“The Last Supper” (1495-1498), Leonardo’s iconic mural depicting the Biblical tale of the moments leading up to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, is among the most widely-circulated works of the Western canon, immortalized by art history books and memes alike. Thanks to a partnership between the Royal Academy in London and Google Arts & Culture, the public can now zoom in on one of the most accurate replicas of the Renaissance man’s chef d’oeuvre, produced within two decades of the work’s creation.
Because he wanted to work slowly, Leonardo forewent the traditional fresco method, which requires applying paint quickly on fresh plaster, in favor of tempera or oil paint on two layers of dry preparatory ground. This improvised technique did not bond the pigment to the wall as a true fresco would, so the work suffered flaking, crackling, and fading within a few years.
Fortunately, another artist — possibly Giampietrino or Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, both pupils of Leonardo — produced a faithful copy of “The Last Supper” between 1515 and 1520, this time turning to the comparatively trusty medium of oil on canvas. This version is thought to be one of the most accurate copies (of which there are several) and has been an instrumental guide in conservation efforts over the years.
Though lacking the top third of the composition, the piece is nearly identical in scale to Leonardo’s masterpiece and depicts details that are no longer visible due to deterioration, such as the ominous symbol of a salt-cellar spilled by Judas’s right arm, and Jesus’s feet, which had been replaced by a door installed in the refectory in 1652.
These and other intimate passages in the historic painting — St. Thomas’s raised finger, St. Andrew’s astonished grimace, St. Peter’s clenched knife — can be appreciated in all their high-resolution glory on Google Arts & Culture.
Nearly 300 works from the Royal Academy’s collection can also be viewed in detail on the platform, but the option of scrolling slowly across Leonardo masterwork, deconstructing its manifold elements as they seem to unfold in time, is a rare delight.
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At least we won’t have to look at it on Earth.
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