THE LAST SUPPER -- THE MOST SUBVERSIVE
PAINTING IN THE WORLD?
Da Vinci came to Milano in the 1480s, where he was eventually commissioned to
paint one of the cardinal images of the Christian faith. The Last Supper, which
has now been restored to reveal what is believed to be by the hand of Leonardo,
is one of the most discussed paintings in the West, along with the Mona Lisa.
It is a most interesting irony in the history of art that it was Leonardo Da Vinci
who painted the fresco of The Last Supper in the cafeteria of Santa Maria delle
Grazie. He was by that time known in Italy as one of the most amazing talents
alive, indeed who had ever lived. From various accounts besides an unerring artistic
hand, he was also extremely beautiful in appearance, a talented lutist (which
he played on a silver lute of his own making), an inventive and colorful dresser,
a spinner of fantastic speculative stories, and gay. He was a (rather average)
student of logic, an empiricist and illustrator. He was a dreamer of elaborate
machines and projects, few if any of which could ever hope to work. His scientific
speculations were never influential as they were never published, and having come
to light only long after others had already rediscovered and developed them. Even
his heralded studies of anatomy are flawed with inaccuracies according to current
medical experts. He was first and foremost, and his reputation rests on the fact
that he was, a great artist. That is the one aspect of his character of which
there has been no diminution over time, and to which other aspects of his character
are completely subsidiary. It is this distinction which interests us today.
In the vast production of all his graphs, charts, notes and sketches, Leonardo
was indulging in the newly respectable fashion of scientific speculation, of "objective
thought." He was essentially heathen, a mysterious individualist, who prospered
by his wits, was invited to dine with and serve the Sforzas, the Milanese warlord,
Lorenzo de Medici, and at the Court of Francis I. He was at some point also named
in an anonymous complaint for being involved in having group sex with a young
man, charges which never were pursued, the anonymous nature of which rendering
them likely trumped up.
The acknowledged illegitimate son of a well-off Florentine notary, one Ser Piero, the young Leonardo was given many advantages of education in his early life, which allowed him to develop his incredibly powerful capabilities. I often wonder at an environment which had enough margin, enough latitude, to "create" a man of such brilliant, if often idiosyncratic gifts. Leonardo comes down to us as a dreamy, yet incredibly incisive thinker. He drew up plans to redirect entire rivers, to create weapons of destruction, battlements and great pageants. Yet he also speculated on why marine fossils were found in the mountains, and was fond of highly impractical practical jokes. Once, in Rome, he attached wings and horns to the back of a reptile and let it loose on the grounds of the Vatican, sending the superstitious and gullible Romans running away, screaming. Another time he inflated a very long intestine from an animal and suspended it around his work room, again startling and terrifying people as they walked in unawares. He convinced, if only for a moment, a group of noblemen that one could excavate under a large building until it was supported and balanced only on a pinnacle of rock. Such were a few of his powers outside of the world of art.
The upheaval in Western thought at the time this artist lived is as much responsible
for his rising to the fore as his own mental powers. His was a perfect mind for
those times. Imagine, what would we care in this era for someone who dabbled in
optics, and who dilettantishly tried to effect large public works?; who could
draw like an angel with a delicacy unknown before or since? At best, we would
force him to go to college and choose to become a hydraulic engineer, or a physicist,
or a commercial artist - or - at the risk of sending him totally into eclipse
- a fine artist. He could sculpt in bronze and clay. He could paint virgins and
saints. He could do a lot of things. But, his skills would not now be thought
of as astoundingly new. He would be a kind of unfocused academic. Of course, he
helped define the development of techniques and visual effects we now call "academic"
but much of his splendor was in his uncanny new vision of art and humanity. Now
he would be redundant and useless.
Today Leonardo would be relegated to developing virtual reality computer animation
software, in some unlit room, or perhaps be kept by some rich man because of his
good looks and quiet charm. In no way would he be looked upon now as he was then,
even if he decided, "To hell with animation programs, I'll still paint La Gioconda
and The Last Supper - under an overpass if necessary! Or else just stay in my
room on 999th Street and paint anyway. To hell with it." Today he would be seen
in dreary cafes, scribbling indecipherable notes using a mirror to foil "spies",
sensitively sketching passersby, talking wistfully of enormous projects, huge
equestrian statues, palaces, kings and queens -- He would be put away. And people
would say, "What a fine mind. It's just so sad he couldn't do anything useful
with it. That's what drove him crazy, you know. No outlet."
It would be utterly impossible for him, nowadays, to integrate as much as he did, his skills into a concentrated effort, one which would be recognized as wildly inspiring as it was in the 1490s. We may compare the classic role of "Renaissance Man" vs. the "Modern" creative spirit, which is largely based on the Renaissance model. It was the Renaissance which heralded the rediscovery of the individual as a creative, semi-divine agent and as an independent, conscious and valuable entity. This was spearheaded by the artists, who until that time were considered "artisans", people of skill, but otherwise cogs whom no one would think of paying attention to personally.
