Friday, January 26, 2007

What Dorothy Saw

In 1820, just five years after The Battle of Waterloo, William, Mary, and Dorothy Wordsworth went on a Tour of Europe.

On Sunday, September 2nd. 1820, they were in Milan. This was after the Napoleonic occupation. They saw the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.

Even at that time, the painting seems to have been more an icon than simply just a painting.

Dorothy Wordsworth recorded her strong impressions in her Journal:

"Went also to the Convent of Maria della Grazia to view that most famous picture of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, painted on the wall at one end of the Refectory, a very large hall, hung along the sides with smaller pictures and, at the other end, that painting of the crucifixion of which we had seen a copy at Lugano.

This Refectory was used in the days of Buonaparte as a military storehouse, and the mark of a musket-ball, fired in wantonness by a French soldier, is to be seen in one part of the painting of Leonardo da Vinci. Fortunately the ball hit where the injury was as small as it could have been ; and it is only marvellous that this fine work was not wholly defaced during those times of military misrule and utter disregard of all sacred things.

It is perfectly notorious that this picture suffered more from conversant in pictures, I cannot take upon me to describe this, which impressed my feelings and imagination more than any picture I ever saw, though some of the figures are so injured by damp that they are only just traceable.

The most important are, however, happily the least injured ; and that of Our Saviour has only suffered from a general fading in the colours, yet, alas ! the fading and vanishing must go on year after year till, at length, the whole group must pass away. Through the cloisters of the monastery, which are shattered and defaced, pictures are found in all parts, and there are some curious monuments."

Why has the picture exercised such a hold on the imagination and sensibilities of the West ?

In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari attempted an explanation:

"The work, finished after this sort, has always been held by the Milanese in the greatest veneration, and by strangers also, because Leonardo imagined, and has succeeded in expressing, the desire that has entered the minds of the apostles to know who is betraying their Master. So in the face of each one may be seen love, fear, indignation, or grief at not being able to understand the meaning of Christ; and this excites no less astonishment than the obstinate hatred and treachery to be seen in Judas. Besides this, every lesser part of the work shows an incredible diligence; even in the table cloth the weaver's work is imitated in a way that could not be better in the thing itself."

The theme

The theme of the painting is not new. It was not the first or the last on this theme. It was a traditional theme for refectories.

The moment caught are the moments after Christ's pronouncement, 'I say to you that one of you is about to betray me' (Matt 26:21). Surprise, incredulity, fear, anger, denial, suspicion follow these words.

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).

Peter`s vigorous reaction is in contrast to his thrice frightened denial of Christ a few hours later. Thomas the skeptic naturally challenges his master's words. Philip has risen to his feet, dismayed by the foreseeable consequences of the treason. Bartholomew has jumped up and is questioning Simon, who indicates that he knows nothing.

Distracted by the conversation between John and Peter, Judas reaches for a different piece of bread. At the same time, Jesus too stretches out with his right hand towards the bread, and the hand of Judas.

We now know for definite which apostle is which. In the ninetenth century, one of Leonardo`s Notebooks was discovered and deciphered which indicated who was who. Below is a plan showing the identifications.

The depiction

Leonardo da Vinci described painting as "silent poetry".

The painting is the depiction of a few moments. A few moments in an event which for Europeans immersed in a Christian civilisation- whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Anabaptist, Agnostic, or whatever- was one of the most important events in the history of man: the institution and celebration of the First Eucharist. Whatever the differences of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation, it was an event about which Christians of the various denominations could agree, unite and not dispute.

It is a dynamic not a static depiction. The story is told through the depiction, reactions and movements of the faces, bodies and limbs of the characters in the tableau vivant.

The effect of Christ`s statement causes a visible response, in the form of a wave of emotion among the apostles. These reactions are quite specific to each apostle, expressing what Leonardo called the "motions of the mind."

The painter has organised their "action" like a theatre director. He noted the apostles' names and distributed roles:

"One who has just been drinking," Leonardo da Vinci wrote 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 neighbour. 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 neighbour, 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)

Instead of showing the 12 apostles as individual figures, he grouped them in dynamic compositional units of three, framing the figure of Christ, who is isolated in the centre of the picture.

All the diners are seated on one side of the table. None of them have their backs to us. However, most previous depictions had typically excluded Judas by placing him alone on the opposite side of the table from the other twelve. Judas leans back into shadow. He is not distinguished as in previous Last Suppers by the lack of a halo in contra-distinction to the others who would all have haloes. Judas takes the bread at the same time as Jesus, just after Jesus has predicted that this is what his betrayer will do.

On the face of it, it is ultra-realism: the viewer is simply an observer to a scene taking place in a room in Jerusalem which to an onlooker such as one of the servants to the Supper would appear to be nothing out of the ordinary.

This was more apparent in former days than now. See the copy of the picture below. The fine 16th century oil on canvas copy is conserved in the abbey of Tongerlo, Antwerp, Belgium. It reveals many details that are no longer visible on the original.

Beneath the top of the table, and table cloth, one could see the table legs and the feet of Christ and the apostles. Christ was depicted sitting cross-legged. The other feet of the apostles depict action of various types.Unfortunately, the bottom of the picture is now virtually indistinct. Further, at one time a door was inserted immediately beneath the figure of the Christ. His legs and feet are no longer visible.

But as in all Leonardo`s paintings, the effects are subtle which render the painting memorable. The painting's setting is a trompe l'oeil "extension" of the end wall of the actual dining hall. The perspectival viewing point is well above a viewer's head. The walls are skewed inward to create a trapezoidal rather than rectangular room. This has the visual effect of pushing the table with its thirteen men to the immediate foreground.

