Space station chrome doors swish shut behind us with a high tech click, penning us in the second air-locked chamber. Sharing the small glass box are about twenty-five people from every corner of the planet. They, like me, are silent. Tense. Awaiting instructions.
The other side of the glass, Japanese tourists take photos of each other in the brilliant morning sunlight, oblivious to the devotional act that is about to take place a few feet away.
Minutes pass. Time crawls. Drops drip.
Suddenly we are released into a high-ceilinged, dim, cool interior. And there it is. Quietly blazing from the wall above my head is one of the greatest works of art of our age, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
Instantly, unexpectedly, tears stream down my face.
It was frankly a bit weird.
Housed in the 15th century chapel-like refectory of the convent of Santa Maria della Grazia in Milan (right), the world’s most famous mural is an intrinsic part of the room, painted on the rear wall at what feels like the altar position.
Light pouring from the refectory windows on the left hand side wall rhymes with the left-sourced light at the back of the painting, and the perspective lines of the room run into the those of the painting itself, vanishing into a point in the middle of J.C.’s forehead.
The Delphicly inclined amongst you will recognise this point as the third eye, a mystical energetic centre associated with spiritual awareness and Divine intuition. Not a bad vanishing point to have if you happen to be the Son of God.
Il Cenacolo (to use the Italian title) was completed sometime around 1498, commissioned by Leonardo’s patron Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan as part of a general bling-up of the church. It was originally intended as grand centrepiece for his spanking new family mausoleum, later a refectory, the perfect setting for a Supper.
There is clearly some seriously bad-ass geometry and optical mathematics going down here. The disciples’ heads appear to be on the same plane as the front of the tablecloth, the ceiling appears to be hanging over the viewer below and figures leaning back into the three dimensional space have larger, not smaller heads than those in front.
The Last Supper (1494-1498). Tempura on gesso, pitch and mastic. 460 X 880 cm.
The perspective is organised so that it appears as if you’re looking at the scene face to face, not from below, and the effect is rather like entering a vast and continually expanding trapezoid. The further back you stand from the painting, the closer it seems. It’s mind bending.
Remember that bit from Jaws when police chief Martin Brody suddenly realises his son is playing in the lagoon where the deadly meta-shark has just been sighted? With a sickening lurch, the camera simultaneously zooms in and pulls out on Brody’s face, distorting spacial perception to match his – and our – adrenaline rush.
A camera technique, incidentally, nicked from Hitchcock’s stomach reeling moment (here) at the end of Vertigo (1958).
Roy Scheider as Brody having a bad time on the beach whilst Jaws gets mean on Amity Island in Spielberg’s 1975 summer blockbuster.
Incidentally, I saw that film for the first time only a couple of months ago. Even in 2013, it’s still surprisingly scary until the obviously rubber shark starts leaping on board and it all gets silly. Whoever wrote the script must have read Moby Dick: there are a lot of harpoon action parallels.
Anyway, back to great art.
Leonardo’s Supper scene is set in the seconds following JC’s shocking revelation: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me”. For centuries, artists had chosen to paint their Last Supper a critical sentence later, when Simon Peter asks the Master who on earth could possibly do such a bastardy deed, and receives the rather confusing response:
“He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it”.
Star Wars Yoda syntax has nothing on King James Bible English.
There’s an almost palpable sense of sound echoing around the scene as the distraught figures lean in to share verbal reactions, many speaking at once, some whispering, some listening, the tone and volume of their speech evident from body postures.
Check out the variously bewildered, outraged, upset, emotional and essentially Italian hand gestures; the conversations that are clearly taking place, the varied reactions, idiosyncratic physical movements matching age and status.
I feel I know them all: the gossip, the drama queen, the wise old man, the cynic, the troubled young boy, the bore; united in their devotion to their Master.
And then poor fucked up Judas (in blue nearest the viewer on right hand side, below) insecurities palpable in his defensive head slant, set slightly apart from the boys, left hand reaching for that damning sop.
