The Full Story Behind Leonardo’s Last Supper

By Cristina Esguerra - Thursday, April 4, 2019
The Full Story Behind Leonardo’s Last Supper

'It was just a theory, but I thought: what if the king asked for the next best thing: a faithful copy made by Leonardo on canvas. The latter was a new medium in those days. I started to go through the archives in France and Florence and in the latter found a letter where the king of France asks the Signoria to send Leonardo to work for him for a while. So, da Vinci goes to Milan a second time as the painter of the king, why? Because he’s making a copy of the Last Supper.'

Image: The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Judas, Peter and John, fragment, Tongerlo

 

Jean-Pierre Isbouts - one of National Geographic’s best-selling authors- has been studying and following Leonardo da Vinci’s paper trail for years. He’s written about the Italian’s career and legacy, the identity of the Mona Lisa, and the secrets behind his Last Supper. Some of Isbouts findings defy our most common conceptions of da Vinci’s life and work.

As part of our magazine’s commemoration of Leonardo’s 500thanniversary, and in light of Isbouts upcoming TV special The Search for the Mona Lisa and his new book The da Vinci Legacy (Apollo, 2019), ArtDependence sat down with the writer to talk about how his new discoveries shed a different light on our image of the Italian artist.

To tell our readers as much as possible about our deep conversation with Isbouts, we divided the interview in three. The third part focuses on what makes Leonardo’sLast Supper (1495-1498) revolutionary, and Isbouts’ theory on the oil on canvas version of the artwork found in Belgium.   

 

One Supper for Milan, One for the King

 

ArtDependence (AD):  What makes da Vici’s Last Supper so unique?

Jean Pierre Isbouts (JPI): On top of its painterly quality, it radically revolutionized the way the motif was depicted. Up to that point artists depicted the Last Supper as the institution of the Eucharist, the Christian mass. In Ghirlandaio’s versions of the Last Supper, for example, you have Christ breaking bread - which in itself is not a very interesting thing to depict - while the Apostles sit there not doing anything.

 

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Judas, Peter and John, fragment, Tongerlo

 

Leonardo comes into the genre wanting action, drama. Thus, he breaks with the iconography of the Last Supper as the institution of the Eucharist and depicts the moment in the gospels when Jesus says: “one of you will betray me.” This bombshell announcement brings all these different human responses into the work.

It was a radical change, and it made everyone at the time want to have a print copy of the work. According to Leo Steinberg the Last Supperwas probably one of the first illustrations in history that enjoyed wide distribution. It kept Leonardo’s memory alive.     

 

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Judas, Peter and John, fragment, Milan

 

Today we have no idea what the fresco looked like. We only see 20 per cent of the original work, even after Pinin Brambilla’s restoration which took 19 years. The reason is she took off the overpaint that had been added over the centuries and left the original pigments.

AD: You have a theory about a second Last Supper made either by Leonardo or his atelier and owned by the Tongerlo Abbey in Belgium. Could you tell us that story?

JPI: I was reading my Vasari - which is the Bible on Leonardo - and he had a curious story: king Louis XII conquered Milan in 1499. During a tour of the city he saw the Last Supper and was blown away. He told his associates he wanted the wall taken down and shipped across the Alps. The story ends there, but as a historian I know enough about kings and queens of the Renaissance to know they don’t take no for an answer.

It was just a theory, but I thought: what if the king asked for the next best thing: a faithful copy made by Leonardo on canvas. The latter was a new medium in those days.  

I started to go through the archives in France and Florence and in the latter found a letter where the king of France asks the Signoria to send Leonardo to work for him for a while. So, da Vinci goes to Milan a second time as the painter of the king, why? Because he’s making a copy of the Last Supper.

 

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Bartholomew, James the Lesser and Andrew, Tongerlo, fragment

 

I was able to trace the painting to Galois, where it shows up in the inventory of Louis XII’s Prime Minister’s palace. It appears as a Last Supper of monumental figures. I even found bills sent to Gianpetrino - a top painter of Leonardo’s atelier- who traveled to deliver it. When the king and his Prime Minister die the artwork is put up for sale. At the time the Tongerlo abbey in Belgium is being built because of the Reformation. The Abbot wanted to find the biggest painting of Christ he could find to stick it to those protestants, so he buys the Last Supper and hangs it the chapel. In the abbey I found the testimony of a witness who wrote the story.

 

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Bartholomew, James the Lesser and Andrew Milan, copy, fragment

 

AD: In your opinion, is this copy of the Last Supper of Leonardo?

JPI: I think his whole atelier worked on the painting under his supervision because Louis XII wanted the artwork done quickly. I can see the signature of Boltraffio and Gianpetrino. Which makes sense because if you’re working for a king you’re going to be on top of the work and use your best people.

There’s a theory that da Vinci’s assistants weren’t the only ones to work on the painting. It’s believed that Leonardo himself painted Christ and St. John, and X-ray tests done in the 1970’s somewhat corroborate the story. They show those two figures don’t have underdrawings. And it makes sense, with Leonardo it’s all about the face. Who are the two most important faces in the Last Supper? Christ and St. John.

AD: Are there any more tests planned that could help unveil the truth?

JPI: In late April we’re doing a multi-spectral scan with a Belgian company to look at the pigments and restorations. More importantly I want to use infrared reflectography to study the underdrawings. You’re the first to hear about this. 

Tests have been done on other copies of the Last Supper, for example the one hanging in London’s Royal Academy of Arts. But compared to the fresco there hasn’t been a match. The only copy with which there’s been an absolute match is the one in Belgium, which means the same cartoon was used. Today what’s left of the fresco looks like a two-dimensional pastel. When you superimpose this specific copy, it comes to life. The effect is incredible. This makes us think that at the very least the Belgian Last Supper must have been made at Leonardo’s atelier in the years immediately after the fresco was painted. 

 

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Tongerlo canvas

 

AD: Is it possible to visit the abbey and see the painting?

JPI: Yes, one can make an appointment and see it. 

There’s one more incredible story about the Last Supper and the various copies that were made throughout the centuries that I think is worth telling: because the Last Supper was in such bad a state, many old copies were exhibited in the hall of Santa Maria de la Grazia monastery where Leonardo’s fresco is. In 1944 the British bombed Milan. One bomb fell on the monastery and destroyed all copies. By an act of god, the fresco survived. Yes, it was protected with sandbags but still.

 

 

Cristina Esguerra is a philosopher and a journalist. She has an M.A in Philosophy from the Freie Universität and an M.A in Arts and Culture from Columbia Journalism School. She’s currently working as a freelance journalist in Berlin, writing mainly for Deutsche Welle and various arts and culture publications.

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