The Last Supper, again and again

It was as startling as a ghost. The door was ajar and in the Church of Sant’Ambrogio; it was dark and cool. I looked around me: a medieval christ on the cross; a gothic statuette of Saint Ambrose with a barbed flail; a faint fresco of the mother of God from a c.1300. But none of these revenants were to shock as much as the most spectral scene in western art: the dramatisation of an ancient betrayal so calamitous it still has the power to horrify.

But enough of the preamble. On a press trip to Lugano, I took the opportunity to visit the Alpine village of Ponte Capriasca to look at an early sixteenth century copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. In writing this, I hope to understand whether, in the uncanny surrounds of a church far from Milan, is one visited by the spirit of Da Vinci? Or by some awareness of lapsed Catholic faith? Or is the spooking merely a bad case of déjà vu, triggered by the frequency in which this image occurs in contemporary life?

Whatever the case, the sight remains arresting. Its sudden thereness gave me no time to reflect that this was the work of an engineer and former pupil of Leonardo, working at a remove of an unknown number of years and seven or eight hundred kilometres from the Dominican convent in Italy where the original commands a (no doubt) even greater presence. It did its work in a moment, dragging me in as if with shepherds’ crook.

I can only speculate about the refectory of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, which was made by the very hand of the master; in photo after photo, the authenticity of that rendering is attested to by decay. The fading and flaking of the original add to the effect of spiritual mystery. Had I not seen the way the original is slowly dying, would the church here in Ponte Capriasca have inspired this visit, and grabbed my imagination? Perhaps the texture of decay is the very quality which removes Da Vinci and his Last Supper from our profane daily lives.

In the Sant’Ambrogio, the drama is clear. It presents a tableau in which twelve apostles each have their own response to the brute fact of their master’s imminent and likely fate. They are grouped in interrelated trios that complexify the emotional scene. Christ has just announced that one of the assembled diners will sell him out to the Romans. Da Vinci and, then, his own followers or disciples have conceived of a range of emotions which range from anger and suspicion to fear, sorrow and utter disbelief. These expressions multiply, in shifting degrees from one copy to the next, because emotion cannot be measured like a Pantone colour. Jesus himself looks more downcast in this copy. Judas looks less filled with animus, more like a man who has made a solid business decision. 

A few rough figures might be salient. There has been a church on this site since the 1200s. It is not documented when Cesare da Sesto completed this copy, but Leonardo’s former pupil lived between 1477and1523. Da Vinci painted The Last Supper between 1494 and 1498. It was only after getting home that I came to understand the most mind-blowing aspect of this imitation. It is not the fact that no photography is available, but rather it is the licence with which the so called Leonardeschi were to operate. Da Vinci’s followers painted about 100 last suppers in the Swiss-Italian alpine region.

While I was in Lugano, I visited another. This was in Santa Maria degli Angeli, a beautiful church on the edge of the city’s pristine glacial lake which dates to 1499/1500. This Last Supper was by Bernardino Luini who lived between c1480 and 1532. His interpretation is more than a sharpening or inflection of facial expression. It is a loosening and unravelling of Leonardo’s scene in which bodies leave the table and the groupings of disciple are split into a triptych. This was clearly a live situation vis-à-vis the canon of western painting. But I struggled to take it all in since I arrived during a St Joseph’s day service of mass.

I cannot say why this Italian speaking region of the Alps should contain quite so many versions of the Last Supper. It seems a very ambitious composition to transplant into these distant churches. Yet it might be said that the theatricality of the original is what allowed so many followers to re-stage it. The Italian master had established the dramatis personae and the tragic plot, it was up to his followers to re-present his work.

The late philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour noted that in reproduction paintings could take on new aspects of their originals and amplify the reception of the image in the same way as each new performance of King Lear does. It too has an original, a folio which is rarely seen. In our age, we have a new ‘folio’ for The Last Supper: popular novel The Da Vinci Code. I haven’t even read it, but since 2023, when it was published, the sacred meaning of this biblical scene is forever overlaid with the sinister mood of a work of popular literature, thriller selling 80 million copies with an accompanying blockbuster film about the evils of the Catholic Church. Perhaps this is why I felt spooked.

In which case, thank you Dan Brown for adding to the works of a very great humanist. I would like to imagine this writer on a tour of all one hundred copies of The Last Supper. I think he would soon realise that Da Vinci’s code, if that’s what we’re calling it, was as open source as Linux.

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