The Early Modern World, C. 1300–1600

High Renaissance in Italy

What was revolutionary about The Last Supper?

Completed between 1495-1498 in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, The Last Supper is considered by some to be Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest work (sorry, Mona Lisa). It is a fresco, which means it was painted on a freshly plastered wall, and it depicts the biblical scene in which Jesus Christ breaks bread with his followers on the evening before his death. It was considered revolutionary for a number of reasons, including its naturalism. Da Vinci chose to depict the moment when Christ declares that one of them will betray him. The apostles gathered around the table with Jesus are shocked! St. John cannot bear it and simply faints at hearing the news. St. Peter is angered, and pulls out his knife (foreshadowing his use of the weapon when Jesus is betrayed by Judas in a later part of the biblical narrative). For the first time in art history, Judas is shown on the same side of the table as Christ, though he leans away, betraying his guilt to the viewer.

Like other works of Renaissance art, the story is clearly visually articulated. The apostles are organized into four groups of three, and are all aligned on one side of the table. There are three windows behind the table, and three dark niches along each side, three being associated with the Holy Trinity. Despite the shock of the news, the painting is calm and the mood is thoughtful. Da Vinci’s Last Supper was a major influence on other artists who painted the same scene, including Tintoretto, Hans Holbein, and Rubens.


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