The Last Supper
The project to restore Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper took twenty years and has been met with a great deal of dismay on the part of a large portion of the art critic community. The “new” or “restored” palette differs radically from the palette we are used to seeing and the way in which some aspects of the figures have been painted—e.g. Jesus hair—has also come in for criticism. These criticisms probably miss the point.
An author notes that Leonard painted directly on the dry intonaco (the plaster on which frescoes were commonly painted) and that he used a type of tempura, the composition of which is unknown. Humidity induced deterioration was noticed as early as 1517. It was repainted twice in the eighteenth century and once in the nineteenth century. It is therefore fairly meaningless to think of this work in terms of authenticity.
It may not be terribly important for us that we do not have available to us all of the minutiae of the artistic details that Leonardo put into the painting. We have the composition, which is very important (e.g. the oft-cited fact that Christ is at the vanishing point) and we have a knowledge of the symbolic content of the picture. We have enough to understand the picture in terms of the cosmic theme it deals with, the betrayal of divinity, and what is left of the picture conveys to us the seriousness with which Leonardo approached this work. This painting is a transcendent work of art in which the whole, of which we have a good sense, is much more than the sum of its parts. It would be nice to have the missing, defaced, or mis-represented details, but our sense of the religious importance of what this painting is “about” is still very strong without them. An author states, “Ideal volumes inhabit ideal space.” Because the viewer senses this, the actual volumes that we see are not so important as they otherwise would be.
It should be noted that the vast majority of people who are acquainted with this picture have seen it only in reproductions and that, as an author notes, these are usually far from being photographically accurate. The changes made by the latest restoration are less important than critics of that restoration like to imply. I suggest that there is no “the” Last Supper but many millions of them, each in the mind of every person upon whom this painting has left a lasting impression.