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The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" portrays Christ's announcement of betrayal and the institution of the Eucharist. Set in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, the painting captures the apostles' reactions and emotions. Christ's serene presence contrasts with the chaos surrounding him, emphasizing his divinity and the unity of the composition. The artwork's condition has deteriorated due to Leonardo's experimental technique. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, looking at Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper." - [Dr. Harris] And we're in the room where the monks would eat the refractory. And so several times a day, the monks would come in here and eat silently and be able to look up at Leonardo's "Last Supper". - [Dr. Zucker] It's an ideal place, of course, for this particular subject and not an uncommon one. - [Dr. Harris] So let's talk about the story. At the "Last Supper," Christ says, "One of you will betray me to his 12 apostles." - [Dr. Zucker] And one of the ways that this painting is often read, is not the moment when Christ utters that, but the moment after when the reaction takes place. These are his closest followers. - [Dr. Harris] And so we see the shock at hearing these terrible words from Christ. "Is it I," they ask, "Is it I Lord, who will betray you?" - [Dr. Zucker] And so what we see, is this incredible set of reactions from the apostles around the table. - [Dr. Harris] So that's one way we can understand the fresco. But there's another aspect of the narrative. - [Dr. Zucker] Christ you can see, is reaching towards both a glass of wine and towards bread. And this is the institution of the sacrament. - [Dr. Harris] The sacrament of the Eucharist, 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. 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. 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. 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. - [Dr. Harris] 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 13 people having dinner, 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. 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. Harris] 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. 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. 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 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. - [Dr. Zucker] In fact, there's no way for them to move into our space, there really is this demarcation. - [Dr. Harris] In versions of "Last Supper" that Leonardo would've 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. 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, 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?" - [Dr. Harris] The third figure in that group with Judas and Peter would be St. 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 kniting the figures together, overlapping them with one another, creating all this drama. - [Dr. Zucker] And creating tensions and contrast between the emotional responses of all these figures is that incredible grouping of Thomas pointing upward. - [Dr. Harris] As if to say, is this something that is ordained by God? Is this God's plan that one of us should betrayed? - [Dr. 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 Philip and James the Major, and they're in opposition one throwing his arms out one, bringing his hands together. - [Dr. 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 hear that idea of the 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. - [Dr. 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 level, to see this painting in a perspective, highly correct manner. And it's interesting, in a sense it elevates us as we look at this painting. - [Dr. Harris] Now, keep in mind, we're not seeing this the way that people would've seen it in 1498. - [Dr. 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. 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. Zucker] And so in some ways, this 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. Harris] That's right, uniting the earthly and the divine. (gentle music)