Leonardo DaVinci brings this scene from the New Testament vividly to life in The Last Supper. The painting is located in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan. Construction of the convent and church began in the 1460’s, lasting about twenty years, and in 1494 the Duke of Milan hired DaVinci to design and paint the mural. The painting has been carefully preserved, along with other 15th century works besides DaVinci’s that survived the destruction of the buildings during WWII.
The present day Santa Maria della Grazie
The Church in 1943
The Last Supper, or the Lord’s Supper as described in the New Testament, was Jesus’ final meal before his crucifixion, an event celebrated symbolically as the sacrament of the Eucharist during Mass, sharing the body and blood of Christ.
The painting has inspired different perspectives among historians regarding the existence of the Holy Grail, the cup of Christ, and whether the figure to Jesus’ right isn’t a young, effeminate looking John the Evangelist but is really Jesus’ wife, Mary Magdeline.
Preservation and Replications
The mural in the dining hall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie took DaVinci about four years to finish and has weathered destruction as well as restoration attempts in the past 500 years. Because of the type of paint DaVinci used on the dry plaster wall, the surface didn’t set well while he was creating the masterpiece, and within twenty years it began to chip off and fade with much of the subtle shading of the painting being lost. In 1652, construction within the refectory included a doorway to be cut through the deteriorating painting, replacing the area in front of the table with a doorway.
Then, in the fall of 1943, the convent was bombed and the dining hall mostly destroyed. Sandbags and a scaffolding structure protected the painting from the remaining years of WWII, and restoration efforts on the painting began in the 1950’s. From 1978 to 1999 the most extensive efforts to renovate the painting were conducted, closing up the dining hall and creating a climate controlled environment while simultaneously cleaning and studying the mural. Infrared cameras were used to view the paint layers to preserve Da Vinci’s original work and repair other restoration attempts.
Much of the detail which eroded away through the years might actually be preserved in recreations of the piece made by DaVinci’s fifteenth century contemporaries. The most notable of these was Giampietrino, an artist who copied many of DaVinci’s masterpieces. His full-size recreation of The Last Supper is an oil on canvas painting displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.