Leonardo da Vinci, the Man and the Painter
I would like to examine how Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper unites a personal interpretation of the event with a display of some general Renaissance aesthetic principles. On the one hand, we are confronted with an idiosyncratic vision, on the other with a generalist, if not dogmatic, principle.
As Da Vinci narrows in on the faces of the apostles, their features, highly agitated, become vehicles of emotional expressions as the artist understood them. Here he may be giving the viewers a glance into his own emotional realm. Via their behavior he pours out his own sentiment.
As we let go of examination of separate figures or the three-figure groups, and shift towards the overall organization – the long table, the hall space, the receding perspective – we transpose into a plane where intimacy and private experience give way to compositional concerns. Broadly speaking, Renaissance “takes over.”
Consequently, the schematic linear disposition of the actors becomes a straightforward and powerful compositional tool, as it imposes on observers a certain way of viewing. The air and light in the room and the landscape beyond it appear to absorb, and perhaps diffuse some of the tension developing at the table. The micro level can do the same, as discussed further in this review.
Back to Da Vinci’s vision: at the table, the immediacy of the gestures exposes heartfelt, genuine, piercing emotions – and here, I think, lies the work’s chief strength. Overall, the sense of irrevocable loss that persists in the atmosphere of the image seems at once bittersweet and monumental.
For comparison, Michelangelo could rarely, if at all (perhaps with the exception of Pieta), delve into such intricate details of responses: he preferred to hover in heroic and symbolic spheres. Leonardo impregnates the actors with unrest that literally lingers forever, enveloping viewers, percolating through our eyes into the depth of our souls.
The painting divides into five distinct groups: four clusters of three apostles, which flank a fifth central figure of Jesus of Nazareth. According to this Wikipedia article on the Last Supper, the apostles are as follows: Bartholomew, James, and Andrew; Judas, Peter, and John; Thomas, James, and Philip; and Matthew, Jude, and Simon.
Da Vinci relies on a classic linear formula, but enhances it with as much sophistication and elegance as possible to avoid any formulaic traps. The systematically granulated set-up adheres to the ideals of Renaissance by employing triangular/pyramidal shapes, and maintaining symmetry between the apostle clusters.
While Christ acts as a central axis, the two groups on the left mirror their counterparts on the right. Already here a compositional solution serves to support the theological idea behind it – Jesus as a central axis of Christian faith.
Protagonist and Antagonist
The protagonist, occupying the center of the composition, grabs the attention immediately, his expression revealing resignation and acceptance. Christ’s isolation (he is the only character not to come in contact with any other of the sitting) reaffirms the melancholy appearance. His features bespeak an air of the supernatural, of being removed from earthly concerns.
Recognizing Judas the antagonist is made easier by his clenched fist (where he apparently holds a salt shaker, salt literally being the equivalent of money, as the word “salary” indicates), a gesture contrasting with Christ’s open palms. Taken aback by the fact that his betrayal is already known, Judas goes on to betray more: his bulging eyes show a mix of fear and disbelief.
Jesus Christ becomes the figure where the composition and its emotive content converge and mature, achieving a full measure of development. Towards him everything flows, and at the same time, he acts as an agent, or source, from whence energy emanates. It’s possible to suggest that this dual quality tentatively reflects the theological precept of the twofold, co-existing nature of being both man and God.
The Apostles React
As opposed to Jesus, the apostles demonstrate decidedly human behavior. Grief, surprise, denial, anger, disbelief – they are all there, creating an intense wave that seems to break, as if magically, at the rock which is the shape of the savior.
The way in which the prophet’s detached, ethereal disposition suspends the turmoil of his adherents, right at the epicenter of the image, creates a clash of immense psychological force. A full scale tragedy unfolds: some already begin to mourn, Christ already communicates catharsis.
Reading closely, one by one, the apostles’ responses may diffuse some of the narrative tension, just as the atmosphere around them may do the same . Lacking the shocking purity of their leader, their reactions intermix. Observing and deciphering their conversations offers some entertainment value, as viewers (and especially believers) can more easily identify with these emotions.
There’s a touch of mundane in the details of feet and sandals, gesticulation, intricate changes in facial musculature – all of which hark back to da Vinci’s interest in observing faces and recording typical and atypical traits.
Eventually, the time it takes to go over the four groups, to take note of all the subtle characterizations, deflects somewhat the thrust of the first reaction. It allows us to enjoy the artwork on a level of portraiture, and return to the center equipped with more context and meaning.
While close-ups half-open a door into Da Vinci’s own emotional landscape, zooming out shuts such vistas, placing the focus on various technical, global aspects, on contours rather than what they delineate. In the latter instance we are given a chance to admire the painter, in the former, the man behind the painter.
Can the two be truly separated is a question that’s bound, so it seems, to remain open.