LEONARDO da Vinci
(b. 1452, Vinci, d. 1519, Cloux, near Amboise)
The Last Supper1498
Mixed technique, 460 x 880 cm
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
Leonardo's painting of the Last Supper was constructed symmetrically according to the laws of central perspective, with a main figure, Jesus, in the centre. He is physically and psychologically isolated from the other figures and with his hands is pointing to the bread and wine, making the introduction of the Eucharist the central event. In Leonardo's conception, the other figures are reacting directly to Jesus, and at the same time, some of them are coming into contact with each other.
James the Great, whose mouth is opened in astonishment, is sitting on the right next to Jesus, and spreading out his arms as if trying to say to the two disciples behind him, who are attempting to command the attention of Jesus with their eloquent gestures and the way they are pushing forward, that they should be quiet and listen.
James the Less, the second from the left, places his hand on Peter's back, while Andrew next to him is still holding his hands before him and speaking, but his eyes are already seeking out Jesus. Peter and John are facing each other deep in conversation, just like the group of three on the far right who still seem to be animatedly discussing the previous announcement of the existence of a traitor.
That this announcement has indeed already taken place is proven by the behaviour of John and Peter. In contrast with the usual manner of depiction, in which John is lying against Christ's chest, here Leonardo refers to the Gospel of St John (13:24): "Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake."
By combining these two apostles into a group with Judas in this manner, Leonardo was distancing himself from the traditional scheme of depiction used for Last Suppers, according to which Peter and John sat to the right and left of Jesus. In contrast to the other apostles, however, he characterized them so clearly that they are identifiable to the observer. He identified Peter by means of the threatening dagger that he would, at dawn, use to cut off the ear of Malchus, one of the soldiers arresting Jesus.
John, the favourite disciple, is wearing red and blue garments as is Jesus, and is seated at his right hand, the most honourable place. But Judas above all was clearly characterized by Leonardo, for he was not, as was customary, placed in the centre of the picture in front of the table, but placed amongst the row of disciples. He is identified by means of several motifs such as his reaching for the bread, the purse containing the reward for his treachery and the knocking over of a saltcellar, a sign of misfortune. Leonardo even formally expressed his isolation from the group by depicting him as the only one whose upper body is leaning against the table, shrinking back from Jesus.