The Hidden Symbolism within Leonardo’s Last Supper

Given the depth of thought that Leonardo placed into all his work, we can be sure of one thing: everything we see was done on purpose.

Five hundred years after the artist’s death, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper has continued to inspire both believers and non-believers alike. The artwork seems to have tapped into in our collective consciousness. How so? 

One of the least explored and under-acknowledged elements of the artwork is that it was painted on a wall. Painting on walls dates back to the beginnings of man, and references the most basic predilection of the human creative spirit: the desire to populate space with imagery. To adorn an open wall with images is to activate that space in some manner. Color infuses spirit and energy into a space, while shapes and representations of humans and animals inject it with a sense of life.

There is a fundamental connection between walls and culture. They can create a protective barrier surrounding a city or act as a structural component of a building, essential elements in the apparatus of civilized life. Religion has been foundational in creating the culture and institutions that have made the human “world” possible. As the history of art is overwhelming religious, the relationship between art, walls, and civilization is therefore profound. The Last Supper’s religious setting and political patronage place the artwork within this larger cultural framework.

The Last Supper event is primarily about the power of the spoken word. Christ’s announcement of the betrayal of one of his apostles is cataclysmic. The artist therefore needed to find a way to represent its explosive impact on the historic, emotive and metaphysical levels. Confronted with a flat, blank wall, Leonardo used the relatively new scientific technique of one-point perspective to visually break the spatial plane of the wall. Its use here speaks to the painting’s overarching Renaissance-era meaning associated with its usage, that science and reason leads one toward God.  

When one views Leonardo’s fresco, its deep perspective creates a dramatic inward angle. Yet as much as the fresco draws the viewer in, there is an even stronger sense that it opens outward. Leonardo’s table is almost flush with the front of the painting’s pictorial surface. In fact, the top of the table spills outward, as if in real life the glasses and plates would slide off onto the floor of the dining hall. Also, the painted room’s architectural proportions abound with Pythagorean musical ratios (12:6:4:3). Scholars state that Leonardo organizes the fresco in “harmonic space,”and have identified a 40-second musical composition within the painting.

In terms of sound, these aural elements are not only an example of Renaissance classical rationality, but are also rhetorical. Just as Christ speaks to his disciples, the fresco’s outward facing energy acts as a sort of graphic “speaker,” visually projecting the visual “sounds” ensconced within the painting out into the dining hall. To the extent that the walled artwork does in fact “speak” to its viewers, what does it say?

This article originally appeared on Aleteia. You can read the rest of the article here.