The meaning hidden within ‘The Last Supper’

‘The Last Supper’ is one of the most familiar religious representations of Renaissance art. The most famous version is that of Leonardo da Vinci in Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan. Here in Florence, I am told, there are seven versions and I have been fortunate to see them all in the last few days.

In most cases, The Last Supper is painted on the wall of the refectory, allowing monks eating their sparse meals in silence to reflect on the significance of this crucial moment in the life of Christ. By the latter stages of the Renaissance, artists were habitually viewing the works of their predecessors and compatriots, constantly absorbing lessons and forging developments in pictorial representation.

For the general public, viewing religious art was both a spiritual and educational experience. Although literacy rates in Florence were significantly higher than anywhere else in Europe, most citizens received little in the way of formal education. In church, it was expected that the art they viewed would inform as well as comfort them; due to a combination of the essentially pictorial nature of art and the difficulty viewing text from afar, the educational aspects focused on the development of consistent pictorial representational schemes.

The Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio is found in the Cenacolo (refectory) of Orsanmichele. I finally succeeded in seeing it today (the cenacolo opens only a few hours on Mondays and Saturdays) and found it very beautiful. In addition, the text displayed in the room gave a great deal of information which helped to ‘decode’ the pictorial information, which is present in a very detailed form, somewhat reminiscent of Northern European art.

Firstly I shall mention the other Last Suppers I have seen, doing so in the order they were painted.

One finds two ‘Last Suppers’ in the Cenacolo of Santa Croce. As one enters, the eye is immediately drawn to a huge complex fresco occupying the end wall. Taddeo Gaddi dedicated over 30 years to this work, between 1334 and 1366.

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This massive fresco actually contains seven scenes. In addition to the Last Supper along the bottom, the scene is dominated by the Crucifixion, which springs from a complex Tree of Life. I have not included close ups here; I think this work is best appreciated as it would have been seen by the monks seated silently in its shadow.

The next work is in Sant’appollonia and was painted by Andrea del Castagno in 1447. It is famous for its use of perspective, the figures being shown in a room depicted in strict vanishing point dimensions. I can appreciate this but found the colour scheme, particularly the marble plaques, rather garish and the figures somewhat distant and unengaging. Note there is no attempt to include the iconography which we will explore in Ghirlandaio’s work.

The next work is the first of two by Ghirlandaio, painted in 1480 in the convent of San Marco, so beautifully adorned by Fra Angelico.

Returning to Santa Croce one finds the Last Supper by Giorgio Vasari, painted in 1546. Vasari’s main fame rests With his ‘Lives of the Artists’, regarded as the first work of art history and a wonderful read, particularly if one is prepared to overlook his plastic approach to factual accuracy! The general view is that his abilities as an artist lag somewhat behind many of his contemporaries and I tend to concur.

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What is most interesting about this work is that its five wooden panels were severely damaged in the devastating floods of 1966. The work has just gone back on display after several years of painstaking restoration by the Getty foundation.

The next work I had previously overlooked. It is in a small refectory in Santa Maria del Carmine, where one tends to rush in to see the magnificent frescoes in the Brancacci chapel and leave with a mild case of Stendhal syndrome. It was painted in 1582 by the Mannerist artist Alessandro Allori.

Another very small work is found in the chiostro del morte at Santo Spirito. Again, one tends to rush to a much more famous work on display nearby, this time a wooden crucifix attributed to (but not with entire certainty) Michelangelo. In a tiny room, in 1597, Bernardino Poccetti frescoed a Last Supper and a Supper at Emaeus.

The twisting poses and somewhat wooden staging mark this out as a Mannerist work.

And so to the beautiful Last Supper of Domenico Ghirlandaio, painted in 1480, the same year as the San Marco work. The room is dimly lit, which has some effect on the clarity and colour tones of my pictures.

The resemblance to the work at San Marco is clear. Note that in this work, as in the San Marco one, Judas is depicted as sitting on our side of the table, thus isolating him from the other disciples. Interestingly, Leonardo did not follow this convention; his Judas sits among the group.

There are some domestic touches worth closer inspection.

Here Ghirlandaio shows us a Perugia style tablecloth, woven with a hippograff motif, some fine glassware and an earthenware jug containing roses and decorated with the symbol of Ognissanti.

Now I would like to look more closely at the work to discover the religious images it contains.

We see fruit on the table; apricots and cherries represent sin, oranges represent paradise.

In the background we see citrus trees, associated with eternal life and resurrection.

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There are many beautiful birds in the background and these also have significance. The peacock signifies eternal life and the sparrow hawk is seen attacking a duck, a symbol of heavenly joy.

So, all I need now is a trip to Milan to see Leonardo’s masterpiece. Where’s that train timetable…..?

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