The figure of Christ is highlighted. It is not finished or rather, it is imperfect. Leonardo said that he could not do justice to the divine face. Accordingly our imaginations are necessarily engaged in the task. However the means by which Christ is highlighted is subtle and not didactic. There is no halo around Christ`s head. However, all of the angles and lighting draw attention to Christ. Christ`s head is framed by an open window in lieu of a halo. Christ's head is at the centre of the composition. Apart from reaching out for bread, he, unlike the others, is relatively still. His head is also the vanishing point toward which all lines of the perspectival projection of the architectural setting converge.

The figure of Christ is suggestive of the Crucifixion, the picture immediately opposite the picture of The Last Supper in the Refectory. The opposite wall of the refectory is covered by a Crucifixion fresco by Donato Montorfano. His head inclines to his left. His arms are outstretched but in a downward position with hands resting on the table. The palms of the hands are visible -the ones which would help bear the weight on the Cross. The feet are in the same position as on the Cross.

The setting

It was painted in the refectory by Leonardo da Vinci for his patron, the Duke of Milan, Lodovico Sforza. The lunettes above the main painting, formed by the triple arched ceiling of the refectory, are painted with the Sforza coats-of-arms.

The refectory was part of the Dominican convent attached to the family church of the Duke.

The opposite wall of the refectory is covered by a Crucifixion fresco by Donato Montorfano, to which Leonardo added figures of the Sforza family in tempera. He painted Lodovico with his eldest son, Massimiliano, and on the other side the Duchess Beatrice with Francesco, her other son, both afterwards Dukes of Milan. The Crucixion was already there when Leonardo began his painting.

Unlike the setting of Ghirlandaio`s Last Supper in the Refectory of the Convent of San Marco in Florence, the civil power (the Sforza) intrudes and looms large within the spiritual realm. Leonardo had to please and not displease his patron. He also had to negotiate the terms of the painting with the Abbot of the Convent. These were the principal constraints within which Leonardo had to work.

The state of the painting and the restorations

It is perhaps surprising that Dorothy Wordsworth was able to make out anything at all. But her fears about the state of the painting were more than justified. The problem arises from the medium of the painting. Leonardo painted The Last Supper on a dry wall rather than on wet plaster, so it is not a true fresco.

That is why the copies of the painting, especially the one in Belgium, and the preparatory sketches are so important.

As early as 1517 the painting was starting to flake. By 1556 — less than sixty years after it was finished — Leonardo's biographer Giorgio Vasari described the painting as already "ruined" and so deteriorated that the figures were unrecognisable.

In 1652, a doorway was cut through the (then unrecognisable) painting, and later bricked up. This can still be seen as the irregular arch shaped structure near the centre base of the painting.

A first restoration was attempted in 1726 by Michelangelo Bellotti, who filled in missing sections with oil paint then varnished the whole mural.

Another restoration was attempted in 1770 by Giuseppe Mazza. Mazza stripped off Bellotti's work then largely repainted the painting. He had redone all but three faces when he was halted due to public outrage.

In 1796 French troops used the refectory as an armory; they threw stones at the painting and climbed ladders to scratch out the Apostles' eyes. The refectory was then later used as a prison.

In 1821 Stefano Barezzi, was called in to remove the painting to a safer location. He badly damaged the centre section before realising that Leonardo's work was not a fresco. Barezzi then attempted to reattach damaged sections with glue.

During World War II, on August 15 1943, the refectory was struck by a bomb. Protective sandbagging prevented the painting being struck by bomb splinters, but it may have been damaged further by the vibration.

From 1978 to 1999, Pinin Brambilla Barcilon guided a major restoration project which undertook to permanently stabilise the painting, and reverse the damage caused by dirt, pollution, and the misguided 18th century and 19th century restoration attempts.

Some areas were deemed unrestorable. These were re-painted with watercolour in subdued colours intended to indicate they were not original work, whilst not being too distracting.

Now, to see the painting, all visitors must book. To further conserve the painting, visitors can only stay in the room for 15 minutes. This means less time for the other paintings including the Crucifixion.

Church and Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan)

Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with The Last Supper (Milan)

LEONARDO da Vinci (b. 1452, Vinci, d. 1519, Amboise)
The Last Supper 1495–1498
Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic 460 × 880 cm, 181 × 346 inches
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan)

LEONARDO da Vinci (b. 1452, Vinci, d. 1519, Amboise)
The Last Supper 1495–1498
Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic 460 × 880 cm, 181 × 346 inches
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan)

The Last Supper 1495–1498 (Detail - Christ)

The Last Supper 1495–1498 (Detail - Christ)

The Last Supper 1495–1498 (Detail)

Last Supper (copy)16th century
Oil on canvas, 418 x 794 cm
Abbey of Tongerlo, Antwerp, Belgium

Giovanni Donato Montorfano (1440 - 1510)
The Crucifixion (1495)
Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan)

LEONARDO da Vinci (b. 1452, Vinci, d. 1519, Amboise)
Study for the Last Supper c. 1495
Pen, ink, silverpoint on blue prepared paper, 145 x 113 mm
Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

LEONARDO da Vinci (b. 1452, Vinci, d. 1519, Amboise)
Study for the Last Supper1494-95
Red chalk on paper, 260 x 392 mm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

LEONARDO da Vinci (b. 1452, Vinci, d. 1519, Amboise)
Study for the Last Supper1494-95
Pen and ink on paper, 266 x 214 mm
Royal Library, Windsor