Thursday, October 2, 2014

Masterpiece: Leonardo's Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci: Last Supper
(click on images to enlarge)

The damage to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper is well known. Even after the most recent restoration the huge fresco that measures over 29 by 15 feet is in such perilous condition that viewing access is strictly controlled and limited.

We know from early copies that much of Leonardo’s work has been irretrievably lost or covered. Early on, the feet of Christ and the Apostles had so disappeared that the monks had no reluctance to put a door in the wall under the figure of Christ. We know of this from copies but even the earliest copies are often unreliable.  They either omit or alter certain important details. Finally, although the painting is still in its original venue, it is impossible to replicate the monk’s dining room and see the painting as its original viewers would have seen it.

Compared to the physical damage that Leonardo’s work has suffered, the interpretive damage has been even greater. Since the eighteenth century art historians and critics have generally believed that in the Last Supper, Leonardo depicted the moment immediately following Christ’s announcement of his betrayal. Over 50 years ago in the very popular series of Metropolitan Museum seminars in Art, critic John Canaday wrote,
The Last Supper is a great picture with a religious subject. That is not exactly the same thing as saying that The Last Supper is a great religious picture, which it is not…. Nor did Leonardo intend it to be one. In all reverence he conceived of the moment when Christ says to his disciples, “One of you will betray me”, as a moment of unparalleled human drama.
Even today, a quick web search shows that the lead Wikipedia article begins with the following pronouncement.
“The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him.”
It was this common but mistaken interpretation that the late Leo Steinberg set out to repair in an extended essay, “Leonardo’s Last Supper,” that appeared in the Art Quarterly in 1973. Almost thirty years later in 2001 he published his definitive revised update, “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper.” Steinberg’s thesis was controversial but anyone reading “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper” today would have to acknowledge that it a revolutionary masterpiece by one of the greatest art historians of the twentieth century. [i]

Steinberg took on an academic tradition that had been entrenched ever since the time of the Enlightenment. In a famous essay German philosopher and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s claimed that Leonardo had depicted the psychological shock on the faces of the Apostles at the moment immediately following the announcement of the betrayal. Goethe’s interpretation had seemingly settled the matter for all future observers. Steinberg, however, blamed nineteenth century secularists for a profound mis-reading.
Ideal art was believed to reveal humane truths which the service of religion could only divert and distort. And it was again in Leonardo in whom these highest artistic goals, originally embodied in ancient Greece, seemed reaffirmed. In this projection of nineteenth-century values upon Renaissance art, the masterworks of the Renaissance were reduced to intelligible simplicity, and Leonardo’s Last Supper became (nothing but) a behavioral study of twelve individuals responding to psychic shock. [ii]
Reading Steinberg’s “Incessant Last Supper” not only brings one deeper and deeper into a great masterpiece, but also deeper and deeper into the mind and culture of the genius who was Leonardo. Beginning with the general principle “that nothing in Leonardo’s Last Supper is trivial,” Steinberg asserted that the subject of the picture was the whole story of the Last Supper; the Institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, and the significance of it all to the viewer.

To  illustrate his thesis I would like to concentrate on Steinberg’s analysis of Leonardo’s portrayal of the Apostles. Leonardo obviously knew his Apostles and the legends that had grown up about them. Their appearance, their gestures, and their placement show that they are reacting in their own characteristic way to the announcement, “This is My Body…Take and eat.”

From left to right the Apostles are Bartholomew, James (the eventual head of the Church in Jerusalem), Andrew, Peter, Judas, and John. On the other side there are James (the son of Zebedee), Thomas (who has thrust himself ahead of James), Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus (sometimes called Jude), and Simon.

Much of the detail of the original has been lost but an anonymous copy c. 1550, gives a very good look at the hands and feet of the 13 men in the picture. Steinberg’s stressed the significance not only of the feet of Christ but of the Apostles. Christ’s feet are central and larger and they announce his impending crucifixion. The feet of the Apostles are there to be washed but also represent their role and future destiny.
this very night, each of these feet is washed and wiped dry by the Master. In view of the gospel…how negligible can these feet be; surely, this is their hour![iii]
While he stressed the importance of viewing Christ and the Apostles as a whole, Steinberg also broke them down into groups of six, three and two, and discussed the various relationships in these groups. Here are some examples.

 Let’s start with the triad of Simon, Thaddeus, and Matthew on our right at the end of the table.  
A flotilla of six open hands in formation strains toward Christ, as if in immediate response to the word “take!” ….the Communion of the Apostles is imminent.[iv]
Hands take on special significance. The “affinity” of the left hand of Thaddeus to the left hand of Christ “leaps to the eye.”
Thaddeus’ hand toward Christ; Christ’s toward us. It is missing a lot to dismiss the correspondence as accidental.

Feet, hands, even fingers are important. In the triad at Christ’s left hand (Philip, Thomas, James) the finger of Thomas, who has thrust himself forward toward Jesus, is a veritable sign marker, “the finger destined to verify the Resurrection, the Christian hope….“
this upright finger occurs in Leonardo’s rare paintings no less than four times, invariably pointing to heaven…The steeple finger is Leonardo’s trusted sign of transcendence…[v]
The triad closest to Christ’s right hand includes Peter who denies, Judas who betrays, and John who remains to the end at the foot of the Cross.
The inner triad refers to imminent Crucifixion. It contains the dark force that sets the Passion in motion, then, behind Judas, St. Peter. Peter’s right hand points the knife he will ply a few hours hence at the arrest. And the interlocking hands of the beloved disciple are pre-positioned for their grieving on Calvary.

None of these gestures can be explained as a reaction to the betrayal announcement.

Finally, no review can do justice to Steinberg’s discussion of the figure of Christ, who can no longer seen as a passive figure sitting back while the Apostles react to the betrayal announcement.
as the person of Christ unites man and God, so his right hand summons the agent of his human death even as it offers the means of salvation….the Christ figure as agent—both hands actively molding his speech, and both directed at bread and wine…[vi]
Unfortunately, Goethe only saw the painting briefly in Milan. In his analysis he relied on a copy that left out the bread and wine of the Eucharist. For Steinberg, the institution of the Eucharist is central to the painting.
Christ becomes the capstone of a great central pyramid…And midway between the…slopes of Christ arms and the floor lines that transmit their momentum, exactly halfway, there lies the bread, and there lies the wine.[vii]

Steinberg backed up his interpretation with a virtuoso display of all the tools available to a modern art historian. He displayed a magisterial familiarity with the interpretive history; the texts; the traditional legends; the related paintings; and with the whole oeuvre of Leonardo. More than anything else, however, was his ability to immerse himself in the whole culture and devotion of Medieval and Renaissance Christianity.  He was born a Russian Jew and emigrated to America right after World War II. He somehow managed to graduate from Harvard and land a position at New York University where his original field was modern art. But he eventually gravitated to the Renaissance, and his integrity and great learning allowed him to see the “Last Supper” through the believing eyes of Leonardo’s contemporaries. 


[i] Steinberg, Leo: Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, New York, 2001.

[ii] Ibid. p. 13.
[iii] Ibid. p. 61.
[iv] Except where otherwise noted this quotation and all the following can be found in the relevant sections of chapter IV, “the Twelve.”
[v] Ibid. p. 70.
[vi] Ibid. p. 57.
[vii] Ibid,. p. 58.

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