15 Facts About Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper is one of the most admired, most studied, and most reproduced paintings the world has ever known. But no matter how many times you've seen it, we'll bet you don't know these details.

1. It's bigger than you think.

Countless reproductions have been made in all sizes, but the original is about 15 feet by 29 feet.

2. The Last Supper captures a climactic moment.

Everyone knows the painting depicts Jesus's last meal with his apostles before he was captured and crucified. But more specifically, Leonardo da Vinci wanted to capture the instant just after Jesus reveals that one of his friends will betray him, complete with reactions of shock and rage from the apostles. In Leonardo da Vinci's interpretation, the moment also takes place just before the birth of the Eucharist, with Jesus reaching for the bread and a glass of wine that would be the key symbols of this Christian sacrament.

3. You won't find it in a museum.

Although The Last Supper is easily one of the world’s most iconic paintings, its permanent home is a convent in Milan, Italy. And moving it would be tricky, to say the least. Leonardo da Vinci painted the religious work directly (and fittingly) on the dining hall wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie back in 1495.

4. Although it's painted on a wall, it's not a fresco.

Frescos were painted on wet plaster. But Leonardo da Vinci rejected this traditional technique for several reasons. First off, he wanted to achieve a grander luminosity than the fresco method allowed for. But the bigger problem with frescos—as Leonardo da Vinci saw it—was that they demanded the painter rush to finish his work before the plaster dried.

5. Leonardo da Vinci used a brand new technique on his future masterpiece.

In order to spend all the time he needed to perfect every detail, da Vinci invented his own technique, using tempera paints on stone. He primed the wall with a material that he hoped would accept the tempera and protect the paint against moisture.

6. Very few of Leonardo da Vinci's original brushstrokes remain.

Although the painting itself was beloved, da Vinci's tempera-on-stone experiment was a failure. By the early 16th century, the paint had started to flake and decay, and within 50 years, The Last Supper was a ruin of its former glory. Early restoration attempts only made it worse.

Vibrations from Allied bombings during World War II further contributed to the painting's destruction. Finally, in 1980, a 19-year restoration effort began. The Last Supper was ultimately restored, but it lost much of its original paint along the way.

7. A hammer and nail helped Leonardo achieve the one-point perspective.

Part of what makes The Last Supper so striking is the perspective from which it's painted, which seems to invite the viewer to step right into the dramatic scene. To achieve this illusion, Leonardo da Vinci hammered a nail into the wall, then tied string to it to make marks that helped guide his hand in creating the painting's angles.

8. Renovations eliminated a portion of The Last Supper.

In 1652, a doorway was added to the wall that holds the painting. Its construction meant that a lower central chunk of the piece—which included Jesus' feet—was lost.

9. The Last Supper's Judas may have been modeled after a real criminal.

It is said that the look of every apostle was based on a real-life model. When it came time to pick the face for the traitorous Judas (fifth from the left, holding a bag of telltale silver), Leonardo da Vinci searched the jails of Milan for the perfect-looking scoundrel.

10. There may be a biblical Easter Egg here.

To the right of Jesus, Thomas stands in profile, his finger pointing up in the air. Some speculate that this gesture is meant to isolate Thomas's finger, which becomes key in a later Bible story when Jesus rises from the dead. Thomas doubts his eyes, and so is entreated to probe Jesus' wounds with his finger to help him believe.

11. The meaning of its food is up for debate.

The spilled salt before Judas has been said to represent his betrayal, or alternately, is seen as a sign of his bad luck in being the one chosen to betray. The fish served has similarly conflicted readings. If it is meant to be eel, it might represent indoctrination and thereby faith in Jesus. However, if it's herring, then it could symbolize a nonbeliever who denies religion.

12. It's inspired some wild theories.

In The Templar Revelation, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince propose that the figure to the left of Jesus is not John, but Mary Magdalene, and that The Last Supper is key evidence in a cover-up of the true identity of Christ by the Roman Catholic Church.

Musicians have speculated that the true hidden message in The Last Supper is actually an accompanying soundtrack. In 2007, Italian musician Giovanni Maria Pala created 40 seconds of a somber song using notes supposedly encoded within da Vinci's distinctive composition.

Three years later, Vatican researcher Sabrina Sforza Galitzia translated the painting's "mathematical and astrological" signs into a message from Leonardo da Vinci about the end of the world. She claims The Last Supper predicts an apocalyptic flood that will sweep the globe from March 21 to November 1, 4006.

13. The Last Supper also inspired popular fiction.

And not just The Da Vinci Code. A pervasive part of the painting's mythology is the story that Leonardo da Vinci searched for ages for the right model for his Judas. Once he found him, he realized it was the same man who had once posed for him as Jesus. Sadly, years of hard-living and sin had ravaged his once-angelic face. As compelling a story as this is, it's also totally false.

How do we know this story isn’t true? For one thing, it's believed that da Vinci took about three years to paint The Last Supper, mostly due to the painter's notorious tendency to procrastinate. For another, stories of spiritual decay manifesting itself physically have long existed. It's likely that someone along the way decided to saddle The Last Supper with a similar narrative in order to give its moral message a sense of historical credibility.

