The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci – Santa Maria delle Grazie – Milan
Santa Maria delle Grazie is a church and a convent in Milan, world-known for housing The Last Supper painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Dominican convent and church
The Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie was built in 1469, in Lombard Renaissance style, after a design by architects Guiniforte Solari and Donato Bramante.
Originally, the complex comprised, along with the church, an ensemble of buildings arranged around three cloisters, of which only two still exist, since a part of the building was destroyed by bombing during the World War Two. The refectory which houses Leonardo’s The Last Supper is one of the remaining parts of the monastery.
The construction of the convent was commissioned, and funded, by Ludovico Sforza called il Moro, and the church was intended to become a mausoleum and place of burial of the Sforza family.
Besides Leonardo’s painting, the complex also accommodates other artworks, including a remarkable Crucifixion by Donato Montorfano (1495), and various 16th-century fresco paintings by Gaudenzio Ferrari.
View of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, the refectory is the yellow building partially visible on the left; photo: Emiliano Chionaky
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Made by Leonardo da Vinci between 1494 and 1498, The Last Supper is a large wall painting (8.80 meters / 28.9 feet wide and 4.60 meters / 15.1 feet high) which decorates the north wall of the convent’s refectory.
Though often mistakenly described as a fresco, the painting was made by Leonardo by using an experimental oily and egg tempera on plaster technique. This was not totally uncommon during the Renaissance and a rather similar technique was previously used, for example, by Andrea Mantegna in the Bridal Chamber of the Ducal Palace of Mantua.
Yet, the solution adopted by Leonardo proved problematic in the humid environment of the Milanese refectory, and just twenty years after its completion the painting was in bad conditions and in 1566 almost illegible, as Giorgio Vasari reported in his book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.
In the course of time, in a desperate effort to save it, the painting was repeatedly restored, and consequently altered; thus, the artwork we see today is somewhat different from Leonardo’s original, as it emerges by comparing it with copies made in the early 16th century.
To add insult to injury, the refectory was used as a stable by the French troops of Napoleon and bombed during the World War Two. An ambitious cleansing and restoration campaign was therefore started in 1977 and completed in 1999.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1494-1498, oily and egg tempera on plaster; convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.
The figures are divided into five groups and portrait, left to right, Bartholomew, James son of Alphaeus, and Andrew / Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John / Jesus / Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip / Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot
Leonardo’s work is extremely innovative in the way it develops a popular art subject such as the last supper; the moment depicted is that in which Jesus has just said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” (John 13:21).
This moment was painted by many Tuscan artists before da Vinci, including Taddeo Gaddi, Andrea del Castagno, and Domenico Ghirlandaio; yet, Leonardo deeply changed it usual iconography, at the same time focusing on the emotional reactions and psychology of the people in the scene.
Some Apostles’ depictions are particularly unconventional; for example, Judas Iscariot is not set apart from the others, and John does not lean on Jesus’ chest, as usual, thus leaving the central figure standing alone to dominate the scene.
Leonardo also created a complex and unprecedented perspective framework into which all lines converge on the figure (more precisely, on the head) of Jesus Christ.
The somewhat feminine aspect of John the Apostle has triggered many imaginative speculations, including the idea expressed by writer Dan Brown in the popular novel The da Vinci Code that it actually represents a woman. Yet, since John was the youngest of the Apostles, he was depicted with rather feminine and angelic traits also in other last suppers painted before Leonardo’s, such as that by an unknown 14th century artist in Casorate Primo (not far from Milan), and those by Taddeo Gaddi (1355, in Florence), Pietro Gerini (1401, now in Empoli), and Andrea del Castagno (1445-1450, in Florence), among others.
The colors of Leonardo’ Last Supper were once certainly much more vivid than today (as, again, we can infer from old copies of the work, such as the one by Giampietrino now on view in Oxford, which show it as intensely colorful); after all, Leonardo adopted the oily tempera technique also to obtain bright and saturated tints more similar to those of an oil on panel painting than a typical fresco’s.
Dating to 1520 circa, The Last Supper’s copy by Giampietrino (Giovan Pietro Rizzoli, a Leonardo’s pupil) possibly gives us an idea of how Leonardo’s artwork looked just after completion; Giampietrino’s oil on canvas painting is owned by the Royal Academy of Arts and is currently on view at the Magdalen College in Oxford
Due to conservation reasons, there are strict limitations to the number of people, maximum thirty, admitted inside the Santa Maria delle Grazie refectory at one time. Therefore, the visit to Leonardo’s Last Supper must be booked in advance and its length is limited to 15 minutes.
The monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie is located in central Milan, nearest metro stations are Conciliazione, and Cadorna (both on the MM2 line).
The refectory and The Last Supper before World War Two
The convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie just after the October 1943 bombing of Milan; the refectory is on the right; The Last Supper (not visible in the image) was saved by a thick protective structure made with scaffolding tubes and sandbags
The refectory today; photo: Tomasz Przechlewski
One of the cloisters of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan; photo: mightymightymatze
Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, interior view; photo Francesco Sgroi
Cover image: “The Last Supper” wall painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan; photo: Tomasz Przechlewski