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Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper (1494-1498)

Church Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

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Painter: Leonardo da Vinci
Title: The Last Supper
Dating: 1494-1498
Technique: tempera with oil veils on calcium carbonate and white lead
Dimensions: 460x880 cm
Collocation: Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (refectory), Milan

During the works wanted by Ludovico il Moro, Leonardo is called between 1494 and 1495 to decorate the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent. The Dominican complex was one of the main centers of the Milan at the time of the Sforza and of the monastic observation and Ludovico il Moro chose it as monument of the glory and prestige of his family. The decoration setting, according to the traditional refectories iconography, was the representation of the initial and final moment of Chris's Passion: the Last Supper (north wall) and the Crucifixion (south wall). Giovanni Donato Montorfano realized a frescoes the Crucifixion, and probably the decoration motives with ornaments on the two other walls of the refectory. While Leonardo is commissioned to represent the Last Supper and the three lunettes above with coats and inscriptions alluding to the Sforza family.
The theme was been painted from other artists, for example Andrea del Castagno and Domenico Ghirlandaio, but Leonardo, differing from his predecessors, chooses to represent the moment immediately after the announce of betrayal (Gv 13.21), when the unbelief Apostle's are wondering about what will happen. "One of you will betray me": with these words Jesus causes confusion among the Twelve arousing a dialogue that Leonardo skilfully represents with the posturing of the bodies and of the hands, that are connecting a group with the other. The scene, dramatic and involving is full of emotions, like disbelief, anxiety, fear, suspect; the most noticeable aspect is the representation of the complex psychology of the characters reacting at the same event in different ways, depending on their temperament. Leonardo was master in this and not by chance the sources agree in giving evidence of the importance of the amazing variety of expressions, ages and attitudes that the artist gave to each diner. In the Book of Painting there is written "when you paint your figure, think about who he is and what you want him to do". The Gospels and the rich hagiography tradition gave the artist many ideas to which he added a checking work based on his anatomy and physiognomy studies and on the observation of the reality. At the end of the sixteenth century, Armenini tells that he struggle for months before painting the traitor, because he couldn't fins "a head naturally resembling" this degenerated humanity example.
The composition of the work, harmonic and balanced, has its composition and narrative center in the figure of Christ. Beside him the Apostle's are split in four symmetric groups, two on the right and two on the left, each one of three. The space in which the characters are moving is represented with linear prospective that becomes with Leonardo an extraordinary tool to create an illusionary perception of the space of the refectory, that seem continuing in the one of the painting surface. This perception is reinforced with the use of light that puts in shadow the left wall and in light the right one, in this way the light source of the painting and of the real windows that at the time illuminated the Last supper are the same.
The work was ended before the February 1498, after some year of intense but discontinue work. The Dominican Matteo Bandello, novice in the convent in those years, tells in one of his novels that Leonardo used to alternate moments of hard work to completely inoperative days.
Because of the refined technique of the painter the work presented some weaknesses at once: the work revealed to be very fragile because of time, humidity, atmosphere agents and started deteriorating very soon.
Already in the seventeenth century were made some interventions to contain the first falls of color, but it wasn't enough: the painting soon started to shatter in many pieces, like many islands with borders in relief, leaving many clear spaces for dust and dirt, causing serious gaps on the surfaces. The ancient restores integrated the missing parts with new paint, in order to maintain the artwork readable. These interventions, far from the painter's will, were sometimes modifications and free interpretations that happened to be irreversible and damaging, even if the intent was repairing the painting, because of wrong techniques and materials. Moreover the door that connected the refectory with the kitchen was enlarged and this mutilated the portion of the painting representing Christ's feet and there was a time when the refectory was used as stable and hosted French troops. The 16th August 1943 during the second World War the Convent was bombed and the refectory was seriously damaged; the Last Supper was luckily safe thanks to a protection system that preserved it from the fragments and the shock wave. The last intervention on the Last Supper lasted more than twenty years was completed in 1999. It eliminated all the ancient superimpositions, allowing the resurfacing of the work thought and wanted by Leonardo. Under the previous restores, was still possible to find the original colors and some particulars blurred by the time. So we have seen resurfacing in their authenticity the figure of Mathew (third from the right side) that previously had a beard to extend his chin. The floral decoration of the first tapestry on the left on the wall beside the scene, one of the aspects that already the contemporaries admired. Noticeable is also the restoring of the colored reflexions of the Apostle's dresses on the plates.

