The Last Supper (in Italian, Il Cenacolo or La Ultima Cena) is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci for his patron DukeLodovico Sforza. It represents the scene of The Last Supper from the final days of Jesus Christ as depicted in the ChristianBible. The painting is based on John 13:21, in which Jesus announced that one of his 12 discipless would betray him. The painting is one of the most well known and valued in the world; unlike many other valuable paintings, however, it has never been privately owned because it cannot be moved.
The work measures 460 x 880 cm and can be found in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. The theme was a traditional one for refectories, but Leonardo's interpretation gave it much greater realism and depth. The lunettes above the main painting, formed by the triple arched ceiling of the refectory, are painted with Sforzacoats-of-arms. The opposite wall of the refectory is covered by a Crucifixion fresco by Donato Montorfano, to which Leonardo added figures of the Sforza family in tempera. (These figures have deteriorated in much the same way as has The Last Supper.) Leonardo began work on The Last Supper in 1495 and completed it in 1498 - however, he did not work on the piece continuously throughout this period.
Leonardo painted The Last Supper on a dry wall rather than on wet plaster, so it is not a true fresco. Because a fresco cannot be modified as the artist works, Leonardo instead chose to seal the stone wall with a layer of pitch, gesso and mastic, then paint onto the sealing layer with tempera. Because of the method used, the piece has not withstood time very well – within 20 years of completion it already began showing signs of deterioration. It has undergone significant restoration since the 16th century. Because of this it cannot be certain whether the faces still resemble Leonardo's original painting; at least one (Thomas) definitely differed from the original at least until the restoration which finished in 1999.
By 1556 - less than sixty years after it was finished - Leornado's biographerGiorgio Vasari described the painting as already "ruined" and so detoriated that the figures were unrecognisable. In 1652 a doorway was cut through the (then unrecognisable) painting, and later bricked up; this can still be seen as the irregular arch shaped structure near the centre base of the painting. A first restoration was attempted in 1726 by Michelangelo Bellotti, who filled in missing sections with oil paint then varnished the whole. This repair lasted very poorly and another restoration was attempted in 1770 by Giuseppe Mazza. Mazza stripped off Bellotti's work then largely repainted the painting; he had redone all but three faces when he was halted due to public outrage. In 1796French troops used the refectory as a prison; it is not known if any of the prisoners may have damaged the painting nor if their spirits were uplifted by it! In 1821 Stefano Barezzi, an expert in removing whole frescoes from their walls intact, was called in to remove the painting to a safer location; he badly damaged the centre section before realising that Leonardo's work was not a fresco! Barezzi then attempted to reattach damaged sections with glue. From 1901 to 1908, Luigi Cavenaghi first completed a careful study of the structure of the painting, then began cleaning it. In 1924 Oreste Silvestri did further cleaning, and stabilised some parts with stucco. During World War II, on 15 August1943, the refectory was struck by a bomb; protective sandbagging prevented the painting being struck by bomb splinters, but it may have been damaged further by the vibration. From 1951 to 1954 another clean-and-stabilise restoration was undertaken by Mauro Pelliccioli.
From 1978 to 1999 Pinin Brambilla Barcilon guided a major restoration project which undertook to permanently stabilise the painting, and reverse the damage caused by dirt, pollution, and the misguided 18th century and 19th century restoration attempts. Since it had proved impracticable to move the painting to a more controlled environment, instead the refectory was converted to a sealed, climate controlled environment. Then detailed study was undertaken to determine the painting's original form, using scientific tests (especially infrared reflectoscopy and microscopic core-samples), and original cartoons preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Some areas were deemed unrestorable. These were re-painted with watercolour in subdued colours intended to indicate they were not original work, whilst not being too distracting.
This restoration took 22 years and on May 28, 1999 the painting was put back on display, although intending visitors are required to book ahead, and can only stay for 15 minutes. When it was unveiled, considerable controversy was aroused by the dramatic changes in colours, tones, and even some facial shapes. James Beck, professor of art history at Columbia University and founder of ArtWatch International, has been a particularly strong critic.
There is a theory, first publicized in The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, that the person to the left of Jesus (to his right) is actually Mary Magdalene, rather than the apostle John (as most art historians identify it). This theory is central to Dan Brown's popular novel The Da Vinci Code. Critics of this theory point out that:
While damage makes it impossible to be sure of the figure's gender, it is clearly wearing male clothing;
There are only thirteen figures in the painting, so if one is Mary Magdalene, an apostle is missing;
Some of the painting's cartoons (preliminary sketches) are preserved, and none show female faces; and
The darkening in the centre of this figure's chest, which some have taken as evidence of breasts, is actually caused largely by a crack.