Within three years of its completion, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper began to flake and fade. The artist had staked his masterpiece, which he spent over two years painting, on a technical gamble, and lost. Always the inventor, Leonardo had come up with the novel idea of applying oil paint to dry plaster on the refectory wall of the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Humidity, candle smoke, and a series of well–intentioned but disastrous early “restorations” have turned the Cenacolo into a ruin, a ghostly memory of itself.
But the elusiveness of The Last Supper is much more than a factor of its physical deterioration and the succession of controversial attempts to restore and preserve it. From the very beginning, the painting has exercised a profound and mysterious power over its viewers, evoking both attraction and repulsion, devotion and disgust. Many of the work’s most fervent admirers have felt the need to edit, emend, or otherwise rationalize the parts of the composition that troubled or puzzled them. In one of the more choice ironies of cultural history, some of The Last Supper’s most brilliant advocates, including Goethe, ended up basing their interpretations on reproductions that differed in crucial ways from the original.
Something else stands between us and our ability to gain a fresh appreciation of Leonardo’s vision—the sheer cultural ubiquity of the painting. How to see through the seemingly endless layers of interpretations, allusions, and parodies that have settled over the original? The Cenacolo has an iconic quality about it that spawns innumerable copies, a process that continues unabated in our time. Near the end of his life, Andy Warhol became obsessed with the painting, making it the basis for dozens of his own works—excerpting details from it, covering it with pink paint, camouflage coloring, and corporate logos. A famous New Yorker cartoon reproduces the painting and provides Christ with a caption: “Separate checks.” From refrigerator magnets to billboards, the Cenacolo is everywhere.
So, it may reasonably be asked: Is there anything left to see or say? Leo Steinberg, professor emeritus of art at the University of Pennsylvania, asks these questions at the outset of Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper. The ambiguity of the title, and the photograph of the painting on a New Jersey billboard on the dust jacket, might lead the casual bookstore browser to believe that Steinberg’s answers are ironic and deconstructive, an elaborate way of saying that there is nothing left in the work, that it is nothing more than a palimpsest on which diverse cultures and ideologies inscribe their prejudices and preoccupations.
But the casual browser would be wrong. By the end of Steinberg’s book, it is clear that The Last Supper is not only a towering masterpiece—he calls it “the most thought–out picture in Western art”—but perhaps the most misinterpreted work in the canon. It may seem odd to describe a work of art history, laden with footnotes and no less than six appendices, as rousing, but that is the only word that seems to do justice to the exuberance and incisiveness of Steinberg’s prose.
Born in Moscow in 1920, Leo Steinberg has long been known for the vigor and vividness of his scholarship, which has been devoted to explicating the art of both the Renaissance and the twentieth century. His best–known book, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, argues that centuries of censorship and denial have kept a series of classic artworks out of sight, and hence out of mind. These Renaissance paintings depict Christ’s genitalia, particularly in works that represent his infancy and the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion (depositions and pietás). According to Steinberg, Renaissance artists understood Christ’s circumcision as a shedding of blood that proleptically alludes to his sacrificial death on the cross, and his virginity as “potency under check.” Steinberg demonstrates that these renderings of Christ’s sexuality were, to the Renaissance artists who created them, the pictorial equivalents of the doctrine of the Incarnation, reminders that the Word of God had indeed become flesh and shared our human condition.
Steinberg’s understanding of incarnational theology and its impact on Renaissance art also undergirds Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper. The prevailing interpretation of the painting, he notes, was established soon after its completion. According to this view, Leonardo has chosen to focus on the moment when Christ says that “one of you will betray me.” The disposition of the figures in the painting, then, reflects the diverse range of psychological reactions to Christ’s pronouncement, from astonishment and fear to outrage and denial. Leonardo’s genius thus lies in his verisimilitude, psychological realism triumphing over theological symbolism. In this vein the painting was typically praised as being “unambiguous and clear,” its secularism reflected not merely in its careful attention to emotional states but in the scientific perfection of its one–point perspective. As Steinberg shows, this interpretation appealed equally to Enlightenment, Romantic, and modern eras, each for its own reasons. Dissenting voices were routinely brushed aside, at least until the last half of the twentieth century.
