HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)
The Last Supper1524-25
Limewood, 116 x 97 cm
Kunstmuseum, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel
As was recognized very early by art historians, the composition of Holbein's Last Supper was based on Leonardo da Vinci's famous mural in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. As in Leonardo's picture, in Holbein's version the back wall is pierced by three windows, with the central window being reserved for the figure of Christ; the position of heads and arms also corresponds to Leonardo's composition. The dramatic interpretation likewise follows Leonardo's, the subject of the picture being the moment following Christ's announcement that He will soon be betrayed by one of them: as in the Leonardo, the apostles are animatedly discussing the shocking words Christ has just spoken. But, typically for Holbein, he does not adhere slavishly to the original; he alters the gestures and postures of the disciples, and also their faces. In addition, the eye is not led through the window openings to a distant landscape; Holbein encloses the shallow pictorial space by an intense blue sky that looks completely ethereal. The picture format is also more compact than Leonardo's, requiring a much more compressed arrangement of the figures.
Jesus and his disciples sit at a narrow, covered table celebrating the Last Supper, but only nine of the twelve apostles are present. The three missing figures were possibly shown on the edges of the picture, which were lost when the panels were attacked in the iconoclastic riots of Reformation Basel, when the head of Christ was sawn out of the picture. The inventory of the Amerbach collection notes critically that the "supper on wood" was "coarsely" glued together.