Thirteen at the Table

Leonardo's Last Supper
Il Cenacolo (The Last Supper)
by Leonardo Da Vinci (1495-1498)
Refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan).

Last may, I went to Italy twice. I spent five days of vacation in Florence, then attended a Conference in Milan. Due to lack of time, I wrote only, and .

I do love Italy, and Italians. There is a lightness, a Joie de Vivre in the air of most Italian towns, you will hardly find anywhere else. Also, Art is everywhere.

In Florence first, then in Milan, I was stunned by frescoes. There's always a difference between looking at a reproduction and seeing an artwork for real. named this specificity of artwork, which is unique, linked to a special place, and part of history.

Il Cenacolo by Ghirlandaio
Il Cenacolo by Ghirlandaio (1448)

Frescoes certainly have an aura, because they are part of the place on which they were painted. Also, frescoes are impressive because they are very large. Characters painted are taller than you sometimes. You may feel as if you were a witness of the scene.

It was the case in particular in — the city with 70 museums — with frescoes by Filipino Lippi and Domenico Ghirlandaio, in and the , famous for the great Last Supper fresco, Ghirlandaio painted in 1488.

Santa Maria Delle Grazie (Milan)
Santa Maria Delle Grazie (Milan)

It was the case also in in Milan, a red brick church and monastery built in the 15th century where Leonardo da Vinci painted his Last Supper, Il Cenacolo, in the refectory of the monastery from 1495 to 1498.

Because it was a long-term work, Leonardo did not paint on wet plaster but on a dry wall. Strictly speaking, the painting is not a fresco then. It is a mural painting. Unfortunately, because of the method used, the work deteriorated quickly and its restoration has been a never-ending task.

If you want to see the painting, you must book in advance, and arrive on time. You will then be admitted among a small group of visitors (around 25 people), one group at a time, every 15 minutes. You must go through a double entrance door first, for sake of constant temperature and humidity. You wait there a few minutes, then you enter the refectory at last.

Il Cenacolo
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (click on the picture for a larger scale)
Here it is, painted on the wall on the right side of the refectory. Awesome, huge — about nine meters wide — painted with a perspective that continues the walls of the refectory

The characters are approximately life-sized, a little taller. Although the work is damaged,you feel as if you were there, standing at about eight meters from the table. All 13 character are in front of you, on the same side of the table. Unlike Ghirlandaio and others, Leonardo did not paint Judas apart from his colleagues.


Jesus has just announced that one of those sitting at the table will betray him. The twelve apostles react with various degrees of shock, denial, and anger.

Jesus is in the middle of the painting. Precisely in the middle. In fact, a small hole in his right temple was used by Leonardo to help define the vanishing point of the whole perspective of the painting. Around him, on his right and left sides, the apostles are grouped in four groups of three, and each of the three figures in each group reacts its own way.

Bartholomew, James the Younger and Andrew
On the left side,  Bartholomew, James the Younger and Andrew appear stunned by Jesus’ declaration. They look at him with stupefaction. Andrew raises his hands before him in a gesture of horror and incredulity — yet an apostle can hardly be incredulous, can he ?


Peter, Judas and John

In the second group, a knife in hand, Peter is ready to punish the traitor. He leans towards John, the boyish, almost feminine apostle seated beside Jesus: "Ask the Master, John! Who is it?" He pushes Judas forward, who holds a purse with thirty pieces of silver inside.


Thomas, James the Elder and Philip

On Jesus left-hand side, Thomas, James the Elder and Philip are assuring Jesus of their obedience. James the Elder expresses his indignation, and we can almost hear Philip protesting his loyalty: "You know me, Master, you know I did not do that".

Matthew, Jude Thaddeus and Simon

The last group on the right is made up of Matthew, Jude Thaddeus and Simon. They are involved in an animated discussion, and don't look at Jesus. "One of us? How is it possible?" Matthews asks Simon, while Jude Thaddeus seems to be about to clap his hands in a "didn't I tell you?"


    [BbN #13]

Note: You cannot fully appreciate such a masterpiece in less than 15 minutes. There's so little time, you must hurry, you can hardly have a look at every character. It is frustrating. If you ever go to Santa Maria delle Grazie and see The Last Supper by Leonardo, here is my advice then: book for it twice, half an hour apart. I will do that, the next time I go to Milan.

2 comment(s):

    Nice post on italy and this master piece.
    If you go to milano from firenze, you must stop in Verona and see this:


    Hello 'Kyste', thank you for the comment. I read your post about a crucifix in Verona that shows Jesus on the cross with detailed, very realistic lacerations.

    Each to his own... It illustrates my main issue with Christian art: it often is an apology of suffering, torture, and death. Granted, it sometimes resulted in great artwork, Pietàs, Saint Sebastian and so on, but I do find nasty the show of dead flesh, wounds and tortures.

    It fits the general logic of Christianity, as Paul of Tarsus and Augustine of Hippo propagated it : a morbid fascination for pain and suffering, and hatred of the body, and well, I don't like it.

    I will certainly go and see the crucifix to make up my mind about it, if I ever go to Verona; thank you for pointing it out! Yet, as you wrote it yourself at the end of your post, Italian Art is especially to my taste when it does not deal with religious topics, or when the religious topic does not imply to show tortured bodies.

    Kind regards !


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