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DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in Santa Maria della Grazie, in Milan, looking at Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. DR. BETH HARRIS: And we're in the room where the monks would eat, their refectory, and so several times a day, the monks would come in there and eat silently, and be able to look up at Leonardo's Last Supper. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's an ideal place, of course, for this particular subject. And not an uncommon one. DR. BETH HARRIS: So let's talk about the story. At the last supper, Christ says, "One of you will betray me," to his twelve apostles. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And one of the ways that this painting is often read is as a reaction to that moment. That is, this is not the moment when Christ utters that, but the moment after, when the reaction takes place. These are his closest followers. And so this is terribly shocking. And so what we see is this incredible set of reactions from the apostles around the table. DR. BETH HARRIS: So that's one way we can understand the fresco, but there's another aspect of the narrative. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Which is, in some ways, even more important. Christ, you can see, is reaching towards both a glass of wine and towards bread. And this is the institution of the sacrament. DR. BETH HARRIS: The sacrament of the Eucharist, we might know it as Holy Communion, where Christ says, "Take this bread, for this is my body. Take this wine, for this is my blood. And remember me." And you can see that he reaches out toward the bread and the wine. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But what's interesting is that Christ's hand is widely spread. So it seems as if he's reaching towards the wine, but at the same time, he's reaching toward a bowl. And at the same moment, Judas is reaching towards that same bowl. DR. BETH HARRIS: Judas is the one who's going to betray Christ. He's been paid 30 pieces of silver by the Romans. And you can see, he's grasped that bag of silver in his right hand, as he pulls away from Christ, his face cast in shadow. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But he's pulling away at the same time that he's still reaching out to the bowl. And that's one of the ways that Christ identifies who will betray him, the person who shares, who dips with him in that bowl. It's interesting, because the history of the art history about this painting is really about scholars arguing about what moment this is. DR. BETH HARRIS: But I think there are all of these moments here. And the apostles could, just as easily, be understood as reacting to Christ's words, "one of you will betray me" as they could to Christ saying, "Take the bread, for this is my body and take the wine, for this is my blood." So, Leonard tells us several moments in this story, and at the same time, gives us a sense of the divine, eternal importance of this story. We would never mistake this for 13 people having dinner. We know this is the last supper. We know that this is an important moment, without any of the obvious symbols of the divine that we would have in the early Renaissance, like the halo. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The figures, themselves, are monumental in this space, and too crowded for that table, creating a kind of energy, a kind of chaos, that surrounds the perfection, the solemnity, the geometry of Christ. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's right. Christ forms an equilateral triangle. His head is in the center of a circle. The window that frames his head reads as a halo. There's that calm center. And then, human beings with all of their faults, and fears, and worries, around that divine center. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is Leonardo da Vinci, who is thinking about mathematics, he's thinking about science, he's thinking about the integration of all of these things. DR. BETH HARRIS: If we look at earlier images of the last supper, there's lots of room at the table, there's lots of decorations in the room. What Leonardo does is he simplifies everything and focuses us on those figures and their gestures. And by making it so there's no room behind the table, the figures take up so much space, it's separating our world from the world of Christ and the apostles. There's no way for us to enter that space. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In fact, there's no way for them to move into our space. There really is this demarcation. DR. BETH HARRIS: In versions of the Last Supper that Leonardo would have seen in Florence, Judas is sitting on the opposite side of the table. And by putting Judas with the other apostles, he does use the table as a barrier between our world and the world of the apostles. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Let's look at those faces for just a moment. Christ is so serene, his eyes are down, one hand is up, one hand is down. To his right is a group of three, and there is Judas, who's facing away from us in shadow. His neck is turned, reminding us that night he will hang himself. Now as he pulls away, Saint Peter, Christ's protector, rushes in. He's got a knife that he holds around his back. And he comes in, seeming to say almost, who is it? I need to defend you. DR. BETH HARRIS: The third figure in that group with Judas and Peter would be Saint John, who looks very resigned and closes his eyes. And that's the tradition in paintings of the Last Supper. My favorite three figures are the figures on the far right. Leonardo was very interested in using the body to reveal the soul, to reveal one's internal nature. But Leonardo's creating these four groups of three, that idea of knitting the figures together, overlapping them with one another, creating all this drama. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And creating tensions and contrast between the emotional responses of all these figures. There's that incredible grouping of Thomas pointing upward. DR. BETH HARRIS: As if to say, is this something that is ordained by God? Is this God's plan, that one of us should betray you? DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But of course, that finger also foreshadows him actually proving Christ's resurrection, by plunging that finger into Christ's wound. And then we have Phillip and James the Major. And they're in opposition, one throwing his arms out, one bringing his hands together. DR. BETH HARRIS: And if we were to compare this with earlier Last Suppers, we would see the way that the figures remained very separate from one another. And here, that idea of unified composition, which is so characteristic of the High Renaissance. But what I sense here, more than anything, is the divinity of Christ, here, in the center. His calm. The way that all of those perspective lines bringing us toward him. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's interesting, because that perspective that the artist is rendering is slightly at odds with the perspective, as we see it, from down here on the floor. That is, we would need to be close to Christ's level to see this painting in a perspective correct manner. And it's interesting. In a sense, it elevates us, as we look at this painting. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, we would have to be, what, about 10 or 15 feet off the floor to have the perspective work exactly perfectly. So we have this divine presence in the center, indicated in all of these different ways. Now, keep in mind, we're not saying this the way that people would have seen it, in 1498. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The painting is in terrible condition, in part because Leonardo experimented with a combination of oil paint and tempera, in an environment where fresco would be traditionally used. And the painting began to deteriorate soon after it was completed. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, unlike a traditional fresco, which is painted on wet plaster, Leonardo painted on dry plaster. And the paint never really adhered to the wall. So luckily for us, The Last Supper has been conserved. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so in some ways, this is a perfect representation of the High Renaissance. It is finding a way of creating a sense of the eternal, a sense of the perfect, but within the chaos that is the human experience. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's right. Uniting the earthly and the divine.
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