The present version of The Last Supper is the result of more than two decades of delicate restoration work

Leonardo da Vinci’s the Last Supper is a universally known artwork in a class of its own, a veritable superstar of religious art. To see this famous mural painting in the dining hall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan Italy you will have to book a ticket days if not weeks in advance. Then, at last, you get to spend some fifteen minutes of allocated time in front of a wall painting which has become part of our collective consciousness. We have all seen reproductions of it somewhere, or perhaps read Dan Brown’s interpretation of it in the da Vinci Code. So we may know the painting but no one knows what it really looked like in its full glory when Leonardo da Vinci, the genius artist and scientist, and apparently also a notorious procrastinator, finally finished it 1498 after having worked on it for three long years.

Considering the many trials the building and mural have faced in the course of time, it is something of a miracle the painting is still there for us to appreciate today. The convent dining hall has at times also served as a makeshift storage, stable, offices and even as a prison. Bombing of Milan in 1943 (WW2) destroyed a large part of the church and left nothing but the refectory wall with the painting standing. Fortunately the painting had been protected by sandbags.


Duomo di Milano
Duomo di Milano


The present “version” of the Last Supper is the result of more than two decades (1977-99) of delicate restoration work. Perhaps “re-restoration” is a more suitable word since previous attempts at arresting the deterioration of the wall surface and cleaning the painting also changed the appearance of it. This had to be undone too. What you see in front of you today is a “shadow” of da Vinci’s vision, so to say, but according to some experts more true to the original than before the last restoration.

It is also important to note that Leonardo did not work in fresco – which would have absorbed and retained more of the paint over time – but in tempera on a two-layered surface of plaster that did not absorb paint. It was as early as 1568 when Vasari first pointed out problems with this painting technique.


“Verily, verily, I say unto you…”

Detail of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" (Public domain via WikiPedia)
Detail of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (Public domain via WikiPedia)

The scene of the Last Supper depicts the tense moment when Jesus reveals that someone at the table is about to betray him. On being asked who would do such a thing, Jesus answered, “He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it“. The rest is history.

Da Vinci the genius has given us a remarkable painting, not only because it superbly crafted, but also because the mural depicts a famous biblical scene brimming with drama, gestures, meaning and human emotions. Being a curious man of science, da Vinci had by then acquired intricate knowledge of the human body, inside and outside. Every detail, pose, suggestion of movement and expression are carefully planned and the totality is masterfully composed and executed.

The Last Supper was commissioned by Leonardo’s patron Duke Ludovico Sforza. The scene measures 460 x 880 cm (15 feet x 29 ft), started in 1495 and finished in 1498.



World Heritage

The Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci was added to the list of World Heritage sites in 1980. The monuments meet the following two cultural criteria:

(i) : it is a masterpiece of man’s creative genius.
(ii): it displays a major exchange of human values, in a cultural period or area of the world, in the developments of architecture and technology, of monumental, urban or landscape art.

Header photo: Detail of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. Public Domain via WikiPedia.
All other photos by Asgeir Pedersen, IN Editions
This article was first published February 13 2015.