The Last Supper as painted by Ghirlandaio, Leonardo and Tintoretto

The theme of Christ's Last Supper was a very popular image in Italian Renaissance painting.  Perhaps the most well known version is Leonardo da Vinci's fresco in Sta. Maria delle Grazie in Milan, but this scene has been well represented in art history.  The Last Supper (known in Italian as l'ultima cena or il cenacolo) was the last meal Christ shared with his twelve apostles before his Crucifixion.  

It was at this meal that Christ said "This is my body which is given for you" when he broke the bread to eat and "this is my blood" when he drank the wine.  These acts formed the basis for the Eucharist.  This is an important part of Christianity which is why it was depicted again and again in art.  Let's compare and contrast three different versions of The Last Supper as painted by Ghirlandaio, Leonardo and Tintoretto.

 The Last Supper, Domenico Ghirlandaio, San Marco, Florence, 1480's

You may remember from an earlier post that Michelangelo trained in the fresco workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio.  The above Last Supper was painted as a fresco in San Marco in Florence, Ghirlandaio painted an almost identical version at the church of Ognissanti (All Saints) in Florence a few years prior.  This is a beautiful fresco and a good example of a standard type for this painting in quattrocento (15th century) Italian Renaissance painting.

The Last Supper was also the event where Christ announced that one of his twelve apostles would betray him, he didn't say who but any contemporary viewer would have known that was Judas.  Judas is always shown in these early Last Supper paintings as set apart from the rest of the group, here he is the only one present without a holy halo, sometimes his halo is shown as black.

This depiction was used so that the group of apostles would all be visible to the viewers and  that worshippers would easily be able to recognize the scene.  Symbols were commonly used in art and just as saints all had attributes in art, so did Judas.  His attribute early on was to be shown in a disgraced way.

Ghirlandaio (pronounced gear-land-eye-oh) has painted this scene using perspective and created depth in the painting with the tiles on the floor, incorporating painted architectural elements such as windows and arches, and by including a background of landscape with sky, clouds and birds.

He paints with his signature delicate and decorative style using bright light, soft colors, realistic faces and convincing figures.  At the time this and the other at Ognissanti were painted, they were considered some of the most beautiful Last Supper frescoes that had been painted.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, 1495-98 

However within ten to fifteen years later Leonardo da Vinci painted his fresco in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and this Last Supper was to become the definitive representation of this story.  This was also a fresco, but Leonardo used a new technique that didn't work well and began to disintegrate within his own lifetime.  As this wasn't done with standard fresco technique his colors are different and he was able to paint with more detail, however much of the original detail has worn away.

Leonardo used a startling and bold new type of composition, done in a much more realistic style than that of his predecessors.  Here he doesn't just show the event of the Last Supper but a specific moment, that in which Christ has just announced that one of his apostles will betray him.  All at once they begin to ask "Is it I my Lord?  Will it be I?" 

Jesus is the central point of perspective in this rendition, all the lines used in the architecture to create depth can be traced back to him.  Jesus is completely still and calm and all movement and shapes radiate outward from him.  In this painting Judas sits with everyone and has just knocked over the salt.  Leonardo also uses symbolic representation in this painting, I have mentioned in previous posts that three was a divine number and four was the number of man.  Here he separates the apostles into four groups of three, symbolically calling attention to the fact that Christ was the one who joined mankind with divinity through his Crucifixion.

I have always found this to be a powerful piece and have only seen representations of it.  When I have seen Leonardo's paintings in person I have felt like they eclipse everything else in the room and seem to glow with a heavenly light all their own.  The Last Supper in Milan is something that I very much look forward to seeing in person someday as I get the same sense of that from just seeing pictures in books or slides in lectures.

With Leonardo's new depiction the Last Supper was transformed in painting into a stronger and more realistic scene.
 The Last Supper, Tintoretto, San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, 1592-94

For our last painting to compare and contrast let's jump ahead 100 years later to the Late Venetian Renaissance.  The damp, humid climate in Venice didn't work as well for fresco painting where pigments where mixed directly into wet plaster.  At this time artists used oil on canvas and due to this different medium were able to get different results from Florentine frescoes.

Tintoretto was known for his dynamic style, broad and painterly brushwork and bold highlights painted on a dark ground.  Rather than using the early perfectly proportioned and symmetrical compositions of the High Renaissance, he used energetic and dramatic compositions.

We can see that here in this later Last Supper that uses a diagonal dinner table to create depth and drama in the painting.  Angels and servants join the others in this painting, however Tintoretto does go back to the earlier depiction of having Judas sit on the opposite side of the table and the only apostle without a halo.  His Christ is shown breaking the bread, and as in Leonardo's work Christ seems to be a calm center from which all action emanates.

The Last Supper was painted literally hundreds of times throughout art history, these three artists and styles were important and had a large influence on many of the depictions that followed. 

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