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Last Supper Paintings from Giotto to Leonardo’s Cenacolo
Florence Capital of the Last Supper
Many of the frescoes described in this article are located in Florence. In the XIV and XV centuries the Last Supper was a traditional scene for the decoration of the friaries’ refectories in Tuscany. About thirty friaries and monasteries have been counted in Florence and the surrounded territory, decorated with a Last Supper or a connected scene.
The Last Supper in the History of Art
The Last Supper, the meal that Jesus shares with the Apostles during the Passover, is one of the most significant events told in the Gospels. Jesus and his twelve disciples are gathered around the same table and while they are eating, suddenly Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him and then He gives to them the bread to eat and the wine to drink. This is the origin of the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is celebrated during every Christian Mass.
The most ancient representation we know of this sacred and dramatic meal is in the mosaics of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, the church built by Theodoric, King of the Goths, in the early VI century. This simple and powerful representation already evidences the key elements that all the subsequent pictures will have to face: the disposition of the Apostles around the table, the depiction of Christ and Judas, the choice about what aspect to privilege between the revelation of the betrayal and the foundation of the Eucharist.
The unknown author of the Ravenna’s mosaics arranges the twelve Apostles around a semicircular table, in a way that all of them are visible. Judas keeps his eyes lowered while Jesus, in front of him, is revealing his betrayal. It is not casual, maybe, that the most famous representation of the Last Supper, the Cenacolo by Leonardo da Vinci, recuperates, nearly 1000 years later, this basic representation, featuring the disciples all at the same side of the table. This time Jesus is in the middle and his revelation shakes the Apostles at his two sides as a wave.
Between the first great picture of Ravenna and the Leonardo’s fresco in Santa Maria delle Grazie, many other representations have been elaborated. Some artists have arranged the Apostles all around the table, some others have isolated the figure of Judas, some have preferred to depict the moment of the Eucharist, some, again, have tried to transport the spirituality and the mystery of the event into the painting. After the high and simple representation by Leonardo (1494-1497), become a mandatory reference for everyone, Tintoretto (late XVI century) has attempted to arrange a new drama unsettling the disposition and the lighting of the scene. Tiepolo (1750) has staged a theatrical and nearly metaphysic scene.
Even the XX century has not renounced to represent the Last Supper. The large canvas by Salvador Dalì puts the event in a place out of the time, characterized by a geometric symmetry and a metaphysic light, where the Communion of the Christ’s body is dominant. Andy Warhol has reproduced the Leonardo’s Last Supper contaminated by the popular brands of our days.
On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”— Matthew 26:17
Giotto and Pietro Lorenzetti
Giotto paints the Last Supper in the early XIV century, in a panel of the great cycle of frescoes which decorates the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The commissioner of the chapel, Enrico Scrovegni, was the son of Rinaldo, who had cumulated an enormous richness by lending money. In his poem, Dante had put him in hell, in the group of the usurers. To redeem himself, the son had offered this church near his palace and had called the greatest artists of his days to decorate it.
Giotto sets the supper in a sober room, decorated only by slender columns and gothic ornaments on the roof. The Apostles are sitting on simple benches, at the two sides of the table, one in front of the other. They are distinguished by an accurate choice of the dress colours, which interrupts the monotony of the representation. The beloved disciple, John, is reclined on the Jesus breast, Judas is taking the food from the bowl, in the act that reveals his betrayal at the eyes of the others. He is wearing a yellow robe, the colour that in the Middle Age symbolizes the deception. The Apostles look one at the other, as a confirmation that they have understood what it is happening. Glances and not words, because the mysterious moment is overhung by the silence.
“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me”— Matthew 26:23
The Senese painter Pietro Lorenzetti is called around 1320 to complete the decoration of the lower basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. For the fresco of the Last Supper, he adopts a circular table in an elegant gothic room, set on the background of a blue starry sky. Judas, the only Apostle without the aureole, is making the gesture that will betray him. The other disciples, the heads surrounded by golden aureoles that recall the stars in the sky, look at Judas or exchange a glance or have a word with their companion. Giotto, interested to the spiritual aspect of the episode, had set the supper in a bare environment, where the figures of the Apostles stand out. Lorenzetti enriches the room and the table of details and decorations, he likes telling a fact and he lingers on the representation of the supper, he adds the servants who discuss what it is happening and the kitchen with the curious dishwashers, the dog licking the dishes and the cat sleeping near the fireplace.
