The Last Supper: the World’s most abused Masterpiece

“The Last Supper is perhaps the world’s most abused masterpiece.” – The Superintendent of Fine Arts in Milan.

Other famous quotes about the deteriorated state of the Last Supper:
“The Last Supper is the most important dying thing in the world…”
“It is a living fossil of an artistic masterpiece…”

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece; was painted on the wall of a dining room in Santa Maria delle Grazie (Milan), commissioned by Duke Sforza as a gift for the friars. It was finished in 1498.
It portrays the last supper that Jesus Christ had with his disciples, and captures their reaction right after Jesus informed them that one of them will betray him. The process of restoration for The Last Supper turned into a process of excavation! That involved cleaning and scraping away 500 years of dirt, glues, mould, as well as many layers of over-painting by a succession of previous restorers…but that is not all.

The experimental painting technique used by Da Vinci proved unstable, and much of the original pigment is now lost. In 1566, Giorgio Vasari wrote that it was already a mess and in 1587, the painting was deemed “half-ruined.”
In 1652, the friars of Santa Maria delle Grazie enlarged a door in the wall where the Last Supper is painted, thus cutting off Christ’s feet (in the painting). Later on, the friars put a curtain to cover the painting, which scratched the pigment continuously, and trapped much humidity, furthering the damage.

In 1762, a painter was hired to restore the painting. He did a very poor job, and another painter was brought to remove the over-painting using a scalpel!
Six major restorations took place since 1762, doing more harm than good, darkening the painting and using dirt-collecting glue and wax that obscured and ruined Leonardo’s pigments. The face of Jesus in the painting has become a mere mask. We do not know for sure what features Leonardo conceived for Jesus before restorations. In 1796, when Napoleon’s troops occupied Milan, they used the room where the Last Supper is painted as an armory and a stable. The soldiers did much damage to the painting, and some claim that Napoleon tried to send the wall with the painting on it back to France.

In 1943, an allied bomb landed next to the wall, but as one of the historians mentioned, “the bomb was more intelligent than humans,” and no damage was done.
The porous wall allows humidity, and the already-polluted air of Milan only added to the deterioration of the painting. A successful restoration that ended in 1999 revealed that what we see today is only 20% of the original painting.

5 thoughts on “The Last Supper: the World’s most abused Masterpiece

  1. Thank you for the history, I now understand why the visit of it open to public becomes so difficult. I travelled to Milan once, but I didn’t manage to book the visit since there’s only a very limited number of people being allowed each day. Can I reblog your post?

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