“The movements of men vary with the variety of accidents running through their minds;” says Leonardo in his “Treatise on Painting, “and each accident in itself moves these men to a greater or lesser degree according to their greater force and age; because the same occurrence will cause a different movement in a young man than in an old one”
“Dolce, fratelli, dolce. That betrayal thing is SO not going to happen. Molto impossible. I’ve been around longer than you and I’m telling you that Il Maestro will sort it out.”
One version of what the grey bearded pedantic (Andrew) might be saying in this pic, along with the “woooaa” double hand gesture.
He had problems finding a suitably villainous-looking Judas. Until, as one story goes, an annoying weasely prior in the Grazie monastery complained to Da Vinci about the fresco’s slow progress, only to find himself later immortalised in tempura as evil incarnate.
A quick bit of homework tells me that Leonardo drew illustrations for Luca Paciola’s seminal work De Divine Proportione, concerning mathematical and artistic proportions. Leonardo took maths lessons with Paciola with whom he also lived, and made the first drawings of SKELETONIC solids, a way of viewing an object front and back simultaneously.
The rhombicboctahedron, one of the first solids drawn to demonstrate perspective by being overlaid on top of each other, illustrated by Leonardo for Paciola’s “De Divine Proportione”
It looks as though there’s some seriously skeletonic Supper action here, wouldn’t you agree?
In the fifteen minutes allotted, with profoundly sub-Paciolic mathematical observational skills, I notice that the disciples form four groups of threes, making a series of triangles echoed in the smaller triangle shapes within their clothing.
And 4 X 3 = 12, which when added to itself reduces to the holy 3, to use classic numerological procedure.
Forgive repeat pic of painting, but it’s there to avoid having to scroll back up to check the triangle thing.
The outstretched hands of Christ suggest a casual crucifixion position (along with slightly crossed feet in the original pre-doorway painting) that forms a triangle with the top of his head, the lines then extending into a larger triangle with the struts under the table. The shoulder outlines of the two large figures at the far ends of the table imply a huge triangle with the ceiling-meets-back-wall apex above Christ’s head.
Then there’s a vast inverted triangle formed by the upper line of hangings or enclaves (sorry, “corbel vaults” – just looked it up) with their implied reflected triangle inversion below and resulting triangles either side, thus forming a three dimensional bow-tie shape that also happens to be the ancient symbol for infinity.
Time-honoured symbol of infinity, bow tie shape rounded at the corners.
If you start extending all the triangle lines, along with the lines of the walls, ceiling struts, cloak and hand lines, etc, you get a great central diamond, radiating out from Christ’s 3rd eye point, bisected by the horizontal line running through the same point levelling up with the landscape’s horizon glimpsed through the triadic optical box windows.
And that’s just for starters.
Thus leading us to the infamous Dan Brown/ Mary Magdelene situation. Having now seen the painting for real, it’s hard to completely ignore.
Viewers of that appallingly overrated film The Da Vinci Code may remember Serena McKellen’s camp, benign, yet ultimately evil professor scene in which he explains the secret symbolism hidden within the painting.
Otherwise known as John the disciple, a tranny of surpassing genius.
Her left arm forms an inverted triangle with the right arm of JC whose body in turn forms an upright triangle (note male/female symbology above). Superimpose the two figures and you get the perfect union of male and female.
Rightly or wrongly, Dan Brown spends a long time explaining why this female figure is Mary Magdalene and that she was probably JC’s wife, a fact (he claims) squashed by centuries of misogynistic power-crazed church leaders in need of a celibacy-loving god to beat their flock with.
Caption competition for Doubting Thomas and his finger.
Certainly, suppressing the sex instinct of the masses is a fearsome political weapon. No wonder they decided it was a good idea to wipe out tens of thousands of women in witch trials over three centuries. To name but one blood drenched example.
Anyway, whether Leonardo was referring to cryptic esoteric knowledge concerning Jesus’s married state, the universal divine union of male female, or a homosexual sub-plot we’ll never know. Whatever the truth, the figure next to JC glows with a quiet feminine power.
