Questions to arouse interest. What does this picture represent? Where do the figures seem to be? Why do you, suppose the artist placed all his figures on one side of the table? What makes you think the disciples are excited? How many do not look excited? Which is the central figure? How is our attention directed toward the central figure? How does the position of the hands aid in this? Which one is Judas? Why do you think so? Which one is John? What expressions do you see upon the different faces?
Original Picture: Convent Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy.
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci (lâ’o nar’do da vén’ché).
Birthplace: Near Florence, Italy.
Dates: Born, 1452; died, 1529.
The story of the picture. Beatrice, the good and beautiful wife of the Duke of Milan, had visited most of the many convents in Italy, but her favorite among them all was the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. When the great dining room of this beautiful convent was being finished, the monks felt that it lacked nothing except a suitable decoration for the end wall; so they appealed to the duke and his wife for at least one fine painting by the most popular artist of the time, Leonardo da Vinci. And so it came about that Leonardo began this great work, which was to be his masterpiece. It was so placed that the monks seated at their meals could see the long table as if it were in their own room and but slightly raised above the rest.
Many stories are told of the artist while working on this great painting. Often he worked from early morning until dusk, quite unconscious of the flight of time, of his meals, or of the hushed voices of the monks and visitors who came to watch him paint. Then again he would not paint for several days, but would sit for hours quietly studying his painting. The prior of the monastery began to think he would never finish the picture, and at last he appealed to the duke to speak to Leonardo about it. The artist told the duke that while he sat thinking he was doing his best work, for it was necessary for him to have a complete picture in his mind before he could paint one. Of course he was told to do it in his own way. He completed the painting in two years, which was an unusually short time for so great a masterpiece, when we consider how much study was necessary, and that the figures were larger than life. Leonardo also had other work which had to be done.
Mr. William Wetmore Story has given us the prior’s _complaint to the duke in verse, from which we have selected these extracts :
“‘T is twenty months since first upon the wall This Leonardo smoothed his plaster; then He spent two months ere he began to scrawl His figures, which were scarcely outlined, when, Seized by some mad whim, he erased them all.
“Ah! there he is now Would your Highness look Behind that pillar in the farthest nook? That is his velvet cap and flowing robe. See how he pulls his beard, as up and down He seems to count the stones he treads upon! ‘T would irk the patience of the good man Job To see him idling thus his time away, As if our Lord and Judas were both done, And there were naught to do but muse and stray Along the cloisters. May I dare to pray Your Highness would vouchsafe one word to say; For when I speak he only answers me, `I am not idle, though I seem to be.’
“`Not idle! Well, I know not what you do! You do not paint our picture, that I see.’ To which he said, “A picture is not wrought By hands alone, good Padre, but by thought. In the interior life it first must start, And grow to form and color in the soul; While I seem idle, then my soul creates; While I am painting, then my hand translates.'”
It is said that Leonardo threatened to paint the face of the complaining prior as the Judas in his picture, but we know that he did not.
He has chosen for his subject the moment following the words of Christ to his disciples: “One of you shall betray me.” On their faces he has shown the surprise, consternation, and distress which would naturally follow the realization that there is a traitor among them.
We recognize at once the calm, beautiful face of the figure in the center as that of the Christ. Leonardo spent more time on this head than on any other part of the picture. He made a great many sketches, and in each he tried to represent Christ as looking at us, but all his efforts failed to satisfy him. At last he consulted a friend, who advised him to give up trying to paint the expression of the eyes, but to represent Christ looking down; and this seems to have been the last touch needed to make the face perfect.
On both sides we see the disciples in four groups of three each. If we study any one of these groups we will find it complete in itself, yet all four groups are held together by the expression on the faces and especially by the position of the hands. So wonderfully have the hands been painted that some critics have spoken of this picture as “a study of hands.”
If we begin at the left-hand side of the picture we see Bartholomew standing at the end. In his astonishment, he has risen so quickly that his feet are still crossed as they were when he was seated. He looks toward Christ as if he thought his ears must have deceived him.
Next to Bartholomew is James (the less), who reaches behind Andrew to touch the arm of Peter and urge him to ask the meaning of it all. Andrew’s uplifted hands express horror, while his face is turned anxiously toward the Master. Peter is greatly excited, but feels that John is the one to ask the question; so we see him leaning toward John, his hand resting on John’s shoulder as he eagerly urges him to ask who it is of whom Christ spoke. In his right hand Peter grasps his knife ready to defend his Lord.
Between Peter and John we see the traitor Judas, vainly attempting to appear innocent and unconcerned. As he leans forward, he clasps his money bag tighter, but at the first sudden movement of alarm he has overturned the salt upon the table. It is said that after the face of the Christ, Leonardo found that of Judas the most difficult to paint. It was hard to imagine a man so wicked.
The gentle, sorrowful face of John seated next to the Christ is in strong contrast to the startled, guilty look on the dark face of Judas.
To the right of the Master, we see James (the great), whose arms are outstretched as he looks at the Master and eagerly asks, “Lord, is it I?”
Just behind James is Thomas, with one finger lifted threateningly as if he must know who the traitor is that he may cast him out at once.
Philip, standing beside James, places his hands on his heart as he says, “Thou knowest, dear Lord, it is not I.” The three disciples at the end of the table are in earnest conversation. Matthew points with his arms to the Saviour as if ‘explaining to the elder disciple, Simon, what has just been said. His face asks a question and expresses wonder, while that of Thaddeus, next to him, is worried and troubled. Simon holds his hands out and looks appealingly to Christ for an explanation.