The Renaissance also gave to us the conception of an integrated, intellectual,
political and artistic mind, which knew enough to give the appearance of having
a working knowledge of, or great familiarity with, most of the knowledge available
to humankind. It was not possible even then. Today there is more "knowledge" created
in five minutes than any one mind could ever hope to comprehend, much less use.
The individual is therefore -- through. Over, finished, kaput, obsolete, endangered,
out-of-it, squares-ville, redundant. Individuals are on their own.
Where once people had the illusion that their efforts would mean something, in the vastly smaller world of 500 years ago, today nothing an individual human being can do, except perhaps "push the button" appears to have the slightest impact on anything else. This is both good and bad. One can now do almost anything one can think of, and it is all right. Because no one cares. A feeling of liberation might be the result, and we may be better able to act on our own ideas of what we want, rather than what some "outside" institution or group wants for us.
On the other hand, one seems less able to grasp what is going on, even while being
more informed via TV and the internet, than ever. One rarely knows enough independently
to feel as though any problem or process is comprehensible or manageable. That
aspect of individuality has passed. The individuality of now is one more often
associated with personal impotence, irrelevance and the result of neglect. One
may as well be an individual, although it is still dangerous. There are many remaining
social rules which inhibit the formation - much less expression - of independent
thinking. It's safer to remain obscure, with security in vast numbers. At least
for the time being.
I am not at all certain that the future of the West (and I mean the imminent future)
is going to be so tranquil that we will all be able to hide in a great wash of
wealth and consumerism, as many have done these past 100 or so years. The future
looms very strangely for us. It will, I imagine, be vastly different than it has
been pictured, where all of our problems supposedly will have been solved by some
combination of technology, literacy and common sense. Technology has brought about
some lessening of the physical labors and sufferings other generations endured.
But it has by no means left us all provided for, as was once promised. The other
evils of mass produced culture are well known, from pollution to huge, growing,
faceless populations and dwindling resources. Conceptions of authority at all
levels are dissipating, leaving a vacuum that could be welcome, or could be disastrous.
These demographic/environmental trends will more likely shape the future individual.
Less so older, literary concepts, such as personal volition, conscience and the
private joy of life. Leonardo would scarcely recognize the world of today. I'm
sure he would less and less as time passed. Even I who have grown up in American
culture have difficulty recognizing and entering into the mindset of people these
days. But let us go back to The Last Supper, and its tremendous subversion of
every aspect of its genesis:
Dominican monks commissioned the fresco, through Lodovico (Sforza) Il Moro, Leonardo's
patron, in 1494. They were a powerful, rich order, who desired an image of the
Faith in their refectory. Appropriately, they wished to see The Last Supper depicted.
It is the type of image and context an artist could find extremely trite, with
very little room to maneuver and invent. There were established and conventional
Renaissance compositional formats for this Biblical event which in Leonardo's
time generally consisted of Christ and his Apostles sitting around a rectangular
table, or Christ and 11 of his Apostles sitting on one side of a long table, facing
the viewer. The lone Apostle on the other side of the table was, of course, Judas.
This was entirely too obvious and heavy-handed for Leonardo's taste. He decided
to do away with the crass and theatrical isolation of the one disciple and put
him among the other adherents - a simple but incredibly more psychologically effective
device which can only be truly appreciated when one sees what other painters had
been doing with this scene during this same time.
Leonardo's decision must have been in itself mildly controversial at the time.
Early copies of The Last Supper indicate a dog may have been at Christ's feet
but was removed when a doorway was cut in the wall of the refectory years later.
Any deviation from conservative imagistic conventions could bring serious consequences,
as Paulo Veronese found out in his fresco The Wedding at Canaan. He was called
before the Inquisition to answer questions as to why Christ had been placed so
close to a dog. Why were there soldiers with German uniforms on in the painting?
And other utterly insane quibbles, which nevertheless could have placed Veronese
in an uncomfortable position. To his credit, Veronese cited artistic reasons,
and not religious ones (which he could not hope to convince the Inquisition of)
for his decisions. Eventually, Veronese changed the title to mark a different
event in order to mollify the officials, and the painting was left alone. Talk
of censorship. A more maddeningly treacherous situation could hardly be imagined
for an artist. It would be like having to answer to a committee made up entirely
of Jesse Helmses, to dredge up one of the more idiotic censors of contemporary
The superb composition of The Last Supper aims to place the space of the painting in the same perspectival space as the commissary on whose wall it sits. Christ looks as though he and the disciples are sitting in an extension of the room, as though it was a little longer than it actually is. This bit of trompe l'oeil was vastly appreciated at the time, and is still a clever and effective fresco device. It employed mathematical perspective in situ, increasing the effectiveness of the message he wanted to send, which seems to me to be that Christ was one of us. It was a sophisticated egalitarianization of what had by then become an inordinately hierarchical and politicized conception of Christ's relationship to the average person. The bureaucracy of the Church had created a maze of religious and conceptual red tape in order to commune with the spirit of God. Its middlemen had to be dealt with first. Leonardo flattered them and simultaneously subverted them by including them in the same space as their Messiah.
that all the protagonists in The Last Supper are men, despite claims that St.
