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Art / The Last Supper

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"Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me."

The Last Supper is a 1498 Italian Renaissance painting by Leonardo da Vinci depicting one of the most famous scenes from The Four Gospels: the dinner Jesus Christ had with his followers before being betrayed and killed. The painting depicts Jesus in the center of the table reaching for bread to bless while surrounded by his twelve disciples, who are all in shock upon learning that one among them is a traitor. It is painted on the wall of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, and Leonardo's experiments with original kinds of paint, not all of which work in fresco, led to the original work not lasting long. Much of what can be seen today is restoration.

Although not named in the painting itself, the individuals in the painting are (from left to right) Bartholomew, James the Lesser, Andrew, Judas, Peter, John, Jesus, Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus, and Simon. The individual identifications are based on annotated copies made by Leonardo's students.

Among the most famous paintings ever made, The Last Supper has established norms for depicting the event itself, Jesus, and the twelve apostles. It continues to live in the public consciousness through the many imitations of the painting in pop culture, which are known as "Last Supper" Steals.

The Last Supper provides examples of:

  • Acceptable Breaks from Reality: It would make a lot more sense to have the Apostles sitting on opposite sides of the table, but it's for the best Leonardo da Vinci didn't dedicate his talents to a painting of six peoples' backs covering up what is either Jesus or an Italian hobo.
  • Adaptation Expansion: In The Four Gospels, the individual reaction of the Apostles to the news of a traitor is not described, and neither is the physical appearance of the Apostles or Jesus. In visualizing the event, Leonardo uses the personalities of the Apostles as described elsewhere to extrapolate how he thinks they would react and puts the ideas to paint.
  • All There in the Manual: The only way to know without a doubt who is who in the painting is to look at Leonardo da Vinci's notes that specified the names of each individual in the painting.
  • Background Halo: Christ seems to lack a halo in The Last Supper, but if one completes the pediment above Jesus, it creates a circle around Jesus's head that acts as a substitute for a halo.
  • Cheated Angle: It would be a lot harder to identify Jesus and the Apostles if half of them were on the opposite side of the table with their backs towards the audience, so Leonardo sacrificed realism and put every character in the fresco on the same side of the table.
  • Chromosome Casting: With its basis in a dinner of Jesus and his closest male followers, no woman makes an appearance in The Last Supper.
  • Comic-Book Fantasy Casting: Allegedly, Leonardo based the face of Judas off of Savonarola, an extremist monk famous for his "Bonfires of the Vanities", who was ruling Florence as a proto-puritan dictator at the time.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: The positioning of two of the Apostles have been considered references to the Crucifixion.
    • James the Greater has his arms stretched out to his sides while flanked by the two Apostles who doubted and demanded proof upon Jesus's return, Thomas and Philip, who stand in well for the two thieves crucified next to Jesus. This is all lined up in Leonardo's Last Supper and the Three Layers.
    • Bartholomew, the leftmost Apostle, has his feet crossed in an unnatural way. While some assumed this was a mistake by Leonardo, the book Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper argued the crossing referenced Bartholomew's own martyrdom on the Cross as held in Christian tradition, further evidenced by the fact that Bartholomew is directly in line with the deadliest thing at the table, Peter's knife.
  • Dark Is Evil: Judas, the traitor Jesus is alluding to, is framed in shadow to distinguish him from the just apostles in the light.
  • Declarative Finger: Thomas, the apostle to Jesus's left, is raising his index finger as if to make a point. This could be an indication of his doubt in Jesus's accusation, referencing the doubt Thomas has in The Four Gospels when the Apostles claim Jesus has risen from the dead.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Bartholomew has slammed the table, James the Lesser is grabbing for someone's attention, Andrew can barely stand to hear any of this, Judas is hiding as best as he can, Peter is reaching over the table brandishing a knife, John is almost swooning, James the Great is keeping Thomas and Phillip from rushing Jesus, Matthew and Thaddeus are ambushing a dumbfounded Simon for information, and Christ... is solely focused on the bread and wine in front of him, with no regard for the panic of his followers. Either this Jesus guy is a little beyond human matters, or that bread and wine must be more important than their appearance would let on...
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Judas is covered in shadows, is actively leaning away from Jesus, and is spilling salt (an evil omen) all over the table, yet no one else at the Last Supper even begins to recognize Judas as the traitor Jesus has just revealed is in their midst.
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: John (the apostle directly to the left of Jesus, who seems to be fainting) is depicted as a Long-Haired Pretty Boy with a very feminine face, presumably to emphasize his status as the youngest Apostle.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: The whole painting depicts the Apostles' collective surprise upon learning one of their own has betrayed them. Besides Jesus, none of them knows who the traitor is, but the shadows don't lie, and neither does Judas's posture.
  • Foreshadowing: Peter, the second apostle from Jesus's right, is seen holding a knife. As The Four Gospels depict events, Peter will cut off the ear of a Roman centurion within a day.
