The Last Supper and the Colors of Christ

‎“Besides occupying the centre of Leonardo’s painting, Christ’s spatially isolated from the ‎apostles, all of whom are bunched together as they physically touch their neighbors or lean ‎across one another in partial eclipses. Leonardo further highlighted Christ by placing him ‎against a window that opens onto a landscape of clear sky and bluish contours –by giving him, ‎in effect, a halo of sky. The effect is dazzling, even despite the color loss, as the warm tones ‎of Christ’s face, hair, and reddish undergarment advance while the cool blues of the ‎landscape recede: a prime example of Leonardo’s knowledge of the push and pull of colors. ‎For the blue mantle over Christ’s left shoulder Leonardo used ultramarine, which was, along ‎with gold, the brightest and most expensive of all pigments. One fifteenth-century treatise ‎on painting called it ‘a color noble, beautiful, and perfect beyond all other colors.’ A singly ‎ounce could cost as much as eight ducats, more than the annual rent paid on a house by a ‎poor worker in Florence. So expensive was ultramarine (the only known supply came from ‎Afghanistan) that unscrupulous thieves sometimes scraped it from paintings. Because of tis ‎beauty and expense, it was used to color the most prestigious and venerated parts of a ‎painting, most notably the mantle of the Virgin Mary.‎

The colors of Christ’s reddish undergarment were equally bright and deliberately intensified. ‎Leonardo generally laid his colors on a base coat of lead white spread across the entire wall. ‎For this red garment, however, he covered his white primer with a carbon-based black ‎pigment to create dark foundation, then added vermilion. Vermilion was the most brilliant of ‎all reds, and its appearance on the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie would be all the more ‎striking because it was a pigment that like ultramarine could not be used in fresco. Vermilion ‎was made from cinnabar, a brick-red mineral that ancient Romans believed came from the ‎blood of dragons crushed to death under the weight of elephants. Like most mineral-based ‎pigments, it was incompatible with lime. Indeed, the layering of five separate coats of paint, ‎carefully manipulated to intensify their values, was something else completely unknown to ‎fresco.”‎

Source: Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King

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