Arts & Culture

The surprising history behind the Last Supper

Most of us are familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, a Renaissance-era painting depicting Jesus’s last meal with his apostles before his betrayal by the underhanded Judas.

It’s one of the most popular and enduring works of art in modern history. But while its legacy has stood the test of time, the painting itself has suffered substantially over the years. When you consider just how many catastrophes befell The Last Supper over the past few centuries, it’s amazing that we can still see it at all.

The man behind the mural

Credit: Myper / iStock

As we know, The Last Supper was painted by none other than Leonardo da Vinci (lit. “Leonardo of Vinci”). A true Renaissance man, da Vinci was a prolific artist, sculptor, engineer, mathematician, and inventor—that is, when he wasn’t busy studying astronomy, architecture, literature, and history. He can even be credited for inventing components that led to the creation of the modern-day parachute, helicopter, and tank.

Of course, da Vinci is most famous for his artistic endeavors. Born in 1452, da Vinci achieved mastery in painting and sculpting by the young age of 26. Shortly after, he was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, to paint a mural for the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery. This mural would be The Last Supper, an enduring masterpiece that would be revered and cherished for hundreds of years.

At least, that’s what you’d expect. The reality is quite a bit different, and the painting almost didn’t survive its trip through time.

A violent history

Da Vinci began work on The Last Supper around 1495 or 1498 and spent about three years completing the mural. While it was heralded in its time, da Vinci had already made his first mistake—using the wrong type of paint.

At this point in history, the “standard” for painting such murals was the fresco method: applying paint to a layer of fresh plaster, a process that lets the paint’s pigments bind with the wall and resist chipping and fading over time.

Most murals of the time were painted with this method, but da Vinci was never one to follow trends. Instead of fresco, he tried painting the mural in oil and tempera. This allowed him to achieve a type of chromatic luminosity unseen at the time, but in terms of longevity, the experiment was a catastrophic failure.

The Last Supper began to flake and chip after only a couple years, an ominous sign portending many of the other problems the painting would face over its lifetime.

Forget paintings—we need doors

Credit: PaoloGaetano / iStock

In the mid-17th century, someone decided that building a doorway through The Last Supper’s wall was more important than preserving the mural and famously cut into the mural’s lower section, which removed Jesus’s feet and a few other details. While the painting had already gone through several rounds of restoration at this point, it was clear that not everyone appreciated da Vinci’s work.

A home for horses

Another blow to the mural’s dignity occurred when Napoleon charged through Italy in the late 18th century.

As the story goes, the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery was co-opted by Napoleon’s soldiers and used as a stable for their horses. While historians aren’t clear on what type of damage this might have caused, it’s another reminder that few viewed da Vinci’s work with the same reverence that we do today.

Getting moldy and restored

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The Last Supper went unblemished for years, until another problem began to rear its ugly head: mold damage. While a flood in the early 19th century contributed to significant molding, the issues started far earlier.

You see, the tempera/oil method used by da Vinci provided a poor amount of adhesion between paint and plaster. Compared to fresco, it left a thin opening between the surfaces that trapped humidity and made the painting susceptible to molding. This issue, among others, would be something that art restorationists struggled to correct over the coming years.

Collateral damage

Perhaps worst of all, the Santa Maria delle Grazie was nearly destroyed in a WWII-era Allied bombing campaign that blew apart the roof and several walls of the refectory. Fortunately, residents had anticipated this and surrounded the mural with sandbags, scaffolding, and other impediments to protect it from damage.

And it worked! In a miracle befitting Jesus himself, The Last Supper remained virtually unharmed from the bombing damage. Of course, the damage to the building left the painting exposed to the elements for several months before repairs could be made, but all things considered, it turned out better than it could have.

An enduring legacy

Despite the mural’s troubled history, it wasn’t without its champions. Various art historians performed restorations on the mural over the centuries, most recent of which occurred in a 20-year-long campaign completed in 1999.

Some weren’t happy about this and argued that there were so many changes that little remained of da Vinci’s original work, but others praised the effort and the clarity that the improvements provided. It’s not much compared to everything the mural endured over the years—but for a mural over 500 years old, it’s not a bad start.