  • Geodesic Cast: The twelve apostles are separated into four groups of three, who all respond differently to Christ's announcement. James (the Greater), Thomas, and Philip are skeptical. Jude Thaddeus, Matthew, and Simon the Zealot display questioning expressions. Andrew, Bartholomew, and James (the son of Alphaeus) are surprised. John, Judas Iscariot, and Peter can only be grouped by the variety of their reactions and because they play an important role in the events to come: Jonh will become Mary's honorary son, Judas will sell Jesus, and Peter will react aggressively to Jesus' capture.
  • Greed: Judas is identified by the small bag he is gripping, either indicating the money he accepted to betray Christ or the Apostles' treasury from which he is stealing. Either way, the bag acts as a reminder why Judas is framed in darkness apart from the other Apostles.
  • Heaven: Through the windows, one can see a lush landscape filled with beautiful mountains and rivers. The lack of any buildings from the view and its sheer beauty give some indication that the scenery is meant to represent Heaven.
  • Holy Halo:
    • In order to emphasize the scene's realism, The Last Supper gives none of the Apostles halos and only gives Jesus an obscured Background Halo. This deviates from every other depiction of the Last Supper before this, which saw halos as essential to convey the saintliness of those attending the dinner and to distinguish the un-haloed Judas from the others.
    • Giampietrino's 1520 copy of The Last Supper, regarded as one of the best preserved records of how the painting originally looked and used as a resource for the 1978-98 restoration, does give the Apostles halos (except for Judas). This may have been artistic licence by Giampietrino in producing the copy, or it may indicate that the Apostles in Leonardo's painting originally had halos, but they have been lost in subsequent restorations.
  • Hot-Blooded: Peter doesn't react to Jesus's news with shock or confusion, but with visible anger, reaching across the table to speak with Jesus. It's also worth mentioning that Peter holds a knife in the painting, while everyone's at dinner.
  • Large and in Charge: Jesus is quite clearly the tallest figure in the painting, a traditional way of portraying Christ's transcendence in contrast to the Apostles, who lack his divine nature or freedom from original sin.
  • "Last Supper" Steal: Ur-Example; Leonardo's painting provides the basis for every use of this trope, but since his work is not a parody of itself, it fails to qualify as the Trope Maker.
  • The Last Title: The title refers to the Passover dinner the Apostles are having as Jesus informs them one Apostle is a traitor. It gets the "last" in there because the apostle's betrayal ended with Jesus's arrest and crucifixion.
  • Long-Haired Pretty Boy: John, the apostle directly to Jesus's right, is depicted here as androgynous and long-haired to emphasize his status as the youngest, and thus least masculine, apostle.
  • Meaningful Background Event: One can notice that Judas' arm has spilled the salt on the table (a bad omen), which signals him as the traitor. It also foreshadows the horrible things that are to come.
  • Monumental Damage: For such a world-famous painting, it's suffered an astonishing amount of abuse over the centuries. With the combination of the unconventional painting techniques Leonardo used (making it less stable than a regular fresco) and severe environmental damage (moisture and smoke inside the chapel made the paint deteriorate; then there was the vandalism during the French Revolution, bombing during World War II, multiple bungling "restoration" attempts, and some complete bozo cutting a door through Jesus' feet), it's a wonder the painting has survived at all. The Other Wiki has the gory details.
  • Order Versus Chaos: Visually represented with the food around Jesus, as discussed in this blog. The food to Jesus's sides (and thus closer to his emotional, human Apostles) has fallen over, while the food directly in front of him is standing up to reflect Christ's serenity in the face of his suffering.
  • Prequel: Leonardo da Vinci was tasked with painting something opposite to a depiction of The Crucifixion. Knowing that, it's no surprise Leonardo painted The Last Supper, where Christ announced his sacrifice through bread and wine.
  • Primary-Color Champion: Jesus's divine nature is highlighted by the striking red and blue robe he wears while surrounded by his more muted, flawed Apostles.
  • Race Lift: Although his appearance is never explicitly described in scripture, it can be assumed from his birthplace that Jesus would be a ethnically Middle Eastern man. Leonardo paints him as a white man with long, brown hair and a beard, looking more like someone you'd meet in Florence than in Nazareth. This was not new in Leonardo's generation, however.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Thomas is pointing his index finger straight upward while staring directly at Jesus as if to ask why would God destine one of the Apostles to be a traitor. And why would he give his own sown such a terrible death.
  • Rule of Perception: All the Apostles sit on one side of the same table to allow the viewer to clearly see all of their reactions to Jesus's news.
  • Rule of Three: The painting contains several notable appearances of the number three, perhaps reflecting the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
    • The apostles are grouped into four groups of three.
    • There are three windows in the room.
    • Christ is depicted in a triangle shape, with his hands and his head as the corners of the triangle.
  • Social Semi-Circle: Did we mention that Jesus and the Apostles are all sitting on the same side of the table so their faces are all visible to the audience?
  • The Stoic: Of the thirteen individuals in the painting, the only one without an emotional reaction to the upcoming betrayal of Jesus is Jesus himself, who remains calm among the chaos of the scene.
  • Too Much Information: Andrew, the fourth apostle to the right of Jesus, is seen holding up his hands as if to stop Jesus from saying anything else so disturbing.

The work and its creation make appearances in:

  • One Winged Michelangelo: The creation of the fresco is depicted in volume 3. The series focuses on the rivalry between Leonardo and the title character, and as Michelangelo witnesses and responds to Leonardo's painting here, Leonardo does the same with "Miche"'s Pieta.