THE LAST SUPPER

(LEONARDO DA VINCI)

JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE

We will now turn to The Last Supper, which was painted on the wall of the refectory of St. Maria delle Gratie in Milan.

The place where this picture is painted must first be considered: for here the knowledge of this artist is focussed. Could anything more appropriate, or noble, be devised for a refectory than a parting meal which the whole world will reverence for ever?

Several years ago when travelling we beheld this dining-room still undestroyed. Opposite the entrance on the narrow end on the floor of the hall stands the prior's table with a table for the monks on either side, all three raised a step above the ground, and now when the visitor turns around he sees painted on the wall, above the not very high doors, a fourth table, at which are seated Christ and His disciples, as if they also belonged to this company. It must have been an impressive sight at meal times when the tables of Christ and the prior looked upon each other like two pictures, and the monks found themselves enclosed between them. And, for this very reason, the artist's judgment selected the tables of the monks for a model. Also the table-cloth, with its creased folds, embroidered stripes, and tied corners, was taken from the linen-room of the monastery, while the dishes, plates, drinking-vessels, and other utensils are similarly copied from those used by the monks.

The Last Supper. L. da Vinci.

The Last Supper.
L. da Vinci.

Here, also, no attempt was made to depict an uncertain and antiquated custom. It would have been extremely unsuitable in this place to permit the holy company to recline upon cushions. No! it should be made contemporary. Christ should take His Last Supper with the Dominicans in Milan.

In many other respects also the picture must have produced a great effect. About ten feet above the floor the thirteen figures, each one half larger than life-size, occupy a space twenty-eight Parisian feet long. Only two of these can be seen at full length at the opposite ends of the table, the others are half-figures, and here, too, the artist found great advantage in the conditions. Every moral expression belongs solely to the upper part of the body, and the feet, in such cases, are always in the way; the artist has created here eleven half-figures, whose laps and knees are hidden by the table and table-cloth under which the feet in the deep shadow are scarcely visible.

Now, let us transport ourselves to this place and room, imagine the extreme moral repose which reigns in such a monastic dining-hall, and marvel at the strong emotion and impassioned action that the painter has put into his picture whilst he has kept his work of art close to nature, bringing it immediately in contrast with the neighbouring actual scene.

The exciting means which the artist employed to agitate the tranquil and holy Supper-Table are the Master's words: "There is one amongst you that betrays me." The words are spoken, and the entire company falls into consternation; but He inclines His head with downcast looks; the whole attitude, the motion of the arms, the hands, and everything repeat with heavenly resignation which the silence itself confirms, "Verily, verily, there is one amongst you that betrays Me."

Before going any farther we must point out a great expedient, by means of which Leonardo principally animated this picture: it is the motion of the hands; only an Italian would have discovered this. With his nation the whole body is expressive, all the limbs take part in describing an emotion, not only passion but also thought. By various gestures he can express: "What do I care?"—"Come here!"—"This is a rascal, beware of him!" "He shall not live long!" "This is a main point. Take heed of this, my hearers!" To such a national trait, Leonardo, who observed every characteristic with the greatest attention, must have turned his searching eye; in this the present picture is unique and one cannot observe it too much. The expression of every face and every gesture is in perfect harmony, and yet a single glance can take in the unity and the contrast of the limbs rendered so admirably.

The figures on both sides of our Lord may be considered in groups of three, and each group may be regarded as a unit, placed in relation and still held in connection with its neighbours. On Christ's immediate right are John, Judas, and Peter.

Peter, the farthest, on hearing the words of our Lord, rises suddenly, in conformity with his vehement character, behind Judas, who, looking up with terrified countenance, leans over the table, tightly clutching the purse with his right hand, whilst with the left he makes an involuntary nervous motion as if to say: "What may this mean? What is to happen?" Peter, meanwhile, with his left hand has seized the right shoulder of John, who is bending towards him, and points to Christ, at the same time urging the beloved disciple to ask: "Who is the traitor?" He accidentally touches Judas's side with the handle of a knife held in his right hand, which occasions the terrified forward movement upsetting the salt-cellar, so happily brought out. This group may be considered as the one first thought of by the artist; it is the most perfect.