WHY do I find Tom Hanks SO annoying? Is it his essentially porcine features or have I still not forgiven him the horrors of Forrest Gump?
And WHY do these characters not shag? You’d think that after all that codex action they’d need to blow off a bit of steam, especially as one of them is Amelie.
Meanwhile, back in the centre of the Last Supper, Simon Peter whispers into our mysterious beautiful woman’s ear with great agitation, and she listens with an aura of infinite patience and compassion, her lovely face tinged with sorrow.
Apart from the Master, whose gentle features like hers are brushed with sadness, she alone appears to know what is about to happen.
The more one looks, the more they appear to be a couple profoundly in love. But not merely mortal love. Theirs is Divine made flesh, their mutual sadness in facing physical horror and leaving beloved companions behind the last hurdles to be overcome before enlightenment. And to me, they appear as emotional, if not spiritual equals in this scene.
Can you imagine the row this kind of thinking would have caused had it been upfront? Even now? Our own Synod, poor confused dusty darlings, would be beside themselves trying to work out new voting systems to red tape such heresy out of existence. And Leonardo would have had more than the odd irksome prior to answer to…
I’ve just rediscovered this old holiday pic of the main altar painting in the extraordinary Coptic Christian church in Cairo, Egypt. Note the female figure next to Christ, this time on his left.
The church is in a purpose built cave carved out of the rock amidst Garbage City, a rat infested Cairo slum banned to tourists (we bribed our cabbie) where Christians are guettoised yet still heavily persecuted.
One dreads to think what’s happened to them all in recent months…
Yet despite Dan Brown’s lovely theory, the controversial female figure is generally considered by scholars to be John, the youngest and most devoted of Christ’s apostles, and traditionally depicted as boyish and effeminate. He appears thus in other contemporary renderings of the scene, including The Last Supper of Castagno (1447) and The Last Supper of Ghirlandaio (1480), not to mention my Egyptian version above.
But I don’t care. Leonardo’s John, for me, remains the sacred essence of Woman.
And all these revelations in spite of the fact I’m looking at a ghost.
Mere fragments survive of the exquisitely complex and brilliantly coloured original. Things got off to a bad start when Leonardo used the wrong kind of tempura and the paint started to flake off only a couple of years later along with the damp dripping down the walls.
Completed in 2009, it’s taken contemporary restorers of genius ten years to save what’s left of the masterpiece, using cutting edge techniques to remove centuries’ worth of crude re-paintings, dust, damp, grime, mould, military occupations and general neglect. It’s a miracle anything has survived at all.
It can’t just be my imagination filling in the huge gaps left by five centuries of maltreatment.
Can you believe this photo? A bomb took out an entire wall of the refectory in 1943 leaving the painting completely exposed to the elements. OUCH.
Yes, the restorers have done a fabulous job and a suitably tinted pale watercolour wash fills in blanks left in between rescued original paintwork. And yet the power of this painting is still enough to transfix me to the spot.
Even more than the virtuoso structural pyrotechnics, there is a vast understanding of the human soul that beams from this painting like the radiating sun lines emanating from the central Christ figure. Il Cenacolo transmits a rare understanding and compassion for the human condition that is overwhelming. If one is in the mood to receive, that is.
It’s interesting to think that the image most of us have in our heads of the Last Supper is based on this version, rather than what’s now left of the original.
My 15 minutes are up and I sense that I’ve received an initiation of some kind. A glimpse into the mind of a transcendent genius.
The blog plan had been to tell you about other Milanese romps c/o a recent trip with London Sinfonietta and George Benjamin. Full of naughty horn players, fashion week handbag fights, Britten, espresso, red shoes, a serial rapist pet rabbit, delicate harmonic string textures and Pirelli race tracks.
Leonardo Da Vinci, self portrait, c 1512. Red chalk on white paper, Biblioteca Reale, Turin.
But those fifteen minutes blitzed the lot and life has been changed in some indefinable way. Expanded, enriched, intensified.
As Leonardo himself said:
“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
Time to fly. Until the next Z Blog. X