Did Da Vinci and His Workshop Create a Copy of ‘The Last Supper’? An Interview with Doctor Jean-Pierre Isbouts

By Dirk Vanduffel - Thursday, January 18, 2018
Did Da Vinci and His Workshop Create a Copy of ‘The Last Supper’?  An Interview with Doctor Jean-Pierre Isbouts

Is it possible that a detailed canvas copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, overseen by Da Vinci himself, could have hung, unrecognised on the wall of a remote convent in Belgium for the last 450 years?

Is it possible that a detailed canvas copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, overseen by Da Vinci himself, could have hung, unrecognised on the wall of a remote convent in Belgium for the last 450 years?

Doctoral Professor and bestselling art historian Jean-Pierre Isbouts is the co-author of Young Leonardo, a book that draws attention to a life-sized copy of Leonardo’s famous Last Supper fresco. The copy, thought to have been painted by Leonardo’s students, has been stored in a remote convent in Tongerlo, Belgium for more than 450 years.

Following publication of the book, Dr Isbouts continued to find fascination in the Tongerlo copy. He set out to find out more about the history of the piece. In 2017, he discovered that Leonardo had began to experiment with canvas as a new, revolutionary medium and speculated that French King Louis XII, who was known to be enamoured of the work, had ordered a copy of the Last Supper to be created on canvas and sent back to France to inspire French painters. Dr Isbouts also discovered a letter in the state archives of Florence, written by the king himself, and urging the government of Florence to make Leonardo available “for a project he had in mind.” He also found direct evidence that a large canvas of the Last Supper had been shipped to France just a few months later. 

As a final piece of evidence, Dr Isbouts discovered a letter within the 450-year archive of the convent at Tongerlo in which it clearly stated that Louis XII “ordered to have a copy made by Leonardo of an original painted on a wall in Milan, and that’s the copy that hangs in the choir today.”

ArtDependence asked Dr Isbouts to tell us more about the incredible discovery and the future of the ‘Tongerlo copy’.

ArtDependence Magazine: Tell us a little about yourself and how you became a Da Vinci specialist?

Jean-Pierre Isbouts: I’m a full-time doctoral professor in the social sciences department of Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, with a specialization in the humanities. My core focus is the history of the Renaissance, as well as the ancient Near East. My publishers are National Geographic and St. Martin’s Press. For an overview of my recent publications, see my website: Jean-Pierre Isbouts.

AD: How did you hear about Abbye of Tongerlo?

J-PI: As part of the research I did for the book Young Leonardo, I studied copies of the Last Supper painted by the Leonardeschi (pupils of Leonardo). The Tongerlo canvas is one of four known copies of the Last Supper mural made by Leonardo’s pupils in the two decades after the fresco’s completion in 1499. Another version, painted by Solario and known as the ‘Castellazzo Copy’, was destroyed during World War II. A copy by Giampietrino (the ‘Certosa di Pavia’ version) has just been returned to the Royal Academy of Arts at Burlington House, London, after a 25-year exile to Magdalen College in Oxford. Another, smaller copy by Leonardo’s pupil Marco d’Oggiono is on display at the Musée de la Renaissance in Écouen, France. However, I believe that the Tongerlo copy, is the oldest and most faithful copy of Leonardo’s fresco. It was completed around 1509, based on documents found at the Château de Gaillon. This is particularly important because only some twenty percent of Leonardo’s original fresco in Milan remains visible.

AD: You state that a small part of the work in Abbye of Tongerlo is painted by Da Vinci himself?

J-PI: This has been picked up by the press as the most salient aspect of our research, but in fact it is a hypothesis based on X-rays of the canvas, which show no under drawing under the figures of John and Jesus. This suggests that the artist —arguably Leonardo—painted these figures directly on the canvas. Pining Brambilla, the well-known restorer of the Milan fresco, visited Tongerlo and arrived at the same conclusion, particularly with regards to the fine features of John. I believe that Leonardo used the same model for John that he previously used for the drawing of Leda and the Swan. The use of such androgynous figures was very typical for Leonardo.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1490s (Julian). Current location Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan)

An artist's copy of Leonardo da Vinci's painting of "The Last Supper". NOTE: This work should not be used to represent the original paining, but only in discussion of copies, lost details etc. Current location Da Vinci Musuem, Tongerlo Abbey

However, I believe that my discovery that the painting was commissioned by Louis XII, King of France, is far more persuasive. It would have ensured Leonardo’s personal supervision of the project, including the use of the same cartoons that were used for the Milan fresco. Indeed, our digital tests of both works, Milan and Tongerlo, show a near-identical match between the principal composition of the figures. See, for example:

  1. Bartholomew, James and Andrew
  2. Judas, Peter and John

That is decidedly not the case with the copies that were painted in later years by Giampietrino (now in London) or d’Oggiono (now in France). As a result, I believe that the Tongerlo canvas is the closest approximation of what Leonardo originally intended with his Last Supper — a vision that is tragically lost in the fresco itself. That is why the Tongerlo canvas is so valuable, and why I am glad that our efforts are finally shinning a spotlight on this work and the urgent need to preserve it.

AD: You are currently fundraising for the urgent restoration of the Tongerlo copy. How is it going?

J-PI: Very well. We have an avalanche of interest and are now in the process of creating an online crowd-funding campaign.


Dirk defines the overall policy of ArtDependence Magazine, in addition to conducting interviews. He specializes in valuation and auctioning.

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