The table itself was like that used in the dining room of the convent ; even the tablecloth and china were the same. Three windows form a background for the picture, and the middle one frames the face of the Christ.
But the picture was painted in tempera upon damp walls, and it soon began to fade and even to peel off. If it had not been for an Italian who made an engraving of this picture shortly after it was finished, we should have little idea of the real beauty of the original. At one time the convent was used as a stable, and a door was cut right through the middle and lower part of the picture. Naturally, in the course of time, the picture lost most of its original splendor. Many attempts were made to preserve it, but without success. Then, not many years ago, an artist was found who succeeded in restoring the picture to some degree of perfection.
The painting is twenty-eight feet long, and the figures are all larger than life.
Questions to help the pupil understand the picture. Where is the original painting? Why was this convent chosen? In what room is it? In what way did it become a part of the furniture of the room? How long did it take Leonardo to paint this picture? Why did the prior feel so anxious? What reply did the artist make to him? What does the picture represent? Which is the central figure? How is it made to appear the most important? How are the disciples arranged? Which is John? Which is Judas? What has Christ just said that causes such excitement? What expressions do you see on the different faces? What can you say of the composition of this picture? How do the hands of each disciple express his feelings? What has become of this painting? About how large is it?
To the Teacher
SUBJECTS FOR COMPOSITION
The Story Represented in This Picture.
How “The Last Supper” Was Painted.
The Composition of This Picture.
The Boyhood of Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo and His Pets.
Talents of Leonardo.
Manhood of Leonardo.
The story of the artist. Leonardo da Vinci was born in the little village called Vinci, about twenty miles from Florence, Italy. His father was a country lawyer of considerable wealth.
Very little is known of Leonardo’s boyhood, except that he grew up on his father’s estate and early displayed remarkable talents. He was good-looking, strong, energetic, and an excellent student. He was especially good in arithmetic, and liked to make up problems of his own which even his teacher found interesting and difficult. Above all he loved to wander out in the great forest near the palace and to tame lizards, snakes, and many kinds of animals. Here he invented a lute upon which he played wonderful music of his own composing. Then, too, he sang his own songs and recited his own poems.
He loved to draw and paint because he could both represent the things he loved and use his inventive genius as well. He seemed to be gifted along so many lines, and was of such an inquiring mind, that it was difficult for him to work long enough at one thing to finish it. We read of him as musician, poet, inventor, scientist, philosopher, and last, but most important to us as artist.
When he was fifteen years old he made some sketches which were so very clever that his father took them to a great artist, Verrocchio, who was delighted with them and was glad to take Leonardo as his pupil. The story is told that when Verrocchio was painting a large picture he asked Leonardo to paint one of the angels in the background. The boy spent much time and study on this work, and finally succeeded in painting an angel which was so beautiful that the rest of the picture seemed commonplace. It is said that Verrocchio felt very sad at the thought that a mere boy could surpass him, and declared he would paint no more pictures, but would devote his life to design and sculpture.
One time one of the servants of the castle brought Leonardo’s father a round piece of wood and asked him to have his son paint something on it that would make it suitable for a shield, like the real shields that hung in the castle hall. Leonardo wanted to surprise his father. So he made a collection of all the lizards, snakes, bats, dragonflies, and toads that he could find and painted a picture, in which he combined their various parts, making a fearful dragon breathing out flame and just ready to spring from the shield. Coming suddenly upon the shield on his son’s easel, the father was indeed startled. Studying the picture carefully, he declared it was far too valuable a present for the servant; so another shield had to be painted and the first was sold at a great price. No one knows what finally became of it.
Leonardo spent seven years with Verrocchio; then he opened a studio of his own in Florence, Italy.
Later Pope Leo X invited him to Rome to paint for him, but most of his work there was left unfinished. The story is told of how one day the pope found him busily engaged in making a new kind of varnish with which to finish his picture. “Alas,” said the pope, “this man will do nothing, for he thinks of finishing his picture before he begins it.”
From Rome, Leonardo went to Milan, where, with the Duke of Milan as patron, he painted his masterpiece, “The Last Supper.” He also made a model for an equestrian statue which, though never executed, was regarded as equal to anything the Greeks had ever done Leonardo da Vinci proved to be a great addition to the duke’s court; his fine appearance and his many talents made him very popular indeed. He played skillfully on a beautiful silver lyre and charmed the people with his music and songs. He also helped the duke found and direct the Academy at Milan, and gave lectures there on art and science. So his time was divided, as usual, among his many interests.
When the duke was driven out of Milan by the new French king, Leonardo spent several years in Florence, where he painted the famous ” Mona Lisa,” and other portraits. Then followed a few years of travel through Italy. At the request of the French king, Francis I, Leonardo joined his court in France, and there he spent the last years of his life, regarded with great reverence and respect, and loved by all.
Among the other great pictures painted by Leonardo da Vinci are : “Mona Lisa,” “The Christ,” ” Madonna of the Rocks,” ” St. Anne,” and ” John the Baptist.”
Questions about the artist. Tell what you can of the boyhood of Leonardo da Vinci. What talents did he have? How did these sometimes prevent his completing his work? Tell the legend about the angel he painted for Verrocchio; the wooden shield. What did the pope say of Leonardo? why? Where was “The Last Supper” painted? In what way was Leonardo an addition to the duke’s court? How was Leonardo regarded as a sculptor? What are some of his most famous paintings?