A life-size wood carving of The Last Supper, by Italian-born artist Domenic Zappia, is on permanent display in a protective glass-enclosed setting at the Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, MO. It is based on The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci of Christ and his 12 Disciples having their last meal together. Although the figures are arranged the same way as in da Vinci’s fresco, the sculpture is not a copy of the famous work. Zappia used his own interpretation of the emotions of the Disciples to the news that one of them would betray Jesus Christ.
The 17-foot-long sculpture is carved out of laminated basswood. Each of the 13 figures (Christ and the 12 Disciples) weighs approximately 200 lbs. and was carved out of a 500-lb. block of wood. The tablecloth and clothing flow with a natural ease. Da Vinci never finished Christ’s face in his version of The Last Supper but Zappia’s work contains lifelike detail in all the faces.
Zappia was four years old when his family arrived in the United States in the early 1900s. He enrolled at the Cleveland School of Art when he was 17 and graduated with honors. His success throughout the U.S. led to him coming to Kansas City in 1926 to create ornamental artwork for a large theater. More commissions followed but it was not until 1958 that he was asked to do a large wooden sculpture for a proposed Charleston, WV cemetery chapel. This would be The Last Supper. He worked on it for four years, completing it in 1962. The cemetery chapel, however, was never finished.
Basswood is a golden hardwood from linden trees. It is fibrous, fine-grained, and does not splinter easily. Zappia studied the Bible frequently and had his own ideas about how he pictured the 12 Disciples and their reactions to Jesus telling them that one of them would betray him. The artist reported that during the time he worked on the carving, there were no errors made chipping of the wood nor were there any injuries. He also did not have to start over while working on any of the figures.
Thousands of people came to see the sculpture after it was finished. It was shipped to New York for the 1964 World’s Fair where it was on display and remained there for a year. From there, it was at the Kennedy International Airport until 1972. Two civic leaders, who were members of Kansas City’s Country Club Christian Church, purchased the sculpture from the West Virginia owners in 1971. The church needed to make a suitable space for it so The Last Supper continued to be displayed at museums, churches and fund-raising events until the year 2000.
Zappia died in 1964, two years after completing The Last Supper. The artist considered this life-size wood carving to be his masterpiece. The official dedication of this work was in September 2000. It is now in a glass-enclosed area that is humidity and temperature controlled. A brief audio recording with synchronized lighting tells the history and the meaning of the work. Free tours are available by contacting the church office.
By Cynthia Collins
Life-Size Wooden Sculpture
Tour Guide Presentation of Zappia’s The Last Supper (in-person)