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.

While now on the right hand of the Lord a certain degree of emotion seems to threaten immediate revenge, on the left, the liveliest horror and detestation of the treachery manifest themselves. James the Elder starts back in terror, and with outspread arms gazes transfixed with bowed head, like one who imagines that he already beholds with his eyes what his ears have heard. Thomas appears behind his shoulder, and approaching the Saviour raises the forefinger of his right hand to his forehead. Philip, the third of this group, rounds it off in the most pleasing manner; he has risen, he bends forward towards the Master, lays his hands upon his breast, and says with the greatest clearness: "It is not I, Lord, Thou knowest it! Thou knowest my pure heart, it is not I."

And now the three last figures on this side give us new material for reflection. They are discussing the terrible news. Matthew turns his face eagerly to his two companions on the left, hastily stretching out his hands towards the Master, and thus, by an admirable contrivance of the artist, he is made to connect his own group with the preceding one. Thaddæus shows the utmost surprise, doubt, and suspicion; his left hand rests upon the table, while he has raised the right as if he intended to strike his left hand with the back of his right, a very common action with simple people when some unexpected occurrence leads them to say: "Did I not tell you so? Did I not always suspect it?"—Simon sits at the end of the table with great dignity, and we see his whole figure; he is the oldest of all and wears a garment with rich folds, his face and gesture show that he is troubled and thoughtful but not excited, indeed, scarcely moved.

If we now turn our eyes to the opposite end of the table, we see Bartholomew, who rests on his right foot with the left crossed over it, supporting his inclined body by firmly resting his hands upon the table. He is probably trying to hear what John will ask of the Lord: this whole side appears to be inciting the favourite disciple. James the Younger, standing near and behind Bartholomew, lays his left hand on Peter's shoulder, just as Peter lays his on John's shoulder, but James mildly requests the explanation whilst Peter already threatens vengeance.

And as Peter behind Judas, so James the Younger stretches out his hand behind Andrew, who, as one of the most prominent figures expresses, with his half-raised arms and his hands stretched out directly in front, the fixed horror that has seized him, an attitude occurring but once in this picture, while in other works of less genius and less reflection, it is too often repeated....

It is sad to reflect that unfortunately even when the picture was painted, its ruin might have been predicted from the character and situation of the building. Duke Louis, out of malice or caprice, compelled the monks to renovate their decaying monastery in this unfavourable location, wherefore it was ill-built and as if by forced feudal labour. In the old galleries we see miserable meanly-wrought columns, great arches with small ill-assorted bricks, the materials from old pulled-down buildings.

If then what is visible on the exterior is so bad, it is also to be feared that the inner walls, which were plastered over, were constructed still worse. This is saying nothing of weather-beaten bricks and other minerals saturated with hurtful salts which absorbed the dampness of the locality and destructively exhaled it again. Farther away stood the unfortunate walls to which such a great treasure was entrusted, towards the north, and, moreover in the vicinity of the kitchen, the pantry, and the scullery; and how sad, that so careful an artist, who could not select and refine his colours and clear his glaze and varnish too carefully, was compelled by the circumstances, or rather by the place and situation in which the picture had to stand, to overlook the chief point upon which everything depended, or not to take it sufficiently to heart!

However, despite all this, if the monastery had stood upon high ground, the evil would not have been so great. It lies so low, and the Refectory lower than the rest of the building, that in the year 1800, during a long rain, the water stood to a depth of three palms, which leads us also to believe that the frightful floods of 1500 also extended to this place. It is to be remembered that the monks did their best to dry out this room, but unfortunately there remained enough humidity to penetrate it through and through; and they were even sensible of this in Leonardo's time.

About ten years after the completion of the picture, a terrible plague overran the good city, and how could we expect that the afflicted monks, forsaken by all the world and in fear of death, should think of the picture in their dining-room?

War and numerous other misfortunes which overtook Lombardy in the first half of the Sixteenth Century were the cause of the complete neglect of such works as the one we are speaking of; the white-washed wall being especially unfavourable: perhaps, indeed, the very style of painting lent itself to speedy destruction. In the second half of the Sixteenth Century a traveller says that the picture is half spoiled; another sees in it only a tarnished blot; people complain that the picture is already lost, assuredly it can scarcely be seen; another calls it perfectly useless, and so speak all the later authors of this period.

But the picture was still there, even if it was the shadow of its former self. Now, however, from time to time fear arises lest it be lost entirely; the cracks are increasing and run into one another, and the great and precious surface is splitting into numberless small flakes and threatening to fall piece by piece. Touched by this state of affairs, Cardinal Frederick Borromeo had a copy of it made in 1612, and we are grateful for his forethought.

