Giampetrino and/or Giovanni Boltraffio, The Last Supper (after Leonardo da Vinci), c. 1515-1520. Oil on canvas. ( © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates Limited)
The news that you could now study a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous and sadly deteriorated Last Supper set me thinking. This excellently preserved work, by Leonardo’s students Giampetrino (possibly Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, active 1495-1549) and/or Giovanni Boltraffio (c. 1466-1516) allows us to see detail well beyond the misty ruin that is Leonardo’s original. Giovanni Boltraffio is one of the most successful of Leonardo’s pupils, and is often mentioned as the true creator of the Salvator Mundi that aroused so much comment a while back (I blogged about it a couple of times – though the jury remains out on its true attribution, and will be out until we can get another look at it.)
While the Boltraffio’s have done a fine job recreating the fresco on canvas, their use of color is too limited, their skill in depicting fabrics is below the Master’s standard. However, they had the blessed luck in seeing the work when it was relatively new, and it allows us to gain a little more insight – or, in my case, raise a few questions as to Leonardo’s composition.
I’m also posting this painting below, another copy, this time possibly made with Leonardo’s own input – it appears to have been made from the Leonardo’s original cartoon, and was likely overseen by Leonardo’s pupil Andrea Solari, with the assistance of others, perhaps even Leonardo himself.
Andrea Solari (and others?), The Last Supper (after Leonardo da Vinci), c. 1520, collection Tongerlo Abbey, Belgium
I know my images are not all that great, but you can find the Boltraffio online now, in high resolution.
Let’s set the scene: from left to right, Bartholomew, James, son of Alphaeus, Andrew, Judas Iscariot, Peter, John, Jesus, Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot. Jesus has announced his impending betrayal, and the others are expression shock, dismay, doubt, and more.
Looking at these images, I kept stopping to wonder why Leonardo made certain choices. Yes, Judas (fourth from right, with his face in shadow) is clutching what might be a bag, perhaps containing his 30 pieces of silver – that is clear enough. He is also knocking over a salt cellar, something hard to see in the fresco, but evident in the copies. What I wonder about is Judas’s left hand, which is reaching out, across the table. I thought at first he was reaching toward the bread roll in front of St. John (sixth from left, just before Jesus), but the angle of his hand and arm are wrong. He seems to be reaching for Jesus’s glass of wine, which Jesus himself is doing also.
Jesus, it seems, is not reaching for the bread roll by his plate, but is gesturing toward St. James the Greater’s roll.
Bartholomew, on the left edge, is clutching something white in his right hand, a piece of fabric, perhaps. The tablecloth shows no sign of disturbance, and none of Bartholomew’s clothes are that color. Is he the only person at this table with a napkin?
It’s hard not to notice that not only is Judas’s face in shadow, but his skin is noticeably darker than anyone else’s. This is especially evident as he is placed close by John, whose pale skin and marked feminine features make him stand out. Were John sitting up straight, instead of examining Peter’s hand (why?) he would challenge Jesus for the viewer’s attention.
Thomas looks like an afterthought, popping his head around James the Greater to make sure he gets in the picture. Thomas makes an emphatic gesture with his right hand, the index finger straight up, but Leonardo chose to slip Thomas’s left hand into the shadows between James and Philip. There isn’t really any need to put that hand in; the whole composition is peppered with gesturing hands (silent movie acting long predates silent movies). Why then put in this passive, shadowy hand?
While I’m speaking of hands, let’s move down to the right, to the next-to-last figure, St. Jude Thaddeus. He raises his right hand in a gesture of surprise, responding as much to Jesus’s words as to the reaction by Simon the Zealot beside him. But look at Jude Thaddeus’s left hand. It lies on the table like something dead, his open fingers echoing similar poses by Simon and Matthew, but there is no energy there. Is Leonardo suggesting that Jude Thaddeus (scholars debate over whether Jude Thaddeus is one or two people) had a crippled hand? I don’t know of any legend that says this, but, then, I was raised Episcopalian, and the lives of the saints is more a Catholic discipline.
Jesus gestures toward bread and reaches for wine; appropriately enough, there are no flaws in his design. These copies allow us to see his feet, which were destroyed in the fresco when the monks cut a door through the wall in the 1600s.
Leonardo’s original is still there, despite centuries of weather and war, in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. As to my questions, only Leonardo could say for sure.