In the Presence of The Last Supper
Traffic was still light on this Friday summer morning in Milan, and after just a few quick turns our taxi came to a stop on lively Corso Magenta.
“Questa è la chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie? Con Il Cenacolo?” (Is this the Santa Maria delle Grazie church? With The Last Supper?) I asked the driver slowly, trying hard to form a complete and error-free question. Perhaps my Italian wasn’t clear the first time I told him our destination. But here he was, stopped on the street, waiting to collect his Euro and wondering why we were still in the car.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. Perhaps a little more fanfare? A big sign and spotlights? At the very least, I thought there would be a crowd of humanity and jumble of street vendors hawking merchandise printed with reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous dinner scene.
Instead, what beckoned was a large stone piazza, surprisingly free of tourists and shaded by the soothingly simple red-brick church itself.
And with this unexpectedly peaceful start, I felt a flutter inside. The little tugging of the heart when it senses that something special awaits.
Santa Maria delle Grazie sits elegantly on a busy street, tucked underneath cable car wires and amongst red-roofed buildings of Milan’s Centro Storico. This structure was designed by Donato Bramante, one of the main architects of Saint Peter’s in Rome.
Even though seeing this capolavoro (masterpiece) has long been on my wish list, I didn’t plan to be so moved by it.
Somewhere along the way I had heard that The Last Supper was overrated, no big deal, and even skip-able (gasp!). Maybe it was the remembered let-down of seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, where the throng of weary tourists and our distance from the portrait made seeing it a bit of a disappointment.
The Last Supper instead pulled me in, enveloped me, took up residence in my heart. For the remainder of the day and long after leaving Santa Maria delle Grazie, I carried these emotions with me, and could not stop thinking about the painting’s significance, beauty and power.
It felt a tiny bit like falling in love.
I sensed the presence of something beyond this world. Perhaps it was just being in the same space as something so famous, just as one might feel when spotting a celebrity. Maybe that something I felt was Jesus and his worried disciples, tiny remnants of their spirits encapsulated high up on the wall. Or could it have been Leonardo himself, tucked quietly in the corner, partially delighted, partially astounded at the lasting power of this particular piece?
A Quick History
The Last Supper, literally translated in Italian as L’Ultima Cena, is referred to by locals as Il Cenacolo. It size alone it imposing — 15′ x 30′– and it graces the north wall of the refectory (dining hall) of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which in the 1400s was a monastery of Dominican friars.
Common in many refectories but missing in Santa Maria’s was a last supper scene. In 1495, wanting to ingratiate himself with the friars, Milan’s duke Ludovico Sforza commissioned da Vinci, an artist already in his court, to paint a last supper on the refectory wall.
Last supper scenes more often portrayed the actual dining, a somber depiction of Jesus and his disciples at the table. Wanting a twist on this theme, da Vinci chose a more chaotic moment of that fateful gathering: the seconds immediately following Jesus’ announcement to the disciples that one of them would betray him. Frenzy and panic captured in tempura.
“After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, ‘Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.‘ His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant.”
–Gospel of John 13:21-22 New International Version
The powers that be which now safeguard da Vinci’s Last Supper take their role seriously. The former refectory is climate and light controlled, and limited to 25 visitors at any one time. As a result, it is darkish, cool, quiet, peaceful. The room’s color comes entirely from The Last Supper and the mural it faces on the opposite wall. The two paintings are magnificent, brilliant bookends in an otherwise stark rectangle of a room.
Advanced entry tickets are required, and we had scheduled our tour through an outside agency which included a guide well-versed in the history of da Vinci and his Last Supper, much to our delight.
At the scheduled time, our guide led us through the double doors and immediately to the left, to first inspect the Crucifixion fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, which admittedly, was incredible. But it only received a passing glance from me because I couldn’t help but turn my head innocently to the right for a quick first glimpse of The Last Supper. And instantly, I felt something powerful wash over me. The others in my small group fell away, and I was pulled toward da Vinci’s work, as if by a magnet.
It happened to the others too: Husband, who finds his art on the sports fields rather than in museums, and Daughter, still young at age ten to understand the significance, drifted over with me and we stood together in reverent awe.
The longer I spent in the refectory, the more certain I became that the other-worldly thing which I sensed was Leonardo himself. Despite the fact that after centuries of deterioration and restoration very little of his original strokes are said to remain, I felt him here, in this hushed room.
I imagined him tantissimi anni fa (many many years ago), bounding into the refectory — paints, brushes, sketches, beard and hair unkempt and flying — painting a stroke here, making a color correction there, taking countless steps back to reflect on what had been done that day, and what would come next.
Did he break for nourishment and rest here in this very room, stretching his hands, arms, and back from the cramped and focused positions required for intricate brush work? Maybe he paged through his little journal (libretto, always close at hand) at the sketches made of his fellow citizens, searching for inspiration for the disciples faces. Perhaps he allowed himself a few moments of distraction to practice his Latin verb conjugations (as he was known to struggle with his whole life) contained in his libretto as a diversion from the consuming task of creating art.
Recognized for his genius and talents during his lifetime, Leonardo was notorious for leaving important works unfinished, but records show The Last Supper was completed around 1497. And sooner than I wanted, my time in the presence of Leonardo and his incredible work was complete too. I found myself being politely but firmly ushered out of the exit doors, our spots to be filled by the next 25 admirers.
Husband, Daughter and I wandered back into the stone piazza in front of Santa Maria delle Grazie, somewhat dazed by our experience, squinting in the bright light and moving slowly. Both the heat of Milan’s summer sun and the July tourists had by now found the square in front of the church, although our cab, which we needed again, was long gone.
Also in need of a ride were two other Americans from our tour, a couple older than us experiencing The Last Supper for the first time too. We wandered away from the church together, navigating the busy streets behind Santa Maria delle Grazie to be released into the city, on to new adventures in Milan and beyond.
And as we walked, I couldn’t help but notice how contented I felt, and how the world seemed different. Colors and sounds were more vivid, more beautiful. I felt inspired. I felt empowered. I felt the way one feels when love quietly sneaks up.