In the third chapter of Essays on Art and Literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe focuses on European Art, specifically Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper which he painted in the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. During Goethe’s travels in Italy in 1788, [see post]he visited the refectory on his way home to Germany and witnessed first-hand the genius of Da Vinci and shares the details and experiences of this mural to the world through his essay.
According to Goethe, Leonardo’s original painting of The Last Supper was thoroughly ruined and painted over. The location of the painting reveals the essence of the artist’s wisdom as he chose a refectory to paint the farewell supper of Jesus. At the time of Goethe’s essay, the dining hall was still intact from the time of da Vinci in the late fifteenth century. Goethe’s considers how this mural must have been “an impressive sight at mealtime when the prior’s table and Christ’s faced each other, and the monks found themselves between them” (39). Da Vinci used a stripped tablecloth with pleated folds and knotted corners which were similar to those used by the monks of that time. He chose not to use the costuming of the setting of the Biblical times however, in which the disciples would normally recline on cushions. Da Vinci chose instead to have the diners appear as contemporary—“Christ was simply having supper in the company of Dominican monks in Milan”(39).
I had the wonderful occasion of seeing The Last Supper in Milan several years ago. I had to reserve a tour, which is limited to fourteen people at a time, six-months in advance. There were only three tours a day, three days a week. In that small window of time and serendipity, I was able to experience the genius of Da Vinci which left me in awe.
There is no way to prepare yourself for the magnitude of this painting. It is much larger than I had anticipated it to be: thirteen figures, which are one-half times life size, are positioned ten feet above the floor. The mural is twenty-eight feet in length with two full-length figures at each end of the table. Goethe states that the artist chose the positioning of the other half-figures “for a deep emotion is expressed exclusively by the upper part of the body”(40). The lower half of the bodies are covered by the tablecloth to not distract from the exchange above.
The hand movements, posture, expressions, and gazes of the figures are customary of an Italian painter, according to Goethe. “The harmonious interplay between physiognomy and gesture is masterfully rendered, as are the positioning and the contrasting movements of the arms and hands”(40). Goethe adds many technical procedures in his essay of the placement each disciple, down to the hand placement and gestures, according to his understanding of scripture (see pages 39-44).
While I could appreciate the aesthetic beauty of da Vinci’s work, I had a deeply spiritual experience standing before da Vinci’s depiction of Jesus’ last meal with his friends and trusted companions. Jesus’ words and symbolic actions conveyed to his closest friends how the horrific events of the following day would not only end His life on Earth but would also provide a way for every person to have a personal relationship with Him and one day be in the very presence of God himself.
Unfortunately, this great masterpiece has deteriorated over time. Even when Goethe saw this in 1788 there had been progressive deterioration which he details in his essay. Goethe states that the guardians and protectors of the mural were to blame. Partly to blame was the construction of a door into the refectory which was below the mural and therefore destroyed the feet of some of the apostles and even Christ himself. In addition, a varnish was applied over the mural which caused fading. Of course, this was all before the Allied bombing of 1943 during World War II in which the church was almost completely destroyed. Miraculously, the mural survived as Italian officials had previously wrapped it and provided scaffolding years before to protect it from bombings.
These Italian officials have not been the only ones concerned with the preservation of da Vinci’s masterpiece. In Goethe’s essay, he gives credit to the visual preservation of The Last Supper by many copiest over the years including Giuseppe Bossi, Director of the Art Academy in Rome, who took on the difficult project of making an accurate copy of da Vinci’s famous painting.
“If we imagine ourselves there in the hall, in the decorous, peaceful atmosphere customary in a refractory, we must admire the artist who was able to lend his painting powerful emotions and passionate movement”(40). We were not allowed to take pictures during our tour; however, I will always have something even greater–the experience.
Gearey, John. (1986). Goethe Essays on Art and Literature.Translated by Ellen von and Ernest H. Nardoff. New York: Suhrkamp Publishers.
Copyright 2020 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)