On the northern wall of the refectory at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan lives one of the most famous paintings in Western history.
The Last Supper is a massive 15-by-29-foot mural that established Leonardo da Vinci as a masterful and revolutionary artist, ushered in the start of the High Renaissance, and has captured the fascination of art amateurs and scholars alike for the past five centuries.
But despite the profound importance of The Last Supper—and the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who visit Milan each year for the chance to spend their allotted 15 minutes with the masterpiece—a shocking reality is often overlooked: scholars believe that only around 20 percent of the existing painting is Leonardo’s original.
The litany of sins committed against The Last Supper is enough to make even the most understanding of confessors wring his hands in horror.
For centuries, the indignities of war, neglect, bad restorations, and even the good intentions gone bad of Leonardo’s penchant for experimentation have piled up to result in a painting that is not only dotted with patches of grey where the work has been completely lost, but also one in which many of the preserved areas may no longer accurately reflect the detail achieved by the master.
In 1999, a massive 20-year restoration was completed. But despite bringing the piece back “as far as is humanly and technologically possible” to its original, as Ross King, author of Leonardo and The Last Supper, told The New York Times, much of The Last Supper—both in actuality and in artistic effect—has been lost.
Or has it? Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Heath Brown, an art historian and art connoisseur respectively, reveal a new discovery in their book, Young Leonardo, that may help us to better understand the impact of Leonardo da Vinci’s original The Last Supper at the moment it was unveiled in Milan in 1498.
To fully appreciate the long journey of The Last Supper, we must go back to the very beginning. The painting’s deterioration began almost immediately after the final stroke of paint was applied to the wall, and this initial blame falls on an unlikely source: the great inventor da Vinci himself.
When the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned a relatively unknown Leonardo to complete the large mural at the end of the 15th century, the artist decided to invent a new technique with which to do it.
Prior to this commission, Leonardo had been working mostly on a smaller scale and in oils, which allowed him to layer paint and achieve a wider range of detail. This wasn’t possible using the traditional fresco method, which required a swift hand as the tempera paint quickly dried and bonded with the wet plaster surface.
But Leonardo had a different vision for his first fresco. Depictions of the ‘Last Supper’ were a common subject in church art at the time. Most, however, portrayed the moment in which Jesus created the Catholic tradition of the Eucharist, or the breaking of the bread. It was a foundational event in the history of the church, but not a particularly exciting one.
Leonardo instead wanted to paint a different scene—the one in which Jesus has just revealed that one of the 12 apostles gathered around him at the table would betray him. The result was a dramatic episode that would allow Leonardo to show off his talent through the range of emotions and reactions portrayed in the figures who filled the table.
“That news ricochets across the canvas like a tsunami and the apostles respond with shock, anger, disbelief, sorrow, all these individual disparate expressions,” Isbouts tells The Daily Beast. “That was the point of Leonardo’s The Last Supper.”
But he couldn’t do this using the traditional methods of fresco. So he invented a new surface that was dry, topped it with a layer of egg tempera, and then built up his desired layers of detail using glazes.
It was a good idea in theory and initially created an exceptional effect. But, unbeknownst to the painter, the technique didn’t allow the paint to properly bond to the surface of the wall. By 1517, less than 20 years after it was completed, the paint was already starting to chip.
This situation would have qualified as an artistic emergency on its own, but in 1652, Jesus also lost his feet when a portion of the mural was removed to create a doorway through the wall. And then in the early 1800s, Napoleon invaded Italy and his soldiers used the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie as a bunkhouse and stables. The bored soldiers found entertainment close to home—target practice on the apostles’ faces.
In 1845, Charles Dickens traveled to Italy to see the work and his review was dire. “Apart from the damage it has sustained from damp, decay or neglect, it has been so retouched upon, and repainted, and that, so clumsily, that many of the heads are, now, positive deformities,” he wrote.
That harsh critique was issued nearly a century before World War II. On Aug. 15, 1943, a bomb hit the church and reduced it to rubble. Miraculously, one of the few things that survived was the wall on which The Last Supper was painted.
The result of these hardships, plus layer on layer of restorations undertaken over the years with varying degrees of proficiency, is a painting that has lost much of its detail. The spirit of Leonardo’s masterpiece remains, but not much of his original strokes of paint.
When Isbouts and Brown began to research their latest book on Leonardo, they resurfaced an interesting story. Shortly after the turn of the 16th-century, King Louis XII of France invaded Milan. As he toured his new domain, he discovered the recently completed The Last Supper and was immediately enamored. He wanted the painting for France. But moving an entire wall in the early 1500s proved an impossible feat, even for a king.
That’s where the story has generally ended. But Isbouts and Brown discovered a letter in the Florentine archives that they think points to a different resolution.
In 1504, Leonardo was under contract in Florence to paint a large fresco for the Palazzo della Signoria. But King Louis wanted to him to work for Milan, instead, so he wrote to the head of the Florentine government asking for the painter to be loaned to the new king.
“It’s the first time in history that a statesman intervenes with another statesman for the use of a humble artist,” Isbouts says with a laugh, noting that absent from the letter were any specifics on the project King Louis had in mind for Leonardo or how long it would take.
The request was eventually granted and Leonardo made his way to Milan. And what was in store for him there? The theory of the Young Leonardo co-authors is that King Louis commissioned Leonardo and his workshop to paint a life-size copy on canvas of The Last Supper for the king to take back to France.
As Isbouts and Brown continued their research, the evidence supporting this theory began to pile up.
There was the knowledge that Leonardo was working at the request of King Louis in Milan at the time and that, within two years of his arrival, he was being hailed as the court’s “loyal artist.”
There is the 1540 inventory from the Chateau de Gaillon, the family seat of a close associate and cardinal to King Louis XII, that listed “a huge painting of the ‘Last Supper’ made on canvas with monumental figures which our lord has brought over from Milan.”
And there were the records of a payment made to one of Leonardo’s top acolytes for delivering a canvas from Milan to the chateau.
But if their theory was correct, where, they wondered, could this copy have landed after all these years? The answer may be a game-changing discovery in the history of The Last Supper scholarship.
On the wall of a quiet chapel at Tongerlo Abbey in a remote area of Belgium, hangs a giant canvas depicting the ‘Last Supper’ that was purchased in 1645 by an abbot. Isbouts and Brown have traced the evidence and believe that this is the reproduction completed by Leonardo and his workshop.
In addition to historical records, the two historians have also conducted a forensic investigation of the canvas reproduction. What they have found has only added to their excitement.
An overlay of images of the original and the copy that hangs in Belgium are an almost identical match, and an X-ray of the canvas shows an underdrawing beneath much of the composition. This they believe points to the use of the exact same cartoons, or guide drawings, that were used to paint the original mural in Milan.
But there are two figures that were painted onto the canvas without preliminary drawings—Jesus and St. John. These two, scholars believe, may have been painted on the copy by Leonardo himself.
If Isbouts and Brown are correct, this copy by Leonardo and his workshop has hung unidentified and undisturbed for over 350 years in a remote corner of Belgium.
While the mural in Milan has decayed, the copy has remained relatively well preserved and can tell us much about what Leonardo’s original once looked like.
“It’s a drastic difference between this beautiful canvas versus a decayed painting in Milan, and we really know now what the disciples looked like and what color clothing they were wearing and what their facial and hand animations were. We can see the salt and pepper shaker,” Brown says. “It really is remarkable.”