Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper is probably the most well know image associated with Maundy Thursday and the disciples last meal together. I’m fascinated with the painting and the man that painted the original fresco on one of the walls of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Matteo Bandello, who was a novice monk at the time, recorded that Da Vinci would sometimes work on the fresco from sunrise to sunset without stopping and at other times would spend hours a day standing in front of the work with his arms folded across his chest staring at the figures on the wall. Bandello also reports that on one occasion he saw Da Vinci leave another job site and walk quickly across the village in the hot sun to the monastery only to pick up a paintbrush to paint one or two strokes.
Da Vinci based the figures of the Last Supper on real people, people that he encountered and people that he just saw in passing. Detailed sketches of faces and body features, such as hands and studies of the folds of cloth for Peter’s sleeve are found in his sketchbooks. He also made lists of possible reactions of the disciples, such as twisting the fingers of a hand or turning to look at a companion. Leonardo also broke with a tradition from the Middle Ages in which the disciples are shown as being stiffly linear in their arrangement at the table.
Work began on the fresco in 1495 and concluded sometime after 1497 (a fire at the monastery destroyed records so the dates are based on other documents). Sadly, within a few years the paint had already begun to flake and crumble. Leonardo had used a dry-wall painting technique that was appropriate; however, it was his experimentation with mixing oil and tempera for the painting on the dry plaster that was the cause of the subsequent flaking off of the paint. Working on dry plaster enabled him to work slower and to be able to re-paint but resulted in the paint eventually flaking off the surface. Moisture and dampness in the refectory also contributed to the incompatibility of the paint and prepared wall surface.
Restorations have taken place from time to time. Recent efforts have revealed many hidden details such as a hand drawn sketch done on the prepared wall before the final preparatory coat of gesso and imprimatura. Several authentic copies of the fresco have survived and have been invaluable in restoration efforts. The fresco is so fragile that extensive work is not practical. Today’s viewer sees only about 20% of the original version of the Last Supper and while it appears ghost-like on the wall of the ancient monastery viewers still witness the expressions and gestures of the apostles and the details of the table set for the meal that were painted over 500 years ago.