Visiting it is an elaborate operation. You have to book a voucher a month in advance and are given an allocated time. You wait in a holding area with 29 other visitors before being summoned to a glass-walled ante-chamber. Once everyone is in the ante-chamber, the doors behind you close and the doors in front of you open. As you go into the climate-controlled refectory, turn right (don’t bother turning left: the mural on the opposite wall is rubbish), and there it is.
It’s one of the best known works of art ever created, but, a bit like meeting the Queen (sorry, did I drop a name?), seeing images of the thing is nothing like seeing the thing itself. For a start, it’s bigger than you’d expect (unlike the Queen): the figures are life size, and glow in the dim light of the room. Also, the perspective of the picture space is very clever, and works from wherever in the room you look at the picture. It’s impossible not to be drawn in. The other thing which no reproduction can prepare you for is how uncluttered the scene is. In a book, it looks crowded, but seen at life size each figure has space, and you feel involved in the drama of each saint. But don’t get too involved: you have 15 minutes before you’re ushered out and the next party comes in. That gives you one minute per disciple, one for Jesus, one to admire the still lives on the table and (if you insist) one for the ghastly crucifixion scene on the opposite wall.
The moment Leonardo chooses to depict in his masterpiece is basically a reaction shot. Jesus has just announced that one of the disciples will betray him, and what we are looking at is the immediate aftershock of this bombshell. Each disciple reacts differently. St. Bartholomew jumps to his feet, St. Andrew raises his hands in horror, St. Peter is aggressive, St. John swoons, St. Philip puts his hands on his heart and pleads with Jesus to believe that it’s not him. The only figure who recoils from Jesus is Judas, who pulls back, his fist clenched and face cast in shadows. As a study in group psychology, it’s incredibly powerful and if I took away only one thing from my visit, it was a respect for Leonardo as a great narrative artist.
I say ‘only one thing’, but in truth I’ve been stealing from The Last Supper for years. It’s hard not to. As a caricaturist, I’m often asked to draw or paint a group picture, often to be presented at a dinner to the guest of honour. The deadline is usually too short to come up with a composition of my own, so a bit of honest theft is the only answer. What other world famous group painting could I steal from? Las Meninas? I’d need to add a court dwarf, which seems a bit insensitive. Déjeuner sur l’herbe? Too many nudes. Guernica? Too many bombs. Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters? Frankly, anyone serving their guests boiled spuds probably can’t afford a caricaturist.
Which leaves me The Last Supper. It’s a simple composition to copy, though that coffered ceiling involves a bit of concentration. And the perspective is so emphatic, with the vanishing point directly behind the head of Jesus, that however busy the rest of the action, the spectator’s eye goes first to the guest of honour. The composition can even hold up with extra figures. In the version above, the client asked specifically for a Last Supper pastiche, but had 30 people for me to include. I changed the tapestries on the wall to group portraits, and the job was done.
There is a problem however, which is this: who occupies the place of Judas? My approach so far has been not to think about it and hope the client doesn’t either. Which makes me consider who my ideal client might be: probably someone who knows Leonardo’s masterpiece well enough to get the reference, but not so well that they are vexed by a colleague being associated with Christianity’s greatest villain.