15 Facts About The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper
Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper

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 Da Vinci 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.

Last Surviving Person of Interest in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist to Be Released From Prison

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Almost exactly 29 years ago, two men disguised as police officers weaseled their way into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and started removing prized artworks from the wall. They made off with 13 famous paintings and sculptures, representing a value of more than $500 million. It remains the largest property theft in U.S. history, but no one has ever been charged in connection with the heist.

Now, as Smithsonian reports, the last living person who may have first-hand knowledge about the heist will be released from prison this Sunday after serving 54 months for an unrelated crime. Robert (Bobby) Gentile, an 82-year-old mobster who was jailed for selling a gun to a known murderer, has been questioned by authorities in the past. In 2010, the wife of the late mobster Robert (Bobby) Guarente told investigators she had seen her husband give several of the artworks in question to Gentile—a good friend of Guarente’s—eight years prior.

A 2012 raid of Gentile’s home also revealed a list of black market prices for the stolen items. Previous testimony from other mob associates—coupled with the fact that Gentile had failed a polygraph test when he was questioned about the art heist—suggest Gentile might know more about the crime than he has let on. For his part, though, Gentile says he is innocent and knows nothing about the art or the heist.

The FBI announced in 2013 that it knew who was responsible for the museum heist, but would not reveal their names because they were dead. Still, the whereabouts of the artworks—including prized paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer, and Degas—remain unknown. The museum is offering a $10 million reward to anyone who can provide information leading to “the recovery of all 13 works in good condition," according to the museum's website. A separate $100,000 reward will be provided for the return of an eagle finial that was used by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

[h/t Smithsonian]

9 Colors Named After People

Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress/Wikimedia // Public Domain

Throughout history, a variety of famous people have lent their names to shades of brilliant blue, shocking purple, grassy green, muddy brown, and other hues. While many of these figures are artists who were known for using or developing these hues, other color eponyms come from the scientists who invented them or those who loved to wear them. Consider this list the place where the history books meet the artist’s palette.

1. Alice Blue

A pale azure blue named for Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for wearing gowns of the color and thus sparking a trend for it. (She was also known for smoking in public and other forms of mischief-making, leading her father to declare: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”) Her ice-blue dresses inspired the song "Alice Blue Gown" by Joseph McCarthy and Harry Tierney, which premiered in the 1919 Broadway musical Irene. ("I once had a gown that was almost new / Oh, the daintiest thing, it was sweet Alice Blue / With little forget-me-nots placed here and there / When I had it on, I walked on air.")

2. Yves Klein Blue

Visitors look at 'Monochrome Blue, without title' (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
Visitors look at Monochrome Blue, without title (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images

The artist Yves Klein was interested in art as transcendence, and he’s perhaps best known for painting monochromes in a brilliant ultramarine meant to suggest the infinity of sea and sky. (As Klein once explained, "Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions.") In 1960, he registered a formula for the color—known as IKB, or International Klein Blue—with the French government; the formula relied on ultramarine pigment mixed with a synthetic resin that wouldn't dilute the color.

During his “blue period,” Klein exhibited only blue paintings and objects, releasing a thousand and one blue balloons into the sky in Paris to celebrate one show, and serving gin, Cointreau, and blue-dye cocktails at another. Don’t copy that last idea, mixologists: everyone who drank them peed blue for days.

3. Titian Red

Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

A person with red hair is sometimes said to be a Titian, after the great 16th century Venetian painter who was notably fond of painting redheads. (Examples of such paintings include Bacchus and Ariadne and Noli me Tangere, now in London's National Gallery.) In the 1960s, redheaded Barbie dolls were officially known as “Titians.” More loosely, the term has come to mean any orange-red color, although people seem to love to debate exactly what shades count.