And as they were eating, he took bread, and when he had blessed, he brake it, and gave to them, and said, "Take ye: this is my body."— Mark 14:22-24
The Dominican Monk Giovanni da Fiesole, better known as Fra Angelico, worked to the decoration of the San Marco Friary in Florence, between 1438 and 1446. The wide and organic project included the decoration of every single cell of the monks and the common areas. Fra Angelico frescoed the Last Supper in one of the monks’ cells. He chooses to overcome the betrayal of Judas: his representation is about Christ distributing the Eucharist to the Apostles. The supper takes place in a simple and bare room. Through the two windows we can see a house, the door of the room is open on a well with a palm tree, a clear reference to the city of Jerusalem: the episode happens in the history, is a milestone of the civilization. Eight Apostles are arranged behind an L-shaped table, the other four have left their seats that now appear empty at the table, they are kneeling on the floor and have the hands clasped. Judas is among them, only the black colour of his aureole distinguishes him from the others.
In the paintings of Giotto and Lorenzetti, Judas had red hair, a feature that denoted the negative characters in the Middle Ages. This Judas is pictured with hair and beard of a deep black, a representation that will become the typical iconography of Judas. Nevertheless, Judas is waiting for the Eucharist, he has the same attitude than the other Apostles. Jesus is going towards the Apostles, we walks through the room as he would do in the world, he goes towards the twelve and he goes towards the world people at the time. There is not anxiety or tragedy, but calm and peace: the betrayal is overcome in the Eucharist of Christ and also Judas can participate.
Dieric Bouts (1415 – 1475) was, with Hans Memling, one of the most considered Flemish painters of his days. He was a wealthy and successful man, very demanded and well paid, when, in 1464, the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament of Leuven, the city near Brussels where he lived, commissioned a polyptych from him, centred on the Holy Sacrament. It took Dieric four years to complete the work: he was paid the stellar amount of 200 Renish Florins by the Confraternity (it is equivalent to the salaries of 10 foremen for 100 work days!) but he had to dedicate himself only to this work. The polyptych is formed by five panels, the central one is the largest and represents the Last Supper, that is considered the Bouts’ masterpiece.
There is an evident different view-point between this painting and the Italian depictions that we have seen until now, and also those that we will see later. The scene is arranged in the dining room of a contemporary Flemish home, with a large table at the centre. Christ and the Apostles have not the aureole around their heads, they rather recall priests who are praying at the moment of the Eucharist, in the intimacy of a home. Bouts represents the theme of the “convivium”, the sacred moment of the Eucharist, consumed in community and in individual meditation, as a miracle that continuously repeats in the centuries. This is why the scene is set in a modern environment. The betrayal is just suggested by the black colours of Judas, the only Apostle not depicted in the act of praying. His mantle has fallen from his shoulder and he is trying to put it on: this is the fine sign of the unveiling of his betrayal. The man standing in prayer behind Saint Joseph, on the right of Jesus, should be the master of the house, i.e. the provost of the Confraternity. The man who is standing under the arch, wearing the vermillion cap, has been identified as the author.
Andrea del Castagno, Ghirlandaio and Perugino
The long series of Last Suppers in the Florentine territory begins with the fresco of Taddeo Gaddi, pupil of Giotto, in the refectory of Santa Croce, dating 1333. This early painting, at the base of a monumental crucifixion, fixes a model that, with slight modifications, will be followed by all the successive artists, until to Leonardo. Jesus and the Apostles are set at one side of a long table, Judas, black in the hair and in the beard, is alone at the other side, in front of Jesus. The beloved disciple, John, is sleeping in the arms of Christ.
A century later, in 1447, Andrea del Castagno repeats the Gaddi’s model in the refectory of the nuns of Santa Apollonia. The profile of Judas, characterized by the sharp lines of the face (the ear, the cheekbone, the nose, the beard) and by the raven colour of the hair, stands before the observer and faces all the Apostles at the other side of the table. The Apostles, Christ and Judas in the moment of the revelation of the betrayal: these are the only elements of the painting, inserted in a sort of box featuring the furniture of the Roman period. Each one of the Apostles is depicted with his own reaction of disbelief or dismay, the different colours and the veins of the marble squared panels behind them underline this storm of sentiments, as a beating heart.
Domenico Bigordi was the master of the young Michelangelo, who took the first steps in his workshop. He inherited the name Ghirlandaio from the father, goldsmith, so called because of his ability to make garland-shaped necklaces. He is the author of four “cenacolos” in the Florence territory. The two frescoes in the convents of San Marco (the same decorated by Fra Angelico) and Ognissanti, dating around 1480, are very similar. The scheme is the same already experienced by Gaddi and Andrea del Castagno. Domenico opts for a U-shaped table, so he can build a more concentrated scene. He set the supper in a portico, opened, through two large arched windows, on a garden dense of citrus trees – a sort of paradise - and a sky crossed by birds. These naturist aspects, the finely embroidered tablecloth populated by fruits and vegetables, give the scene airiness and lightness and absorb the drama which is happening among Christ and the Apostles. The nature, with a thick weaving of symbols and references, is the true protagonist of the scene. In the fresco of San Marco, the cat on the floor, animal considered malicious, is specular to Judas. It watches the spectators as the soul escaped from the body of Judas.
