Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, chose the Dominican church of Santa Maria delle Grazie as the place where he would celebrate his dynasty. Leonardo was commissioned in this spirit of renewal and enhancement of the entire complex, and he began his composition of the Last Supper.
As we know, Leonardo was not fond of the fresco technique since it meant working quickly and this prevented any modifications that might come to mind. Consequently, he decided to paint as he usually did on panels. He prepared a plaster that was quite rough, especially in the central part, and sketched out the main lines of his composition, creating an imitation sinopia, then proceeded to work with his usual technique.
When the painting was finished, in 1498, Leonardo soon saw that his technique had some serious flaws, and only two decades after its completion, it showed extensive damage. Indeed, in May 1566, Vasari wrote that “it is now no more than a blinding blur”.
The causes of that unstoppable deterioration were not only attributable to the unsuitable technique, but also to the humidity of the wall on which the Last Supper had been painted. Nevertheless, its reputation spread, both through written testimonies and thanks to the many full-size copies it inspired. These copies became particularly important as time passed because they showed what the painting must have looked like originally.
By 1980, the Last Supper had been restored and was finally declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For his depiction of Jesus among the Apostles at the Last Supper, Leonardo was inspired by the Gospel of Saint John, the only text to specify that Jesus was betrayed by Judas: “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish” (John, 13:26).
In the foreground, Leonardo placed the long table, paying great attention to the plates and food, which balance the composition as a whole. In the centre, Jesus is a solitary figure, perhaps captured in the solemnity of the dramatic sentence he has just uttered.
Around Jesus we see the Apostles, arranged in four different but symmetrically balanced groups of three. Observing the composition we perceive something impalpable, almost as if the expressions of the Apostles vary depending on how close they are to Christ. The most intense and expressive are those of the closest Apostles, while those furthest away are more controlled and incredulous. Some argue that a number of details for the composition may have been suggested by the Dominican friars, whose religious order affords great importance to free will. If people can choose between good and evil, it explains why the traitor Judas is not depicted alone but rather surrounded by the other Apostles.
To clear the field of a misconception fostered by a well-known popular American novelist, who suggested that the figure identified as Saint John is really Mary Magdalene, we should consider one simple aspect. Why would John, whom Jesus loved most of all the Apostles, have been absent from the last supper? And if he is there, where is he?