Photo Shoot

Size: pixel (172181 x 93611)
Color depth: 16 bit for channel
Shots: May, 7 - 2007
Number of shots: 1677

CPU: 2 Two Quad Core AMD Opteron processors
16 Gigabyte RAM memory
2 Terabyte hard disk space


Camera: Nikon D2Xs
Lens: AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4D IF-ED II
Real time acquisition Software: Nikon Camera Control Pro
Postprocessing and real time verification software: Nikon Capture NX
Pointing Device: Motorized Panoramic Head CLAUSS Rodeon VR

Notes: great care has been adopted in the Last Supper illumination during shooting. Lighting system has been tested and validated in the Photometric Laboratory of the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro not to damage the painting

In collaboration with MINISTERO PER I BENI E LE ATTIVITÀ CULTURALI - Soprintendenza per i Beni Architettonici e Paesaggistici of Milan  

All rights reserved

Leonardo da Vinci (VINCI 15 aprile 1452 – AMBOISE 2 maggio 1519)

He was born in Vinci 1452, illegitimate child of a notary and a countrywoman. After moving to Florence, he enters very young as apprentice in the workshop of a famous painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, who is in contact with Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino. Around his twenty years he completed his training, in 1472 he is member the Company of Painter as a master. In that period the did the first works: a pen drawing of a mountain landscape, the Portrait of Ginevra Benci, the Madonna of carnation and the Annunciation of the Uffizi.
In 1480 he enters the Accademia del Giardino di San Marco, a sort of school of young painters wanted by Lorenzo il Magnifico. At the same time he receives the committee for the altar piece with the Adoration of the Magi, for the church of San Giovanni Scopeto, work that he will never finish, but that with Saint Girolamo gives important information on his artistic evolution and on his reached expressive maturity.
In 1842, being thirty years old, Leonardo suddenly leaves to Milan. The reasons of this journey are not clear: according to some bibliographers of the time (Vasari among them) he moves for Lorenzo il Magnifico for a sort of diplomatic mission, taking to Ludovico Sforza (known later as Ludovico il Moro maybe because of his dark skin) a precious gift. Probably Leonardo is also looking for new commissions, how he writes in a non signed letter in the Atlantic Code. He keeps a very strong tie with Milan, enough to make it one of his native lands. In the streets and palaces of Milan, the painter, engineer, sculptor and architect will have the possibility to create some of his grater works (the network of canals and closings of the Milan Navigli is an example) and to elaborate many of ideas and projects that will make Leonardo the eclectic genius of the Italian Renaissance.
In 1483 he paints one of his masterpieces, the Virgin of the Rocks, painted in two versions. Few years later he makes the project for the equestrian monument for Francesco Sforza that in the intentions had to celebrate the family dynasty. The genius of Leonardo is clear also in portraits, among these, the famous Lady with the ermine, in which he experiments his theory of the "soul motions" reaching important levels.
In 1494 the arrive of Carlo VII causes terror in half of Italy, but has no big consequences in the state of Ludovico il Moro. When the big committees seem to be scarce and Leonardo writes letter (or drafts of letters) to Ludovico complaining for his precarious economic condition, Ludovico il Moro gives him the greatest committee of his years in Milan: the decoration of Santa Maria delle Grazie with he artwork representing the apex of his production in Milan, the Last Supper.
After the fall of Ludovico Sforza and the invasion of Milan by the French, in 1499 Leonardo leaves Milan and after short stays in Mantua and Venice, he goes back to Florence. In his native land, after the realization of the drawing of Saint Anna (never realized as painting), he receives an important committee and decorates a part of the Room of the High Council in Palazzo Vecchio with the famous Anghiari Battle. In 1503 he starts a portrait destined to become one of the most famous portraits of the world, the Mona Lisa, maybe ended some ten years later.
In his artistic activity Leonardo alternates frequent journeys to Milan and Rome and France, in Amboise, on request of king Francesco I in person. He holds the office of "Premier peinctre et ingénieur et architecte du Roy, Meschanischien d'Estat". He dies in 1519 in the castle of Cloux, disposing of his manuscript and drownings to his pupil Francesco Melzi. 

Historical context

When Leonardo arrives in Milan, the city is capital of one of the most rich states of Italy, at the peak of its greatness and fundamental actor in the Italian political scene. Rich and with a potent army, Milan in the Renaissance (as we can see it in a sixteenth century map from the Civitates Orbis Terrarum) in one of the greatest European cities. 
The rich Sforza family is the cause of his fortune. The history of this family begins at the end of the fifteenth century with Muzio Attendolo, born in Cotignola, who leaves the country, becoming a venture captain. He dies while he fighting for the Angioini in Naples. His son Francesco Sforza is the real founder of the family's power. Francesco confronts many other famous venture captains, like Carmagnola and Niccolo Piccinino; more able of the others he manages to marry the only daughter of Filippo Maria Visconti, Bianca Maria, the mother of Ludovico il Moro. Bianca Maria is an illegitimate daughter and her succession is contested. Others, like Alfonso d'Aragona ,are claiming the power and are threatening Milan, that become a republic. Francesco at the beginning fights for the republic, until he manages to enter the city and be accepted as duke. Here starts the Sforza's domain and Francesco makes some reforms to transform the state in an absolutist vision. When in 1466 Francesco dies, the primogenitor Galeazzo Maria succeeds him, brother of Ludovico il Moro. Galeazzo reveals to be not able like his father, increases the splendor of the court but does not promote its economy. On Christmas day in 1476 he dies stabbed, victim of a conspiracy. Now Ludovico il Moro convinces Galeazzo's wife, Bona di Savoia, to accept him as guardian of her son, Gian Galeazzo of circa nine years, legitimate heir to the title of duke. A new splendor period for the Sforza's court. Ludovico considers himself the true heir of the great Francesco and gives to Leonardo the committee for an equestrian monument dedicated to his father. He will hold the power till 1499 when he will be thrown out by the French. With him finishes the splendor of this dynasty. His descendant will be back to power for brief and alternate periods, until 1535 when Francesco II Sforza dies without leaving heirs.

