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Analyzing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper – Did the master have a secret?

Posted by mandyf on January 12, 2012

Few paintings have evoked as much discussion and dissection as Leornado da Vinci’s Last Supper. Recently due to the popularity of Dan Brown’s book The da Vinci Code, this masterpiece has opened itself to a whole new round of analysis as to whether it contains messages which may reveal a truer picture of the life of Jesus Christ and the surrounding disciples. While speculation runs rampant and opposing camps have set themselves up on each side of the debate what do we really accurately know about this painting, and are there any hidden messages da Vinci has woven into this work?

The Last Supper painting was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan sometime in the area of 1495 most believe, which was in the last few years of da Vinci’s eighteen year employ under the Duke. It is believed and generally accepted this painting took about four years to complete as da Vinci was a well known procrastinator and it was believed that he was trying to stretch out his employ under the generous Duke a little longer. The original mural actually measured fifteen by twenty nine feet and adorned a wall at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan Italy. While da Vinci’s version of this event was far from the first rendering it has proved over time to be the best. It is considered the greatest example of a single focal point painting as all attention is continually drawn to the center of the work which is Christ’s head. Even those of us not possessing great technical knowledge of art find ourselves immediately drawn to that single point. Also da Vinci’s version is the first which portrayed Jesus and his disciples as regular people sharing a normal event rather than deifying them, as well as being the first to depict any emotion on the faces of the disciples which was anything but cheerful.

What can be agreed on is that this is a depiction of the the evening before Christ was betrayed and that it likely depicts the first celebration of the Eucharist. After that is when speculation comes into play. While it is agreed Christ is surrounded by his disciples it is not agreed as to who they all are. For most of this works history it was accepted that the person to right of Jesus is John, however thanks to Dan Brown many people are now accepting that it is actually Mary Magdalene, a theory which cannot be proved nor makes little sense. It begs the question why someone as pivotal and important as John who was at the last supper would be omitted yet the other eleven disciples would be included?

Slavisa Pesci, an information technologist, has taken on the task of analyzing the Last Supper. He has created a visual effect by overlaying a semitransparent mirrored version of the painting on top of the original which he claims unlocks hidden secrets in the work. He has claimed his technique works due to da Vinici’s well known love of mathematics and his penchant for backward “Mirror writing.” Some people accept this as valid while many other scholars argue against it. Pesci claims that through his technique he has uncovered many hidden secrets such as the above mentioned John or Mary argument and the equally speculative dagger theory.

Pesci and many others believe that the painting depicts a disembodied hand holding a dagger, while most believe it is really just a knife which makes perfect sense considering the setting is a meal after all. The truth behind the mysterious disembodied hand it that it was actually Peter’s hand and the rest of the arm simply flaked off and was never repainted. Because the Last Supper has been in a constant state of repair due to da Vinci’s experimentation with dry plaster rather than tempera on wet plaster this is a logical explanation. It must also be noted that there are many sketches existing that show Leonardo was experimenting with the proper positioning of Peter’s arm holding the knife.

Another theory is this is a depiction of a Passover meal, but there are many arguments against this as well, primarily that the bread on the table is leavened which would definitely not be served at Passover. Secondly the time line is wrong in that it is early day outside, and that the meal was set the day before Good Friday. Furthermore it shows the disciples as seated while the Bible tells us Passover meal was to be taken while reclining which is something this group would have surely observed.

There are also many subscribers to Pesci’s theory that his mirror imaging reveal a baby and hidden chalice in the painting which takes quite a bit of imagination to find. In fact without the aid of tools like photo shop and high image resolution no trace of either can be found. Even with the employ of these tools it appears the “Held baby” in the mirror image is actually just Peters head out of alignment, and the chalice is vague at best and highly open to debate, as is the supposed appearance of a Templar Knight at the tables end.

In 2007 musician Giovanni Maria Palla even claimed to have found a hidden musical score sounding like a solemn requiem in the painting. Pala claimed the notes and time the piece was to be played to were hidden in the position of the disciples hands and the bread on the table as well as the grouping of the disciples. It seems everyone is finding a secret in the work of Leonardo, not Just Brown and Pesci.

The bottom line is that no matter how much examination and debate da Vinci’s depiction of the Last Supper garners, in the end people will see in it what they want to see and draw their own conclusions. While this is a truly and unarguably a masterpiece, it really is not a key to divine hidden secrets. It is simply a depiction of the way Leonardo envisioned this event, and like all artists he took some liberties with his views. Having done this in no way takes away from it’s greatness, but as it was painted nearly fifteen hundred years after the death of Christ, it is also unlikely Leonardo had any secrets yet unknown to scholars that required being hidden in this piece.

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