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The Last Supper in Art
Probably the most overexposed artist in history is Leonardo da Vinci. Every school child from probably the second or third grade knows the name and maybe even a smattering of information about the man. And of his works, second only to the Mona Lisa, his Last Supper ranks as the most overexposed paintings he ever did. Most people know about the disastrous experiment using oil paints in a fresco manner and the piteous condition of the work today as a result of this and even worse attempts by bumbling artists/conservators down through the years to bring it back to life. An entire cult of information and misinformation has developed around the work and its history from conception to current restoration efforts begun in 1979.

The painting was started in 1495 at the behest of Duke Lodovico Sforza, of Milan for whom Leonardo had been doing a number of military and civil engineering projects. Leonardo no doubt welcomed it as a change of pace in order to get back to painting, which was said to be his first love. But he apparently dawdled over it for three long years, much to the distress of the monks at the Monastery of Santa Maria dele Grazie. And so rapid was the painting's deterioration that within fifty years, the image was barely discernible to the point that the monks felt no harm could be done in cutting a door in the wall of their dining room. The door reached well up into the table cloth.

Quite apart from the painting, Leonardo seems to have been concerned with numbers as he conceived the work. There are four groups of three apostles each. The background is composed of three walls upon which hang four tapestries, while three windows break the centre wall. The number three of course is associated with the trinity while the number four, the four elements, earth, wind, fire, and water, as well as the four seasons. Also, in medieval philosophy, there were three Theological and four Cardinal Virtues. Quite apart from his use of symbolic numbers, Leonardo departed from earlier versions of the scene (yes, he was not the first to depict it), in his placing of Judas, Peter, and John in the first triad at the right hand of Jesus. He considered them the most important figures in the unfolding events of Christ's mission here on earth--Judas in his betrayal, Peter in later leading the Church, and John in foretelling the Second Coming and the last judgement.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
9 July 1998

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