What’s so special about The Last Supper?The Last Supper is one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most iconic works and is generally accepted to be a masterpiece of the ‘Western canon’ of art history. You’ll definitely recognize it, whether from history textbooks or one of the huge number of interpretations or parodies - everyone from Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol to the Simpsons has made their own version. You may also remember it from The Da Vinci Code (the book or the film), and you might even recall some of the alleged symbolism hidden in the painting that caused controversy and sparked conspiracy theories.
Is it a fresco? What is a fresco?Although it’s often described as a fresco (because it’s painted on a wall), The Last Supper isn’t one. Traditional frescos are painted by adding water and pigment to wet plaster so that when it dries the painting is part of the wall. The problem for Leonardo da Vinci was that traditional fresco painting doesn’t allow the artist to alter the painting as they work - once the plaster is dry then you’re left with what’s on the wall. Instead, da Vinci decided to seal the stone wall with a double layer of plaster, before adding a white lead undercoat. Then he painted using oil and tempera, which meant he could work slowly and develop the lighting and shadows which are a key part of his style. It made for a beautiful creation, but one which is much harder to preserve than traditional frescos.
What will I see?The painting shows the moment at the Last Supper when Jesus announces that one of his apostles will betray him, and the expressions on the faces of the other men reveal their shock and anger at the news. Look out for Judas Iscariot, his face turned away from the viewer and in shadow, clutching a bag in his hand that might contain the silver pieces he was paid to betray Christ, knocking over a bowl of salt with his elbow. Meanwhile, Jesus sits with a tragic expression in the center, his hands reaching for the bread and wine that will make up the first Holy Communion. Essays and dissertations could be written about the position and expression of each figure (and plenty have been!), but it’s the impression of the central characters which will stay with you.
Why can we only spend 15 minutes with the painting?The Last Supper is extremely fragile and is kept in a small, windowless room so that the climate can be exactly controlled to prevent any further damage. As a result, only 30 people can see the painting at once, and in order to accommodate the hundreds of visitors who want to see it daily, the time in the presence of the painting is restricted to 15 minutes.
How has the painting been preserved?The painting was completed in the 1490s, but damage was already being reported in 1517 and by 1556 it was being described as “ruined” by Giorgio Vasari. A doorway was cut through the wall in 1652, which was later closed with bricks, and in the 1760s a curtain hung to protect the painting only made things worse by trapping moisture on the surface. The first restoration attempt was in 1726 when Michelangelo Belotti filled in missing sections with oil paint before varnishing the whole wall. From then on, restorations only seemed to do more damage. In 1821 an expert in removing frescoes attempted to move the painting - he managed to damage the center of it considerably before realizing it wasn’t a fresco at all and trying to reattach the damaged parts with glue. The painting was lucky to survive World War II - if it weren’t for extensive sandbagging and protective scaffolding then it might have been destroyed along with a substantial part of the rest of the building. The most recent restoration took 21 years, finishing in 1999, and it tried to clean the painting, undo some of the earlier restoration attempts, and repaint some areas. Where possible the team used scientific tests to determine what the original painting was like, and where they couldn’t determine what used to exist in a spot they decided to paint it in muted watercolors rather than invent something. How well this was done and whether the work still looks like the original is a matter of debate among art historians.