Almost anyone would be able to identify this painting at a glance. Almost as many would be able to identify its painter as Leonardo da Vinci, who lived from 1452 to 1519. Far fewer would be able to date it correctly at 1498 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). As for its subject matter, most people the world over could probably give it at least a rough capsule summary, since it comes from the New Testament, one of the founding documents of Western Civilization.
Any “period style” is going to be determined by that period’s outstanding artists who use a particular technique or subject matter. In the 15th and 16th centuries, artists were moving away from what is called the International Style and towards a naturalistic view (Italian Paintings of the 15th Century). Although the Renaissance brought rich patrons also interested in secular subjects, most of the subject matter was still religious — it was probably the only way artists could get the best-paying commissions. But in fact the period in which da Vince lived and worked had a variety of active styles that defy a neat summary, just as much as our own time.
One popular technique, then and now, is fresco. It uses newly-laid plaster, still wet (fresco comes from the Italian for fresh, cool, or wet). It is basically a watercolor painted onto plaster. Da Vinci, an inventor and experimentalist, decided to use a similar long-used technique, known as a secco, involving the use of dry plaster. He then added a base of lead white to sharply bring out the colors of the oil and tempera — egg yolk mixed with pigment (Harris and Zucker). But the wall used was too thin to keep out the high moisture-level, and the paint almost immediately began to flake. After that the painting was realized to be a technical failure.
Although the lead base allowed for brilliance of color and precision of painting, its degradation over time has become a part of how we see and think of the painting itself. Past restorations failed until the last one begun over twenty years ago, which succeeded as well as current technology can to undo the damage earlier efforts to save the painting had done.
In scale, the painting is 15 x 29 feet, painted on what eventually became a refectory wall, covering its entire width and over half its length. Since the painting is of a meal, we can say that its theme of food briefly matched its physical setting (although its other theme of betrayal did not). Much has been written about its use of perspective: the wall tapestries and the ceiling coffers provide invisible lines converging towards Christ’s head. At the same time, the oversized men required a very narrow table. Yet the painting’s style can still be thought of as realistic, as the proportions were suited for a large-scale work meant to be viewed a little from below; and especially when compared to earlier versions of the subject, such as Duccio’s in 1311 and Ghirlandaio’s in 1480 (The Last Supper). Although artistically unique, da Vinci’s fits right in to the Renaissance-period realistic style, but since the subject is such a staple of Christian history, it would be hard to identify exactly what his particular sources were. It is unlikely though that he ignored or was just unaware of earlier treatments — his version has been said to have brought back the more geometric style of one Masaccio (Leonardo da Vinci). This claim seems reasonable when viewing Masaccio’s works on the Web, especially his Holy Trinity.
With increasing powerful digital technology, we can expect better and better virtual restorations, based on increasingly detailed chemical aspects of the original paint and plaster. Eventually, the world may even come to know and remember da Vinci’s masterpiece as it was newly seen. The original seen today might become its own copy, a sort of artistic prequel or sequel. In the meantime, the memory of that original will stay with all who have ever seen it.
Harris, Beth and Zucker, Steven. Leonardo’s Last Supper. 2013. 19 January 2013.
Italian Paintings of the 15th Century. 2013. 19 January 2013.
Leonardo da Vinci. n.d. 19 January 2013.
The Last Supper. 2012. 19 January 2013.