14. It's been mimicked for centuries.

Fine art and pop culture have paid tribute to The Last Supper with a cavalcade of imitations and parodies. These range from a 16th century oil painting reproduction to new interpretations from Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Susan Dorothea White, and Vik Muniz, who made his out of chocolate syrup.

Recreations of The Last Supper's distinctive tableau can also be found in the Mel Brooks comedy History of the World, Part 1, Paul Thomas Anderson's stoner-noir Inherent Vice, and Luis Buñuel's Viridiana, which was declared "blasphemous" by the Vatican. It's also been a plot point in The Da Vinci Code and Futurama.

15. Want to see The Last Supper in person? Better book (way) in advance.

Though The Last Supper is one of Italy's must-see sites, the convent in which it is located was not built for big crowds. Only 20 to 25 people are allowed in at a time in visiting blocks of 15 minutes. It is recommended visitors book tickets to see The Last Supper at least two months in advance. And be sure to dress conservatively, or you may be turned away from the convent.

Wish You Could ‘Shazam’ a Piece of Art? With Magnus, You Can

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

While museum artworks are often accompanied by tidy little placards that tell you the basics—title, artist, year, medium, dimensions, etc.—that’s not always the standard for art galleries and fairs. For people who don’t love tracking down a staff member every time they’d like to know more about a particular work, there’s Magnus, a Shazam-like app that lets you snap a photo of an artwork and will then tell you the title, artist, last price, and more.

The New York Times reports that Magnus has a primarily crowdsourced database of more than 10 million art images. Though the idea of creating Shazam for art seems fairly straightforward, the execution has been relatively complex, partially because of the sheer quantity of art in the world. As founder Magnus Resch explained to The New York Times, “There is a lot more art in the world than there are songs.”

Structural diversity in art adds another challenge to the process: it’s difficult for image recognition technology to register 3D objects like sculptures, however famous they may be. Resch also has to dodge copyright violations; he maintains that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies to his app, since the photos are taken and shared by users, but he still has had to remove some content. All things considered, Magnus’s approximate match rate of 70 percent is pretty impressive.

Since the process of buying and selling art often includes negotiation and prices can fluctuate drastically, Magnus gives potential purchasers the background information they need to at least decide whether they’re interested in pursuing a particular piece. Just like browsing around a boutique where prices aren’t included on the items, a lack of transparency can be a deterrent for new customers.

Such was the case for Jelena Cohen, a Colgate-Palmolive brand manager who bought her first photograph with the help of Magnus. “I used to go to these art fairs, and I felt embarrassed or shy, because nothing’s listed,” she told The New York Times. “I loved that the app could scan a piece and give you the exact history of it, when it was last sold, and the price it was sold for. That helped me negotiate.” Through Magnus, you can also keep track of artworks you’ve scanned in your digital collection, search for artworks by artist, and share images to social media.

One thing Magnus can’t do, however, is tell you whether an artwork is authentic or not. The truth is that sometimes even art experts have trouble doing that, as evidenced by the long history of notorious art forgeries.

[h/t The New York Times]

'The Far Side' May Be Making a Comeback Online

tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus
tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus

For the first time ever, it’s looking increasingly likely that cartoonist Gary Larson’s "The Far Side" will be available in a medium other than book collections or page-a-day calendars. A (slightly ambiguous) announcement on the official "Far Side" website promises that “a new online era” for the strip is coming soon.

From 1980 to 1995, "The Far Side" presented a wonderfully irreverent universe in which hunters had much to fear from armed and verbose deer, cows possessed a rich internal life, scientific experiments often went awry, and irony became a central conceit. In one of the more famous strips frequently pasted to refrigerator doors, a small child could be seen pushing on a door marked “pull.” Above him was a sign marking the building as a school for the gifted. In another strip, a woman is depicted looking nervously around a forest while cradling a vacuum cleaner. The caption: “The woods were dark and foreboding, and Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. Worst of all, she knew that Nature abhorred a vacuum.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, like Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Larson has resisted reproduction of his work online. He famously circulated a letter to "Far Side" fan sites asking them to stop posting the single-panel strips, writing that the idea of his work being found on random websites was bothersome. “These cartoons are my ‘children,’ of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me,” he wrote.

Many obliged Larson, though the strip could still be found here and there. That he’s seemingly embracing a new method of distribution is good news for fans, but there’s no concrete evidence the now-retired cartoonist will be following in Breathed’s footsteps and producing new strips. ("Bloom County" returned as a Facebook comic in 2015.) The only indication of Larson’s active involvement is a new piece of art on the site’s landing page depicting some familiar "Far Side" characters being unthawed in a block of ice.

Larson’s comments on a return are few and far between. In 1998, he told The New York Times that going back to a strip was unlikely. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Never say never, but there’s a sense of ‘been there, done that.’” In that same profile, it was noted that 33 million "Far Side" books had been sold.

[h/t A.V. Club]

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