Cenacolo: What Is It?
The Italian term Cenacolo (from the Latin word coenaculum, the part of the house where the Romans had their coena, i.e. the diner) indicates the site where the Last Supper took place (thought to be on the Mount Zion, outside the walls of the old Jerusalem) and, by extension, the Last Supper itself. The Leonardo painting in Santa Maria delle Grazie is known both as Cenacolo and Last Supper.
Perugino, the art name of the painter Pietro Vannucci, born in Perugia and active in Florence in the second half of XV century, works for the convent of the Franciscan nuns around the year 1485. The convent had been founded as a dependence of the monastery of Sant’Anna in Foligno. The large fresco in the refectory, depicting the Last Supper, had been attributed initially to his pupil Raphael. Perugino inspires to the work of Ghirlandaio, but he sets the table and the bench where the Apostles are seating in an architecture of squared columns, so that the painting appears divided into two floors, that also separate two successive events: the scene of the Last Supper in the foreground and the prayer in Gethsemane in the background. Judas, isolated as usually at one side of the table, is turning towards the observer. He looks towards us. He seems to be conscious of the enormity that he is doing and to seek an impossible forgiveness for the inevitability of his act.
While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.”— Mark 14:18
Leonardo painted the Last Supper or Cenacolo in the refectory of the Dominican church of Santa Maria delle Grazie between 1494 and 1497. The Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, had chosen this site as the “family church” and had commissioned Bramante and Leonardo the works of embellishment. This large fresco (460 x 880 cm, 181.1 x 346.5 in) is surely the most famous depiction of the Last Supper and is considered a great art masterpiece and a great technical failure at the same time. Leonardo wanted to experience a new technique, to avoid the rapid execution times that the fresco painting requires. The experimental technique used by the artist, combined to the humidity of the wall, confining with the kitchen, provoked a quick deterioration of the paint, that was already visible in the first decades of 1500. The painting has been restored several times over the centuries. The last works of restoration, conducted after an accurate study, according to the most advanced knowledge, have been carried out from 1977 to 1999. They have consolidated the remaining traces of the paint and have recovered, where possible, the original tones of the colours.
They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely you don’t mean me?”— Mark 14:19
Leonardo has set the Last Supper in a simple and wide environment, articulated by a repetition of rectangular and squared forms: the tapestries at the walls, the three windows on the back wall and the coffered ceiling. He inserted the painting in the central sector of the back wall of the refectory and built a perfect perspective, so that the Cenacolo appears as an extension of the refectory and the event seems to be still happening under the eyes of the monks. He chose to depict the exact moment after Jesus has pronounced his chilling words: “one of you will betray me” and the Apostles begin to ask him who is the betrayer. This moment of bewilderment fits perfectly the Leonardo’s theory about the representation of the soul’s motions. For the first time, the Apostles are not represented fixed at their places. They are divided in four groups of three, two groups at the right of the Lord and other two at his left, and discuss animatedly about the words that Jesus has just pronounced. The symmetry between the right and the left groups of the Apostles is retaken also in the colours of their clothes, that repeat the red and blue of Christ’s dress. The food that they were eating is abandoned on the table, as a large still life, Christ is isolated at the centre of the table, at the centre of the whole composition. Judas is silent, turned towards Jesus he shrinks back and holds the money bag in his hand, the only Apostle apparently not interested in the words of Jesus. A silence that already condemns him.
The work of Leonardo became rapidly a “milestone” of the sacred art and was imitated and copied countless times. Andrea del Sarto, in 1520 – 1525, continues the tradition of the Florence last suppers in the monastery of San Salvi, but he follows the Leonardo’s lesson putting Judas with Jesus at the same side of table and showing the reactions of the Apostles, who agitate around the figure isolated and solemn of Christ
In XVI century many monasteries in the Venetian territory commission a last supper for their refectories. Venorese and Tintoretto engage several times with this theme and try to find a personal way with respect to the Florentine and Leonardo’s model. The Veronese’s enormous canvas known as the Feast in the House of Levi, executed in 1573 for the Dominican Basilica of the Saints John and Paul, had to be a last Supper indeed, in the series of the other spectacular feasts conceived by the artist. However the Inquisition, as it is easy to understand, obliged him to make changes in the composition. Veronese preferred to change the title.
The Tintoretto’s Last Supper, painted for the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in 1592-1594, shortly before the artist’s death, puts again the theme of the Eucharist at the centre of the representation. The disposition of the table diagonally, the light coming exclusively from the fire of the lamp and from the Jesus’ aureole, the angels that seem to spring out from the lamp’s smoke contribute to special pathos of the scene. Only the light of Jesus giving the Eucharist breaks down the darkness of the wide room.
© 2015 Massimo Viola