemp (Harvard Univ Press, 1981)
Leonardo: Discovering the Life of Leonardo da Vinci by Serge Bramly (Edward Burlingame / HarperCollins, 1991)
Inventing Leonardo by A. Richard Turner (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993)
Math and the Mona Lisa: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci by Bulent Atalay (Smithsonian Books, 2004)
Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind by Charles Nicholl (Viking Penguin, 2004)

Refectory of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan (Exterior)

Picture: refectory (exterior) of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan (from Wikipedia)


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