Maundy Thursday, also called Holy Thursday, is the commemoration of Jesus Christ’s Last Supper with his Disciples before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is the day before the crucifixion of Jesus, known as Good Friday, and three days before Easter. Over the centuries, numerous works of art have been inspired by Holy Week including paintings of the Last Supper as interpreted by Leonardo da Vinci and other artists.
The Italian artist, Duccio di Bouninsegna (c. 1255-1319), painted The Last Supper as part of 26 scenes on 14 panels for the reverse side of a large altarpiece. This was commissioned by Siena city magistrates for the Cathedral of Siena, the Duomo. The scenes are collectively known as Episodes from Christ’s Passion which depict events from Palm Sunday to Easter. The entire altarpiece, front and back, is known as the Maestà and consists of 84 panels that were completed between 1308 and 1311. The altarpiece was dismantled in 1711 but most of panels are in the museum portion of the cathedral, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
Duccio is credited with being one of the founders of Western art. Even though his work resembled the traditional style of Byzantine art with gold backgrounds illuminating various religious scenes, he also added realistic human emotions. This figures took on human qualities of age, emotion and actions. His interpretation of the Last Supper shows the Disciples sitting around the table. As a result, some of their faces are not showing since their backs are to the viewer. Later painters experimented with various ways of placing all the Disciples on the same side of the table so their faces would be visible.
Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), an Italian painter from Florence, painted large frescoes at the Vatican and in other churches. His 1480 painting of The Last Supper is a life-sized fresco in the dining room of the Church of Ognissanti, Florence. He used the shape of the room to add a sense of more space. He also added background scenes which shift the vanishing point, creating the illusion that the viewer is looking up. Ghirlandaio placed Jesus and all the Disciples, except one, sitting behind the table so they are facing out. The one who is sitting across from Jesus and the others is Judas.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) painted his version of The Last Supper (shown above) approximately 15 years after Ghirlandaio’s fresco. Born in Vinci, Italy, he became an apprentice to the artist Verrocchio at the age of 14. He was commissioned by a member of the prominent de Medici family to make a silver lyre for Ludovico in Moro, the duke of Milan, as a peace gesture. Afterwards, he wrote a letter describing how his artistic ability and knowledge of engineering could be of assistance. As a result, the duke commissioned da Vinci to work on several projects from 1482 to 1499. One of those projects was the fresco, The Last Supper, which he began in 1495 and finished in 1498.
Both the Ghirlandaio and da Vinci paintings were frescoes commissioned for the refectory, or dining room, of a church. However, The Last Supper interpretation by da Vinci sets it apart from those of other artists in that it shows the Disciples actively talking, asking questions, appearing shocked at what Jesus had just told them that someone would betray him. Da Vinci used a new technique of applying paint to dry plaster instead of wet. This made the colors and images sharper but, over time, the paint started to peel.
Da Vinci’s painting is in the convent of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. This church was bombed extensively during World War II on August 15, 1943. The painting, however, was protected by sandbags. It incurred mold due to dampness but it was not destroyed. An extensive restoration of the work in 1999 eliminated layers of touch-ups while protecting the painting from additional damage. Santa Maria delle Grazie was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
The German artist, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), painted The Last Supper in 1524. He grouped the Disciples together in much the same way as da Vinci but used a smaller table. He also made use of different facial expressions. Three of the Disciples are missing from this version but the work was damaged during the Reformation when Martin Luther refused to accept the infallibility of the Pope. This painting is preserved in the Kunstmuseum-Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, or Basel Art Museum-Public Art Collection, in Basel, Switzerland.
Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), painted The Last Supper in 1632 as an altarpiece for the Saint Rombout Church in Mechelen, Belgium. His work was in the Baroque style and emphasized movement, color and facial expressions. He began his apprenticeship at the age of 14 in Antwerp with artist Tobias Verhaeght. Rubens was influenced by da Vinci’s interpretation and expanded the range of human emotion shown by Christ and the Disciples. This painting is in the Pinacotera di Brera, or the Brera Art Gallery, in Milan.
Other artists have painted interpretations of Christ’s Last Supper with his Disciples. The ones mentioned in this article show how the most famous artistic depiction of the Last Supper came about and how its interpretation by da Vinci has and continues to inspire other artists.
By: Cynthia Collins