By Ross King
Walker & Company,
275 pages, 2012
“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci is the most famous painting in the world. It has been copied in many ways among, them oil on canvas, paint on wood, on molded terra cotta and on marble. It stars in wax museums and hangs in countless homes.
“Over the centuries it has been depicted in illuminated manuscripts, carved in ivory and on stone and woven into tapestries,” author John King writes. “It appeared at the Chartres cathedral in the middle of the 12th century on magnificent stained glass.”
The Leonardo painting adorns the Dominican refectory, Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, a marvelous work 15 feet high and 29 feet long.
Leonardo seldom finished any project because he was distracted by thinking, observing and studying mathematics, geometry, astronomy and architecture. And war implements: designs for a wheeled-gun carriage, machine guns and tanks.
He was constantly taking notes.
“Perhaps no one in history ever drew as much as Leonardo or felt such a compelling need to record on paper everything he saw,” King writes. “Whenever he went for a walk he tucked into his belt a sketchbook to record the faces, manners, clothes and bodily movements of people he saw.”
Leonardo not only finished “The Last Supper,” he worked a miracle as he always wanted to do in his projects. He revealed in this work his “universal genius” that Bernard Berenson spoke of in “The Painters of the Italian Renaissance.”
Like all writers, King needed a demanding editor. The book is filled with clichés, repetitions and tedious passages. It’s at least 75 pages too long.
But worst of all, King suffers from the ailment of many biographers: suppositions rather than facts. His book is riddled with these typical phrases: “may have,” “almost certainly,” “must have,” “probably,” “presumably,” “no doubt” and “seems to have.”
Some critics argue that the painting is now 80 percent by restorers and just 20 percent by Leonardo. There is much truth in that. But the brilliance of Leonardo is evident in “The Last Supper.”
“Besides commanding the center of Leonardo’s painting, Christ is spatially isolated from the apostles all of whom are bunched together as they touch their neighbors or lean across them,” King writes. “Leonardo further highlighted Christ by placing him against a window that opens onto a landscape of clear sky and bluish contours — in effect a halo.”
He finished the work in 1598 after “working erratically” on the painting from his scaffold in the refectory, “sometimes painting furiously from dawn to dusk without stopping for food or drink at other times studying the mural for hours without touching his brushes.”
Christ’s face is most expressive, sad-eyed and sad-faced, reflecting the passage in Matthew 26:21: “Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.”
Leonardo’s refectory tableau captures the drama and excitement of the gospel verses. Judas is a dramatic figure in the painting. Leonardo shows him clutching a money bag, symbolic of his betrayal of Christ.
Floods damaged “The Last Supper.” Napoleon’s generals stabled their horses under the masterpiece and their soldiers pelted the pictured apostles with pieces of brick.
Worst of all, an RAF bomber blew off the refectory roof in 1943. Miraculously, the painting survived. Leonardo admirers are richer for it.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.