Trip Start Feb 23, 2010
40Trip End Jul 15, 2010
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Where I stayed
Hotel Antica Locanda Leonardo
Contrary to what many may think, the “Last Supper” is not a movable feast; it is not a painting on canvas, but a mural Leonardo painted in the refectory of the Dominican Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milano between 1495 and 1498. It is a representation of the gospel account of the Passover supper Jesus and the apostles are sharing on the eve of His Passion. Jesus declares that one of the apostles will betray Him (Luke 22:21) – he who dips into the same bowl (John 13:21-26; Matt 26:21-24). Da Vinci’s portrayal of this scene has Jesus and Judas Iscariot reaching into the same bowl and he depicts the reaction of each of the apostles (astonishment!) just after Jesus speaks those words. We all know what happens next…
Interestingly, on the opposite of the wall of the refectory is a fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano of Jesus’ crucifixion. So, in this one room we can see the beginning and end of Jesus’ passion; it is very moving.
Da Vinci’s "Last Supper" not only illustrates his artistic skill, but also underscores his talents as an architect and showcases his attention to detail. We were first impressed by the size of the painting (roughly 15x29 feet); it covered the entire wall at one end of the refectory, giving the apostles life-sized proportions. The table where Jesus and the apostles were seated is covered with a table cloth: Da Vinci painted the creases in the cloth representing folds—the creases are offset as they would be in an actual folded tablecloth. His use of perspective is evident in the lines of walls, windows, and ceiling details. His attention to detail extends to the arrangement of the table where each chalice and piece of bread is aligned perfectly, reflecting that either Da Vinci or the waiter (or both) were a bit anally retentive!
The “Last Supper” has survived over time despite having the cards stacked against it. Da Vinci chose to deviate from the conventional fresco technique of applying pigments to wet plaster by instead painting with tempera onto dry plaster. This gave him better control of fine details and more time to edit and complete the work (fresh plaster must be applied periodically throughout the painting process in a conventional fresco approach). Unfortunately, this experiment failed and by 1517 the paint began to flake away. By 1556 many of the figures were unrecognizable. In 1652 during remodeling of the refectory, a doorway was chiseled out of the wall, and the painting, removing Jesus’s feet in the process (measure twice, cut once). The refectory and the “Last Supper” also survived being used as an armory by French troops in 1796 who threw rocks at the painting and gouged out the eyes of the Apostles (everyone’s a critic). The refectory was used as a prison and later suffered a direct hit by an Allied bomb in 1943 during World War II. Including dampness, dirt, effects of weather and humans, the masterpiece has been under one or another assault and periodic restoration for over 450 years. Today, the refectory has been converted to a climate controlled room with limited access and high security; we passed through three or four secure rooms before entering the refectory. A four foot-high security partition about 15-20 feet from the refectory wall separates visitors from the painting. However, one has a wonderful, unobstructed view of the “Last Supper”. Viewing of the “Last Supper” is by appointment (at least a 2-week wait), and for only 15 minutes.
Just off the courtyard of the Basilca is the Sacrestia Monumentale del Bramante (an old sacristy), where we visited an exhibit of Da Vinci’s plans of his various building and mechanical projects. The exhibit is part of a larger celebration of Da Vinci's artistic and architectural works, Codex Atlanticus. As a student, Lesly saw a similar exhibit at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal more than 20 years ago. She never imagined that she would see Da Vinci’s works in the city where he produced them. Seeing Da Vinci's "Last Supper" and his drawings was well worth the trip to Milano! But, wait... there's more....!