Art Quiz: The Answer is Santa Maria delle Grazie

Did you know where to find “The Last Supper”? Although I’m familiar with the work — who isn’t? — I had no idea where it was painted.

Santa Maria delle Grazie — the name means “Holy Mary of Grace” — is located in Milan, Italy. It is both a church and a convent as well as a UNESCO “World Heritage” site. The famous fresco by da Vinci hangs in the refectory of the convent.

“The Last Supper” depicts Jesus with his apostles on the night of his betrayal. It is considered one of the world’s most recognizable paintings. Work on the fresco probably began around 1495. It was commissioned as part of a plan of renovation to the church and convent by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. He was a patron of da Vinci.

Because the renovations were hastily made, conditions were poor for fresco work with much moisture in the walls. Within only a few years, the painting had already begun to deteriorate. You can read about the damage and the many restoration attempts here.

On August 15, 1943, during the Second World War, an allied aerial bombardment hit the church and convent. Much of the refectory was destroyed, but some walls survived, including the one that holds The Last Supper, which had been sand-bagged in order to protect it.

Since the publication of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003) the painting has become part of contemporary culture with questions and speculations about hidden messages and meanings within the work. In the novel, one character suggests that the figure seated next to Jesus (on the left from the viewer’s perspective) is Mary Magdalene.

From Wikipedia:

It also states that there was a letter ‘glaring in the center of the painting’ (M) standing for MatrimonioI or Mary Magdalene. 

This speculation originated in earlier books, The Templar Revelation (1997) by Lynn Picknett and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh.

Art historians hold that the figure is the Apostle John, who only appears feminine due to Leonardo’s characteristic fascination with blurring the lines between the sexes, a quality which is found in his other paintings, such as St. John the Baptist

Christopher L. Hodapp and Alice Von Kannon comment, ‘If he looks effeminate and needs a haircut, so does James, the second figure on the left.’ According to Ross King, an expert on Italian art, Mary Magdalene’s appearance at the last supper would not have been controversial and Leonardo would have had no motive to disguise her as one of the other disciples, since she was widely venerated in her role as the ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and was the patron of the Dominican Order, for whom The Last Supper was painted. There would have even been precedent for it, since the earlier Italian  Renaissance painter Fra Angelico had included her in his painting of the Last Supper.

Apostles are seated in groups of three; there are three windows behind Jesus, and the shape of Jesus’ figure resembles a triangle. His hands are located at the golden ratio of half the height of the composition. The painting can also be interpreted using the Fibonacci series: one table, one central figure, two side walls, three windows and figures grouped in threes, five groups of figures, eight panels on the walls and eight table legs, and thirteen individual figures. Debates among art historians still surround the use of the Fibonacci series as some argue that its purposeful use did not fully begin to be applied to architecture until the early 19th century.

Giovanni Maria Pala, an Italian musician, has indicated that the positions of hands and loaves of bread can be interpreted as notes on a musical staff and, if read from right to left, as was characteristic of Leonardo’s writing, form a musical composition.

This may be more than you ever wanted to know about da Vinci’s famous painting. I found it quite interesting, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this little “art quiz” feature today.

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