Why can I not stop parodying Leonardo’s Last Supper? Looking through my archives, Last Supper Cartoons just keep on popping up, like some tune I can’t get out of my head.
I could blame my clients: I get asked to parody it at least once a year. But often as not it’s me who suggests it, as, let’s face it, Last Supper Cartoons are the ultimate group portrait, with a gratifying sense of perspective, a pleasing array of poses, and a high recognition factor. And I’m hardly the first to parody it: there have been Star Wars Last Suppers, Lego Last Suppers, Last Suppers with Elvis or John Lennon as Jesus; there’s even been a Last Supper parody with Bill Murray in all 13 roles.
It’s also 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 below, 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.
If you have the opportunity to visit Milan, I would urge you to see the genuine article. That it’s still there is a miracle in itself. Leonardo used an experimental technique to apply the paint to the wall, and as a result it was starting to flake within his lifetime. The painting has endured damp, prolonged neglect punctuated with active vandalism and calamitous restoration attempts. A door was cut through the bottom of it. The room it’s in was converted into stables and a prison cell, and the roof was destroyed in a WWII air raid. Visiting it is a bit like seeing a much loved but incredibly aged relative who has survived an unfeasible number of horrors.
The present restoration effort took 20 years and is generally agreed to be successful. Even so, there are elaborate measures to ensure its preservation. You have to book a ticket, usually weeks 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 incompetent), and there it is. You have fifteen minutes with it!
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.
So, if you’re looking for a group portrait, don’t feel shy about asking me to create one of my Last Supper Cartoons. Leonardo’s Last Supper, that is. If you asked me to parody Stanley Spencer’s Last Supper (below) I’m afraid I would have to refuse. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not terribly good at drawing feet.
To see more examples of how I use The Last Supper in my group portraits, take a look at my portfolio piece here.