A Supper for Everyone
The Last Supper painting by Leonardo Da Vinci is hermitically ensconced at the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Not created in traditional fresco style, butchered over the centuries by various owners, and bombed during WWII it still exists if only partially; the original paint is two thirds destroyed and only the dedication of a restoration team allows it to be viewed at all today. If you travel to Milan to view it you get fifteen minutes with it because of its fragility.
A new book by wonderful masterpiece biographer Ross King reveals some of the painting’s mystery and sheds light on the many stories that have accompanied the providence of this universally loved work. A recent BBC documentary also highlighted the many dramatic forces that played a role in how and why this painting has come to represent one the of greatest achievements in art. The documentary reasoned that something mythic and infallible seems to embrace a work that, given its trials, should no longer exist. Also emphasized was the most troubling destructive element of the painting’s travels through history: the book The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.
I never read The Da Vinci Code because I like actual history. Also, it offends me greatly that people think the theories in the book are factual. My brother and his two and a half year old daughter often play in his condo’s library where he regularly has to move the Dan Brown book from the history section to the fiction section (bravo bro’!).
Of the many ideas in the Da Vinci Code is that Brown mistakenly suggests St. John is Mary Magdalene at Christ’s side; Da Vinci apparently giving women more prominence in the stories of the New Testament. Brown obviously felt that such a feminine looking young man couldn’t possibly be part of the Jesus posse. He HAD to be a woman. Among the many things this negates in actual history is the fact that artist models during Da Vinci’s lifetime were generally young men and not women. But, I really don’t want to spend my time refuting obvious crap that Dan Brown used to make his millions.
What I think is so stunning about the painting The Last Supper is that Da Vinci chose to move the Apostles into an emotional and fraught scenario. They don’t sit in reverence with their leader, they are vexed, angry, argumentative and generally freaked out; not unlike many family dinners that happen over the holidays all over the planet. It’s super dramatic and I think this is one of the main reasons it is still discussed and loved today. It makes Jesus and his followers seem real, like one of us.
Droll painting haters may not think that making Jesus seem human a big deal, but in 1490s Italy it was revolutionary. Da Vinci decided to use his familiar medium oil paint instead of the fresco technique so that he could take his time and this is one of the main reasons the painting has been unable to fight off mold and damp unfortunately. That aside he made a genius decision in making Christ’s Last Supper a visceral moment in time where you can actually see how his departing words to his beloved gang caused great sadness and anger. Emotion, not just devotion is put into the immediate and the story of Christ becomes resonant to regular Joes.
Making the last supper a ‘treatise’ on love and its power to create dysfunction is an act of modernism. From all accounts Da Vinci was rebellious and enigmatic to his patrons, and his approach to his work seemingly all over the map; he could be both vigilante and lazy. As a working artist myself I can understand how you can seem erratic when you are working on something very, very difficult. The Last Supper was a tall order and done by a lot of other painters for many centuries. How do you put all that is symbolic, mythic, and topical into a work of such magnitude that most of the known world at the time knows the details as well as you do? It would be like being asked to make a work of art today that encapsulates all the tropes and morays of our society that is represented in the inauguration of Barak Obama. Too vast to undertake I think.
But artists then had to make work based on religious themes and ideas. This is what their patrons wanted. The artists that we know about today, Da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio for example are still known because they did what they were told and more. They put much of their own values and selves into these works. The Last Supper is no exception. It is a public work and a personal work. In that way the painting is like a modern work of art.
It is very fitting that The Last Supper is getting some 21st century attention, and I am thrilled it isn’t by some opportunistic ersatz ‘historian’ who wants to construe its genius through his own vacuous theories. The Last Supper is thoroughly modern: full of dysfunction, anger, fear and love and it’s decaying as fast as we can save it.
Pic from Wikipedia