The genesis of the present book was an extended essay Steinberg published in the Art Quarterly in 1973. “In the present study,” he wrote then, “the picture emerges as both less secular and less simple; contrary to inherited notions, it is nowhere ‘unambiguous and clear,’ but consistently layered, double–functioning, polysemantic.” In the new book, this argument is extended and reinforced by extensive allusions to the iconographic tradition that Leonardo drew upon. The ambiguity that Steinberg detects in the Cenacolo is not one of vagueness or indeterminacy, but rather of multiplicity and simultaneity, a profound affirmation of the coinherence of flesh and spirit. That Leonardo would have concealed symbolism and transcendence beneath a highly realistic surface does not strike Steinberg as contradictory; rather, it becomes another pictorial analogy for the Incarnation, in which the divinity is both concealed and revealed in the humanity of Christ.
In 1625, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo took note of the layered meanings in the painting when he wrote that the Cenacolo might best be interpreted not as the moment when Christ announces that one of the disciples will betray him, but the more metaphorically suggestive passage which speaks of the betrayer dipping “his hand with me in the dish.” Here the moment of betrayal and the institution of the Eucharist become inextricably linked—the sinfulness that crucifies and the redeeming love that accepts crucifixion.
Steinberg, building on this insight, launches into a close reading of the painting. His point of departure is the mysteriously symmetrical gestures of Christ and Judas. Christ’s right hand and Judas’ left hand reach toward a common area in front of St. John, the beloved disciple. In the zone framed by the outstretched fingers of the two men are a dish, a glass of wine, and bread. Early copyists, disturbed that the Son of God and his betrayer should seem to be sharing anything in common, tended to move or eliminate the dish. But if Christ and Judas dip their bread in the same dish, then two distinct moments are inextricably linked in this mirroring of hands. Once the existence of “successiveness and duration” has been established, it becomes possible to see other types of simultaneity in the painting. Steinberg presents dozens of them, including a direct relationship between the poses of several of the apostles and the specific ways they were eventually martyred. Their own deaths echo, and partake in, the eucharistic sacrifice.
Nearly everyone admires the geometrical patterns in the painting—particularly the central equilateral triangle formed by Christ’s head and hands (with its allusion to the Trinity), but Steinberg goes beyond these well–known elements to explore the full ramifications of Leonardo’s depiction of space. For one thing, he points out that despite his devotion to verisimilitude, Leonardo has made Christ much larger than any of the apostles. In the complex disposition of the figures this isn’t immediately apparent, but once again Leonardo labors both to conceal and to reveal. Making the figure of Christ larger than the disciples was a medieval convention, one that Leonardo has no problem adapting to his own uses.
Steinberg goes on to demonstrate that the representation of the “upper room” in the painting is problematic: Leonardo’s overall design suggests a rectangular space, but the actual details shift the perspective from a rectangle to a trapezoid. But here too ambiguity and doubleness reflect the dual nature of the painting’s central figure. The trapezoid becomes an extension of Christ’s own presence and gesture, so that space itself, as Leonardo constructs it, is shaped by the incarnate son. In this “sanctification of space,” Steinberg writes, “perspective becomes narrative symbolism, becomes choreography, iconography, homily, riddle, and mystery.”
Steinberg concedes that little is known of Leonardo’s religious beliefs. He merely points out that while the first edition of Vasari’s life of Leonardo describes the artist as an unbeliever, the second edition claims him as a faithful son of the Church. Perhaps the best analogy is with Shakespeare: both men were creative geniuses whose work maintains an outwardly secular concern for the truth of the human condition, but lying just behind their visions was a Christian humanism with deep theological roots. One thing that is well known about Leonardo is his admiration for the great Christian humanist Nicholas of Cusa, whose understanding of coincidentia oppositorum Steinberg sees reflected in the Cenacolo’s incarnational paradoxes. Like Shakespeare, Leonardo elevates realism to the point where it touches mystery.
Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper is a pleasure to read for a variety of reasons—among them the beauty of a lavishly illustrated art monograph, and the feeling that a tenacious detective is about to get to the bottom of an unsolved case. Another delight is the linguistic playfulness of Steinberg’s prose. His sentences crackle with energy; his diction is always arresting, if occasionally over the top. From just the last chapter of the book, one comes across a bevy of bumptious words, including eloign, ajangle, swag, quinsome, tort, trapeziform, daedally, enfutured, twain, and scienceArt.
There can be little doubt that this book will be seen as equal in importance to The Sexuality of Christ. It enables us to see The Last Supper afresh, unencumbered by reductionism and cliché. Steinberg sees the painting as incessant, not only because of its ubiquity as a cultural icon, but also because of the unceasing paradoxes radiating from its central figure. Here is the God–man who turns betrayal into redemption, whose slight nod of resignation before the Father’s will, far from being a sign of weakness, forms the apex of an equilateral triangle that literally gives shape to the world.
Gregory Wolfe is the editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion and Writer in Residence at Seattle Pacific University.