John is really a woman. To say he is really Mary Magdalene is sheer sophistry
and bad scholarship. Take a look at another Leonard painting of St. John the Baptist
for example and it is apparent that the artist could render men to appear very
'femininely' beautiful indeed. The monks and the apostles were men. It takes on
a slightly different significance when one considers Leonardo was gay. Then, the
all-male composition, while certainly not appearing to be part of a sex club,
nonetheless would seem to have more than a simply religious appeal to the artist.
Put another way, if he had painted an all-female religious painting, he would
most certainly be called for using it as an excuse to parade a large number of
female figures before our eyes. Thus he subverts the wholesome, family-oriented,
ascetic and heterosexual Catholicism we have all come to know into something more
ambiguous, and more interesting.
Leonardo himself was apparently utterly pagan. He was not a God-fearing man, the
few religious remarks in his notes notwithstanding. There is no record of him
expressing contempt for religion, but his actions, his bearing, his art and his
whole way of life contradict what the church and state publicly decreed were the
proper ways to behave. He was not violent in an era of church-condoned (and even
church-led) wars. In this way he was truly closer to the Christian ideal, one
which was perverted by the very institution which advocated human gentleness.
He did design engines of war, but none were ever implemented, as they were completely
impractical, expensive and highly speculative and fanciful in nature. This was
undoubtedly Leonardo's way of undermining war, which he abhorred, while appearing
to aid its makers. He was utterly individualistic. His artistic skills were for
sale to the highest bidder (or the only bidder, whichever was the case). He had
personal morals, but he still had to earn a living, and this could only be done
through the reigning institutions of that time. His more subtle, gentle and sublime
characteristics had to be expressed in images approved of by those institutions.
Had he been so bold as to attempt an openly radical agenda, to promote, say, gay
rights in his work, there was always the lurking Inquisition, the courts and even
assassination to help him see the error of his ways, and to aid him in regaining
his lost connection to God. Everything that he was had to be couched behind an
apparition of conventional modes of presentation, so that he could remain free.
The oppression of the era actually helped create the man Leonardo was: complex,
crafty, subtle, brilliant, creative, self-absorbed and restless. No one knows
what he would have painted today, with our ostensible freedom (another myth perpetrated
by our in-fact often stifling culture). How would he have fared working for the
WPA, Earth First! or the Defense Department? It is interesting to speculate. I
think he would be doing work utterly differently than he did back then, fascinated
as he was with new materials, new psychologies and with the limits of personal
power. I tend to believe he would still subvert any institution he was involved
with, however. That is the nature of art, and its great contribution to Western
thought. He would subvert, but for greater ends. For all his awareness and spectacular
skill, he was a quietistic person, given to solitary meditation on the world,
and thus I doubt he would have been other than what he was then: a cultural leader,
and thus be effectively relegated to the fringes of society.
In The Last Supper Leonardo expresses the contradictions inherent in our culture:
institution vs. individual, orthodoxy vs. speculation, public vs. the private,
status quo politics vs. art. That is one reason this painting reverberates to
us. I who have no religious affiliation am still fascinated by the work, since
it embodies art - and therefore speaks to my soul. But to the people of that era,
the work appeared to be a particularly brilliant illustration of one of the most
poignant episodes from the New Testament. Its choice of the very moment Christ
tells his followers that one of them will betray him is exquisite. It is an emotion
that, even given the unlikelihood of its ever actually occurring in anything like
this fashion, is readily understandable. Who has not been betrayed?
That the painting began to deteriorate badly in the artist's own lifetime testifies to the underlying power of its conception (if not its execution). There is perhaps less than 30% of the original image left, and yet it is still one of the greatest compositions of its, or any, time. The wave of reactions running through the apostles anchors them in the physical world. Their well-realized faces and expressive gestures radiating out from the central figure of Christ is an enduring legacy of a time when humans were felt to be capable of great things, in great ways, and that, even with inevitable human failing, people were felt to be worthy of our attention, and our passion.
That seems to be what is lacking in our sated culture of the moment. We don't
believe in ourselves or in the goodwill or even the sanity of others. That makes
it difficult to render images of people in works of art, and which is why so much
of the art created today is almost frighteningly alienated, mocking and ultimately
forgettable. One cannot depict what one does not feel. Judging solely by the art
we are making now, which we ought to take very seriously, I would have to predict
a culture in a permanent state of decline. Happily (or unrealistically), I do
not share this state of mind, and, while unable to generate a false religious
or social enthusiasm for the likeness of my own kind, I nevertheless take heart
from those few of us, such as Leonardo da Vinci, who embody the greatness of the
human spirit which, while so rarely expressed, still resides somewhere in each
of us. It is a matter of taking the time and energy to look, find it and fan what
is left of the embers. They may even catch fire. It has happened. A painting such
as The Last Supper is a picture of those flames.
Copyright © 1998-2005 John Sheridan