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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Communion with a Masterpiece 

It is arguably one of the most famous works of art ever created, yet it was never really intended for public display. Its artist, Leonardo da Vinci, was the archetypical Renaissance Man. He was architect, anatomist, sculptor, engineer, inventor, geometer, musician and painter. I intend to use the next several posts to expound upon this masterpiece.

After apprenticing and beginning his career in Florence, Leonardo moved to Milan where he spent the latter portion of the 15th century in the employ of Duke Ludovico Sforza. During this period, the Duke began a decade long transformation of the church and convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie: he called on Donato Bramante, the architect who would go on to design St Peter's Basilica, to build a new chapel; he hired Cristoforo Solari, the artist known as "il Gobbo", to sculpt effigies of himself and his wife for their sepulcher in the choir loft; he commissioned Leonardo to paint a mural opposite Donato Montorfano's Crucifixion fresco in the dining hall. Ludovico envisioned other projects as well, but his wife's sudden death and the fall of the his regime interrupted the work. Only the apse, the sacristy and the refectory appear to have been finished, and still stand today as high marks of the Renaissance in Milan.

Leonardo began painting this enormous mural - it's over four and a half meters (15') tall and nearly nine meters (29')long - in 1495 and completed it in about four years. This fact is remarkable in itself, as the artist was a notorious procrastinator and has more unfinished works than finished. He was also known for his experimentation, which resulted in a fatal flaw for The Last Supper. Rather than working with the tried and true method of applying pigment to wet plaster, which has proven quite durable, he opted to dabble with tempera and oil on dry plaster, so that he could use more colors and redo portions as he went. As a result, the painting began to deteriorate almost as soon as it was completed, and within the first hundred years the faces became almost unrecognizable.

However, that was not the only experimentation used by Leonardo in The Last Supper. In my next post, I will begin to unfold what has made this artwork so popular and yet so controversial over the years.

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