In the first half of the fifteenth century Italy, particularly Florence, has a central position in Europe artistically and economically. The Renaissance started for sure in Tuscany , but many protagonists of this movement like Leonardo, Raffaello, Michelangelo will produce their best works in Milan and Rome.
In other ambits we have the three greatest thinkers of the Italian Renaissance: Telesio, Campanella and Bruno, all coming from southern Italy, with the polish Copernico and the Flemish Vesalio. Already in the second half of the fifteenth century - when Leonardo is trained ? Florence is not the center, art is not characterized by personalities like Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Donatello, Paolo Uccello, but by artists like Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, Pollaiolo, who are mainly skilled organizers of the workshop activities. After 1500 the center of Italian Renaissance is Rome, where Raffaello, Michelangelo and for a brief period also Leonardo are animating the most splendid period of the renaissance culture, thanks to the will of ambitious Popes like Giulio II, Leone X and Clemente VII. In the international scene, in the two centuries, there is a deep change that makes Italy lose his centrality. Enough is to thing of the discover of a "new world" at the extreme west, that makes the fortune of Spain and of the Flanders, at the fall of Costantinopoli by the Turks hands and later at the Lutheran reform, against the Church of Rome, that will mark a further step towards the anti-Italian attitude.

Artwork Details

1- John and Peter
The tradition attributed to John a docile nature and to Peter one tended to anger. This is the same combination we find in some of Leonardo's physiognomy studies representing the one phlegmatic facing the other angry. Therefore the gestures and expressions of the two are lined: John reacts almost with discouragement (with his hands on the table and his head reclined), Peter instead is advancing towards Christ with a knife. Both participate the same emotion, but with different tones that render the greatness of the Last Supper.

2- Judas
Differing from the traditional representations, Judas is not on the other side of the table, but he is with the others Apostles. He is though seen almost with his back turned and he turns away.

3- Andrew and James
What the Last Supper is showing is the gamma of reactions towards Jesus' announce that one of them will betray him. The impact is the same for everyone but anyone is characterized by his expressions and gestures (here the Apostles Andrew and James) and reacting according to his own temperament.

4- The knife
Peter is holding a knife in his right hand. The same gesture can be found in the Renaissance representations of the same theme.

5- The saltcellar
The saltcellar beside Judas is upside-down: maybe it was Judas who knocked it over to making space for Peter.

6- The landscape
Behind the scene, the faded landscape seem to lighten the dramatic nature of the moment: it is possible to see also a little church with a particular shape. It is a Lombardy landscape that places the Last Supper by Leonardo in the same place where the refectory is.

7- The prospective
The panels upon the walls, the paneled ceiling, the background wall are marking a firm architectonic prospective.

8- The tablecloth
The representations of the Apostles were meant to symbolize theoretic historical typologies, rendered through the use of physiognomy, but also the observation of reality. The final result was reached through progressive approximations, through a long preparatory study. Important to notice is how the master cared about detail, some of them, like the foldings in the tablecloth, amazed the contemporaries.

9- The pointed finger
In many paintings and drawings by Leonardo there is a figure pointing his finger: in the Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre museum the angel points his finger towards Saint John.
Generally the finger points the sky meaning spiritual or interior transportation, like in Saint John Baptist. In the Last Supper Thomas (the doubtful Thomas), is rising his finger like he was asking a question, but this is also an allusion to the request the Apostle did to Jesus to let him put a finger in the spots where the nail were and in the ribs to identify Jesus, as the Gospel tells.

10- Jesus Christ
The noble figure of Jesus Christ with his arms open, as he was resigned, is the center of the composition. He is the psychological center of the scene, he lights with his peaceful aura the violent emotions expressed by the Apostles at the announcement of betrayal. His reached peace is represented through the isolation of his figure. The colors of Christ's cloak, red and blue, are probably symbolizing Passion and Resurrection.

Its heritage and subsequent fortune

Always considered a masterpiece of history of art, Leonardo's Last Supper is reproduced in engravings and copies that rapidly diffused in Italy and Europe, this gives the dimensions of the huge impact the painting had. In 1515 was realized from Giampietrino a full-size copy. All these reproductions were done when the painting was at the apex of this greatness. Thanks to these was possible to reconstruct with the philological method the history of the masterpiece damaged, because of a very sensible technique, from the time, the environmental factors and from damages caused from wrong techniques and bad interventions.