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Video transcript

we're in Santa Maria della Grazia in Milan looking at Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper and we're in the room where the monks would eat through a factory and so several times a day the monks would come in here and eat silently and David a look up at Leonardo's Last Supper it's an ideal place of course for this particular subject and not an uncommon one so let's talk about the story at the Last Supper Christ says one of you will betray me to his 12 apostles 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 so that's one way we can understand the fresco but there's another aspect of the narrative 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 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 we reaches out toward the bread and the wine but what's interesting is the Christ and 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 Judas is the one who's going to betray Christ he's been paid thirty 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 but he's pulling away at the same time that he's still reaching out to the bold 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 moment this is 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 pricing take the bread for this is my body and take the line for this is my blood so Leonardo tells us several moments in this story and at the same time gives us a sense of the divine eternal importance of this story I mean we would never mistake this for thirteen people having dinner we know this is the Last Supper we know that this is an important moment but without any of the obvious symbols of the divine that we would have in the early Renaissance like the halo 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 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 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 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 but Leonardo does is he simplifies everything and focuses us on those figures and their gestures and by making it so that 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 in fact there's no way for them to move into our space that really is this demarcation in versions of 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 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 that night he will hang himself now as he pulls away st. Peter Christ 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 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 and 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 was creating these four groups of three that idea of knitting the figures together overlapping them with one another creating all this drama and creating tensions and contrast between the emotional responses of all these figures there's that incredible grouping of Thomas pointing upward as if to say is this something that is ordained by God is this God's plan that one of us should be trained 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 Philip and changed the major and they're in opposition one throwing his arms out one bringing his hands together 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 bring us toward him 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 prospectively correct manner and it's interesting in a sense it elevates us as we look at this painting right we would have to be right 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 seeing this the way that people would have seen it in 1498 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 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 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 right uniting the earthly and the divine you
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