The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1497)
Painting Analysis: The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1497)
In this paper, we shall do a thorough analysis of Leonardo’s painting “The Last Supper”. To do so, we intend to write about the author, providing a brief bibliography that could point us to his painting. After that, we shall discuss the belief system of the author, and his societal influences, such as the place and the historical time he lived on. Afterward, we shall discuss the painting’s genre; technique; style traits, and influences. At the end of our analysis, we intend to provide a description of the current state of the painting.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Biography. Leonardo da Vinci was born near in the Tuscan town of Vinci. He was the illegitimate son of a local lawyer. In his youth, he served as an apprentice of Verrocchio, one of the most important Tuscan painters of the Quattrocento. In 1478, he left is teacher’s workshop and became an independent artist. After a few prolific years as an independent artist, he moved to Milan, to work for the Sforza family, one of the most important and powerful families from Italy. In Milan, he worked as an engineer, painter, sculptor, and architect. It was during those years where he painted The Last Supper. The mural is located in the refectory of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The painter stayed in Milan until the French invaded the city in 1499, and the Sforza family was forced to flee. He later moved to Florence and painted the famous Mona Lisa between the years of 1503-1506. He returned to Milan and went to France after being invited by king Francis I, he died two years later in 1519. The most striking feature about Leonardo was his capacity to be able to create an eclectic array of things. From sculptures to lens, from painting to castles. He was a master of many subjects, a man whose legacy still lingers in our society
Author’s belief system, and societal influences. By the 16th century, the renaissance philosophy was spreading through Europe. The renaissance philosophy was called humanism. Humanism rebuked the influence of scholastic and conventional philosophies, and promoted education, and the idea of a well-rounded man capable of assessing its place in the world, and the society. Leonardo was the best example of a renaissance man. A well-cultivated person who is always willing to learn something new, and discover the secrets of the classic world. However, many times Leonardo is seen as an illiterate, or a mere copyist of other’s ideas. It is true that Leonardo holds a great debt to tradition, but the independent contributions he did are too important to be bypassed (Kemp 251). When reading the paper da Vinci left, we can see that Leonardo was an exceptional man who excelled in all the artistic fields, and did substantial contributions to many other subjects. Leonardo was a renaissance man, but he was not a scholar. That is why his work is so interesting, because he relies on his senses, rather than in scholar sources to do his works. Da Vinci’s senses were so keen that he was able to spot and reproduce the movements of the body with incredible precision, and since he was not a bookish kind of man, he was more interested in what his senses showed him. (Gombrich 185).
Painting’s Genre. Fearing to sound too general, the painting genre is High Renaissance painting. Besides, it is one of the greatest examples of Christian Art, as it illustrates one of the scenes regarding the last days of Christ. High Renaissance represented a culmination from a period of tentative artistic explorations, and the usage of new techniques and approaches. In the Early Renaissance, the artists aimed to calque the classic art, in the High Renaissance, the artists had their own tools to create a new paradigm that stemmed from the classics, but at the same time, used new techniques such as Da Vinci’s chiaroscuro, or the usage of oil paint instead of tempera. (Esaak 1). The Last Supper can be regarded as one of the first examples of High Renaissance art, as it separates from the early renaissance aesthetics, with a completely new approach and usage of materials.
Technique and Composition. The Last Supper was not easy to execute. In this work Leonardo was uncertain about which technique he should use. On one hand, he had the traditional fresco painting; on the other he had the possibility of doing something completely new, and use oil, and tempera on stone. He decided on using the newer technique, and the results proved unsuccessful (Heydenreich 1) This of course, does not mean that the work is bad, or a failure. On the contrary, the work is masterfully done, but the technique used was not tested before, and the results were not satisfactory. Concerning the painting’s composition, we are in front of a picture with a rectangular composition. The painting is done so as Christ remains the centerpiece among the other figures, and the window behind him gives him a blue halo of sanctity that Da Vinci wanted to convey. We can see that instead of giving Christ a halo, as painters before him would have done, he devised this method as to present a scene of the real life, but with divine elements scattered around. (Gombrich 189)
Style Traits. The high renaissance paintings have a series of characteristics that separate them from the earlier work. Actually, many of the advancements done in the renaissance occurred as a way to steer clear from the older conventions. The first characteristic we will mention is the perspective. Renaissance artists rediscovered perspective and added it to their paintings in order to achieve a sense of fullness, and dimensionality. Another important trait is the usage of Chiaroscuro, the chiaroscuro played a key role in the renaissance, and especially to Leonardo, who invented it, and used it in his paintings as a way to add dramatic points in his paintings. In the same way, something that differentiates Leonardo’s painting from the previous depictions of the scene is the emotion in his subjects. In the painting, we see that the disciples are not just lying there, eating with Jesus. On the contrary, the disciples were lifelike and had their own agendas. Last, the Renaissance art rediscovered the proportions. Leonardo studied proportions and human anatomy. We can see that his drawings are incredible detailed and lifelike. He spent years drawing and studying the human body to be able to depict so clearly what he saw. That added realism gave the paintings a life-like appearance, and in the case of The Last Supper, helped to transmit the message and the drama of the eventual death of Christ.
Influences. Da Vinci was a disciple of Verrocchio, a Tuscan artist who worked for the Medici family. Verrocchio was a famed artist, and many talented artists emerged from his workshop. In Verrocchio’s workshop, Leonardo learned the secrets of the metal foundry to create sculptures; drawing, and the study of plants and animals to include them in his paintings; the usage of color, and perspective. However, Verrocchio was more a sculptor than a painter, and after seeing his works, we see a resemblance with those of the Venetian Renaissance. (Gombrich 184). Leonardo learned much of his teacher, but he surpassed him and created a legacy of art that is still with us.
Current State of the Painting. As we said, the painting, despite being a masterpiece, was done with the wrong technique. Instead of being a fresco painting, it was done on oil and tempera, which accelerated the deterioration of the pigment and the stone. Besides, the position of the painting, who is painted on a refectory, whose kitchen produced steam that damaged the painting. In the 16th century, the damage was obvious, and the work was ruined. In the 17th century, many painters attempted to restore it, with various degrees of success, and mainly aggravated the situation. It was only until the end of the World War II when the actual damage was assessed, and the decay process was stopped. At the end of the 20th century, a major restauration was done, and in 1999 the work was restored to its original brilliance. Sadly, after all the restorations done to the painting, little of the original painting remains (Heydenreich 1)
Esaak, S. “High Renaissance in Italy – Figures of Art History.” About.com. Web. <http://arthistory.about.com/cs/arthistory10one/a/high_ren_2.htm>.
Heydenreich, L.H. “The Last Supper.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/336408/Leonardo-da-Vinci/59781/The-Last-Supper>.
Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. Sixteenth ed. Phaidon, 1995. Print.
Kemp, M. Leonardo Da Vinci, the Marvellous Works of Nature and Man. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1981. Print.