Not only did it suffer by the lapse of time, in connection with the above-mentioned circumstances, but the owners, themselves, who should have kept and preserved it, wrought its greatest ruin and therefore have covered their memory with eternal shame. It seemed to them necessary to have doors that they might pass in and out of the Refectory; so these were cut symmetrically through the wall upon which the picture stood. They desired an impressive entrance into the room which was so precious to them.

A door much larger than was necessary was broken through the middle, and, without any feeling of reverence either for the painter or the holy company, they ruined the feet of several apostles, indeed, even of Christ. And from this, the ruin of the picture really dates. Now, in order to build an arch, a much larger opening had to be made in the wall than even for the door; and not only was a large portion of the picture lost, but the blows of hammers shook the picture in its own field, and in many places the crust was loosened and some pieces were fastened on again with nails.

At a later period, by a new form of bad taste, the picture was obscured, inasmuch as a national escutcheon was fastened under the ceiling, almost touching the forehead of Christ; thus by the door from below, so now from above also, the Lord's presence was cramped and degraded. From this time forward the restoration was again spoken of which was undertaken at a later period. But what real artist would care to undertake such a responsibility? Unfortunately, in the year 1726, Bellotti presented himself, poor in art, but at the same time, as is usual, with an abundant supply of presumption. He, like a charlatan, boasted of a secret process with which he could restore the picture to its original state. By means of a small sample of his work he deluded the ignorant monks who yielded to his discretion this treasure, which he immediately surrounded with scaffolding, and, hidden behind it, he painted over the entire picture with a hand shaming to art. The little monks wondered at the secret, which he communicated in a common varnish to delude them, and gave them to understand that with this they would be able to save it from spoiling for ever.

Whether, on the clouding of the picture after a short time, the monks made use of this costly remedy or not, is unknown, but it certainly was freshened up several times, and indeed with water-colours in certain parts.

Meanwhile the picture had become constantly more decayed, and again the question arose how far it could still be preserved, but not without much contention among artists and directors. De Giorgi, a modest man of moderate talent, but intelligent and zealous and with a knowledge of true art, steadfastly refused to set his hand forward where Leonardo had withheld his own.

At last, in 1770, on a well-meaning order but one void of discretion, through the indulgence of a courtly prior, the work was transferred to a certain Mazza, who botched it in a masterly manner. The few old original spots remaining, although twice muddied by a foreign hand, were an impediment to his free brush; so he scraped them with iron and prepared bare places for the free play of his own impudent daubing, indeed, several heads were handled in this way.

Friends of art were now aroused against that in Milan, and patrons and clients were openly blamed. Enthusiasm fed the fire and the fermentation became general. Mazza, who had begun to paint on the right of the Saviour, had by this arrived at the left, and only the heads of Matthew, Thaddæus, and Simon remained untouched. He thought to cover Bellotti's work and to vie with him in the name of a hero. But Fate willed otherwise, for the pliant prior having been transferred, his successor, a friend of art, did not delay to dismiss Mazza forthwith; through which step three heads were so far saved that we can accordingly judge of Bellotti. And, indeed, this circumstance probably gave rise to the saying: "There are still three heads of the genuine original remaining."

In 1796, the French host crossed the Alps triumphantly, led by General Bonaparte. Young, crowned with fame and seeking fame, he was drawn by the name of Leonardo to the place that has now held us so long.

He immediately gave orders that no encampment should be made here lest other damage should happen, and signed the order on his knee before he mounted his horse. Shortly afterwards another general disregarded these orders, had the doors broken in, and turned the hall into a stable.

Mazza's coating had already lost some of its freshness and the horse steam which was worse than the steam from viands on monkish sideboards lastingly impregnated the walls, and added new mould to the picture; indeed, dampness collected so heavily that it ran down leaving white streaks. Later, this room was used for storing hay, and sometimes for other purposes connected with the military, by whom it was abused.

Finally the Administration succeeded in closing the place, and even walling it in, so that for a long time those who wished to see The Last Supper were obliged to climb a ladder leading to the pulpit from which the Reader discoursed at meal times.

In the year 1800, a great flood produced still more dampness. In 1801, on the recommendation of Vossi, who took it upon himself to assume the Secretaryship of the Academy, a door was built and the board of governors promised more care in the future. Finally, in 1807, the Viceroy of Italy gave orders that the place should be renovated and duly honoured. Windows were put in and scaffolding was erected in some parts to examine if there was anything more that could be done. The door was transferred to the side, and since then no considerable changes have been noticed, although to the minute observer its dullness varies according to the state of the atmosphere. Although the work itself is as good as lost, may it yet leave some slight trace to the sad but pious memory of future generations!

Werke (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1831), Vol. XXXIX.