The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci, 1495-97

Fresco 480 x 880 cm / Santa Maria delle Grazie Museum

In 1495, Leonardo Da Vinci began painting the Last Supper on the wall of the refectory (dining hall) of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, and completed it in 1498. Leonardo was commissioned to execute the painting in the Dominican monastery of this Church by Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. The church and friary found an ambitious patron in Ludovico Sforza. The Duke wanted to give visible expression to his position in both impressive buildings like the grand Church and grandiose paintings like the Last Supper. Therefore, Santa Maria delle Grazie became the court church, burial place for members of the Ducal family, and home to Leonardo's famous painting. The Last Supper was painted on the northern wall of the refectory. It measures fifteen by twenty-nine feet. It stands whole as of today, except for the construction of a doorway in 1653, eliminating the lower central area of the painting. Leonardo's method of working on the Last Supper was unprecedented. The Last Supper is not a fresco. Leonardo's intense concentration and hesitant manner of execution did not suit the commonly used medium for mural painting, in which the pigment had to be applied quickly before the plaster dried, precluding any changes during the course of execution. Instead of fresco, Leonardo devised his own technique for mural painting, a sort of tempera on stone.

The wall was first coated with a strong base of some material which would not only absorb the tempera emulsion but also protect it against moisture. His base was compounded out of gesso, pitch, and mastic, and has not proved durable. The pigment soon began to break loose from the base and a process of progressive decay set in. As early as 1517, it was noted to have begun to decay. More than wood panel used in frescoes, the brick wall of the Last Supper has been subject to changes in temperature, humidity, and moisture. These factors have created serious damage to Leonardo's painting and place serious doubt on his new technique. With regard to his use of perspective, Leonardo was successful in employing it to create an entension of the refectory and thus provides an illusionistic effect. There have been discoveries of how Leonardo made use of this artistic measure. A hole into which a nail had been driven has been found, located in the temple of Jesus. The location is the key spatial focus of Leonardo's painting of the Last Supper. He drove a nail into the wall and radiated string in various directions to help him see the perspective of the room he was painting.

Da Vinci's Last Supper has become one of the most widely appreciated masterpieces in the world. It began to acquire its unique reputation immediately after it was finished in 1498 and its prestige has never diminished. Despite the many changes in tastes, artistic styles, and rapid physical deterioration of the painting itself, the painting's status as an extraordinary creation has never been questioned nor doubted.


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