The High Renaissance

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

The High Renaissance is the greatest explosion of creative genius in art history in Italy. Most of the paintings during the High Renaissance were related to the religiosity. One of the most powerful religious masterpieces created was Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, a mural painting in the dining hall of the Monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan under the request of Duke Ludovico Sforza. It was started from 1495 and done in 1498. It depicted the Holy Bible scene when Jesus gathered and has the last meal with his twelve disciples.

One of the reasons why The Last Supper is such an important painting is because it related to such an important scene in the Bible. The Last Supper is a symbolic conjuration of both sacrifice of Jesus for the salvation of humankind and the institution of the ritual of the mass. Jesus pointed out the one of his disciple will betray him, who he meant was Judas. And the next morning, he faced the trial and was sentenced by crucifixion.

The second reason is related to the enigma of the imagery of The Last Supper. This scene contains the full meaning of it existence although it is briefly mentioned in the Bible. A lot of versions of allegorical depictions have been done on this scene before by other artists. However, a lot of historians and art experts famed The Last Supper of Leonardo as a breakthrough masterpiece. Leonardo had taken a total different direction and had created a remarkable drama and had made the works with his scientific mind. We can see a scene where Jesus was arranged in between his twelve disciples and announced who is the disciple that will betray him. Also, we can captures the shock, disbelief and horror gestures shown on theirs faces and bodies while they hear what was being said by Jesus.

Leonardo was a detail observer of human beings and has art clearly shown human emotions. He was deeply concerned with the problem of expression in art. He did a lot of studies and drawing sketches before he painted The Last Supper. And he committed some of his thoughts about it to paper:

"The movement of men are as varied as the emotions which pass through their minds. And each emotion moves men more or less depending on its greater or lesser force and also on the stage of the man, for in the same situation a young man will act otherwise than an old on."

"Mental stimuli or thoughts produce in the body simple and easy action and not great coming and going, for the object of attention is in the mind which, concentrated upon itself, does not direct the sensed to bodily expression."

"Emotions move the face of man in different ways, for one laughs, another weeps, one becomes gay, another sad, one shows anger, another pity, some are amazed, others are afraid, distracted, thoughtful or reflective. In these states the hands and the whole person should follow the expression of the face." (Heydenreich 57)

The size of Leonardo's The Last Supper is approximately 15 feet by 29 feet in size. He started to work on the Last Supper from 1495 to 1498. A symmetrical design was used for the painting. Jesus is placed in the center and his twelve disciples are spread on his sides. The table was placed parallel to the picture plane. The stage like space recedes from the table to three windows on the back wall where the vanishing pint of the perspective is right on Jesus's head. Jesus forms an equilateral triangle in the center, with his arms uniting the twelve disciples grouped in four in sets of three. Many experts believed that linear perspective is one of the many genius characteristic of Leonardo. We can see his mathematical and calculated method of drawing has been applied on a lot building constructions today, especially on the ceiling with its grid-like feature, and the windows of the building.

Leonardo used a different approach on the painting than those who have painted the scene before him earlier. Unlike the traditional interpretation, the traitor Judas was placed in the group to the left, right next to Jesus instead of isolated on the opposite side of the table or far away from Jesus. He used a long table and placed all thirteen of them on one side only, not around it. The Bible does not really describe the occasion in specifically. It only stated that Jesus was seating at the dinning table surrounded by his twelve disciples. We probably would not imagine that the table should be such lavish. Also, he eliminated the symbolic element, the halo, by substituted the light from a triple window in the back framing Jesus's head. The three windows also have a symbolic meaning of Trinity.

Instead of painting with fresco which is the reliable technique that Leonardo had used. He wanted to experience another technique which may achieve the flexibility of painting on wood panel. He used tempura over a thin layer of smooth plaster which the surface was subject to mold and to flake (Stokstad 663). The result was disastrous. It deteriorated rapidly within a short period of time. Although many attempts fix its deterioration and restore its original appearance, but the work has barely survived. All we can see today is just the refinish by others with no accurate colors or expression at all.

Leonardo was such a genius painter since he was a boy. According to Vasari, Leonardo worked with Verrocchio on his Baptism of Christ, painting the young angel who was holding some garments; he executed it in such a manner that his angel was far better than the figures painted by his master. That is the reason why Verrochio would never painted again, he was so ashamed that Leonardo understood the use of colors better than he did at such a young age (258).

Primarily as a painter, Leonardo did not produce a lot of paintings by himself. Yet, he has discovered new painting techniques. One of them is called "Chiaroscuro", in which created the illusion of high relief by modeling the figures with strongly contrasted light and shadow. The other is in which the colors blend softly into each other, so the object has no defined shape or outline, this shadowy technique is called "Sfumato" or Leonardo's smoke. Both techniques were applied in his other well known, famous portrait of Mona Lisa. The techniques were adopted and has influenced on other artists such as Caravaggio, in the later period.

With his enigma and unique personality, Leonardo definitely is a legendary figure gaining a mythological quality in the extent of science and art. The Last Supper is a proof of his artistic achievement in the way of how he applied the mathematic and science perfectly. In Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari introduced his chapter on Leonardo da Vinci with the following words:

"In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease. "(255)

Ultimately, Leonardo had given a whole new meaning to the meal successfully, a short but yet tremendously important event that it would change the birth of Christianity in world history. He had illustrated a dramatic and impressive version of The Last Supper which expresses the religious concepts in a new way in the era. The mathematic and science methods and the techniques that he used on the painting definitely make a big step forward as a progression of the High Renaissance. It also influences a lot of painters in the centuries afterward. Nowadays, a lot of different cultures around the world still modified and parodied The Last Supper by Leonardo in a way to express their feeling toward religion or give other message with such strong imagery.

Works Cited

  1. Bible, the New Testament
  2. Heydenreich, Ludwig H. Leonardo: The Last Supper. New York,Viking Press,1974.
  3. Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History: Portable Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ:Pearson/Prentice Hall,2009.
  4. Vasari, Giorgio. Live of the Artists. Oxford;New York:Oxford University Press,1998.

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