4. Scheele's Green

Svenska Familj-Journalen, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Arsenic-based green pigments were all the rage in the 19th century, coloring everything from hosiery to hats to children’s toys. The first such pigment on the scene was Scheele’s Green, discovered by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775. The vibrant yellow-green hue caught on, especially after it was discovered that arsenic also produced a variety of other greens, from deep emerald to pale peridot. Although Scheele and others knew how toxic these pigments were, that didn't stop the colors from being used for clothing, candles, papers, playing cards, book-bindings, and sometimes even food. In perhaps the most famous example of its use, arsenic green wallpaper graced Napoleon’s last bathroom while he suffered through his exile on St. Helena, and some think the fumes caused by his long baths may have been what killed him.

5. Isabelline

José Reynaldo da Fonseca, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

If true, this color's origin story has to be the most off-putting in history. Once used to describe the pale champagne color of certain horse coats and bird feathers, the term Isabella-colored or isabelline is said (by no less than Isaac D'Israeli's 1791 Curiosities of Literature) to come from Isabel of Austria, the devoted daughter of Philip II of Spain.

Supposedly, when Spain laid siege to the city of Ostend in 1601, Isabella vowed not to change her undergarments until the city was taken. She expected a speedy victory, but much to her dismay (and presumably that of everyone around her), the fighting continued for three years before Spain won.

The Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this origin story, noting that Isabella as a color is first noted in 1600, a year before the siege began. But linguist Michael Quinion notes that accounts in French, German, Spanish and Italian (where isabelline has a similar color meaning) refer to the earlier Queen Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) and the siege of Granada—which means the story might just be true, even if it's about a different Isabella and a different set of 7-month-old dirty underwear.

6. Fuchsia

Heinrich Füllmaurer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Here's a more pleasant etymology: The vivid red-purple of fuchsia, the color, comes from fuchsia, the flower, which is in turn named for 16th-century German botanist Leonhart Fuchs. (His last name, by the way, comes from the German word for "fox.") And if you think fuchsia and magenta are the same color, you're closer than you might think: Magenta was originally an aniline dye named fuchsine, named after the fuchsia flower. The name was changed in 1859, the year it was patented, in honor of the French victory at the Battle of Magenta. That apparently helped the dye become a stunning success.

7. Vandyke Brown

Anthony van Dyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep, warm, transparent brown was made with a high concentration of organic matter (basically: actual dirt), and was popular with the Old Masters. It was named for the innovative Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, who often used the color in his paintings, and who also lent his name to an early photographic printing process—which also produced a brown color, but did not actually involve dirt.

8. Perkin's Mauve

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like so many scientific discoveries, the invention of synthetic dyes happened by accident. In 1856, chemistry student William Henry Perkin, then only 18, was trying to find a new way to make quinine (a popular treatment for malaria, and the ingredient that still gives tonic water its slightly bitter taste). The experiment didn't quite work as planned, but Perkin noticed some purple sludge left over in his flask after rinsing it with alcohol, and realized its potential.

His instincts were good: After Perkin patented his creation and began mass-producing it, the color swept England, becoming so popular that the magazine Punch condemned an outbreak of “the mauve measles.” The color was originally called aniline purple by Perkin, as well as Perkin's purple or Perkin’s violet. The mauve part of “Perkin’s mauve” came a few years later thanks to the French, who named it after their word for the mallow flower.

9. Hooker's Green

Thomas Herbert Maguire, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The warm, grassy "Hooker's Green" is named for botanical illustrator William Hooker (1779–1832), who created a special pigment just to convey the exact green of leaves.

Bonus: Mummy Brown

A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
iStock.com/izanbar

OK, it’s not a color named after one person, but a color named after many people—many dead people. First made in the 16th and 17th centuries, but a special favorite of the 19th century painters, this rich brown pigment was created by mixing both human and feline mummy crumbles with white pitch and myrrh. (Although we tend to think of them as protected antiquities today, people in centuries past often considered mummies just another natural resource.)

In part because of its curious components, the pigment wasn’t the most stable in the world, and it fell out of favor once its origin story became better known. According to one biography, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones gave his tube of Mummy Brown a funeral in his garden when he discovered where it came from. The pigment was sold into the 20th century, although if you see the name “mummy brown” used today, rest assured it contains no actual corpses. Probably.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

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