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The Last Supper

The Last Supper was a very powerful Biblical event, in which Jesus and his disciples gathered for one final dinner together. According to the Bible, important events took place during the Last Supper, including an announcement by Jesus that one of his disciples would betray him and the first communion. To artists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was necessary to give proper deference to such notable occurrences. Both Leonardo da Vinci and Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto, took upon the challenge of recreating the Last Supper. While Last Supper by da Vinci and Last Supper by Tintoretto are very similar in subject matter, they differ in composition, symbolism, and the choice of narrative moment.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is the first great figure composition of the High Renaissance and the definitive interpretation of its theme. Jesus and his twelve disciples are seated at a long table that is parallel to the picture plane. The room is spacious and peaceful, and Christ has his arms spread in disposed trust . The rest of the group is in intense and dramatic excitement, with their hands out in shock and question at Jesus’ words. The viewer can just feel the tense excitement sweeping through the groups of disciples. Jesus, the most important figure in the painting, has been placed in front of three windows that are in the back of the room, and he is framed by the center window with a curved pediment that arches above his head. His head serves as the focal and vanishing point of this piece, and your eye is immediately attracted to it. Da Vinci has arranged the disciples into groups of three and tied all the groups together through their hand motions giving this piece a symmetrically aesthetic feeling. Your eye is taken on a journey through the oval-shaped composition of the piece, but it is clear that Jesus serves as the vital magnet. The Last Supper by Tintoretto is a beautiful Mannerist-style painting in which the painter creates a revolutionary type of composition. The piece’s surface plane now shoots in a diagonal motion and Jesus is noticeable only because of the light around his head. There is a feeling of unsure commotion throughout the figures as they lean into uncomfortable positions, such as the maid in the foreground. The figures also seem to blossom in light through a darkness of the background. The two brightest areas, Jesus and the light fixture, fight for the viewer's attention and create a sense of uncertainty, perfecting what the Mannerist’s set out to accomplish.

The use of symbolism in both Da Vinci’s and Tintoretto’s Last Supper is important to the interpretation of each piece. Da Vinci is the first known artist to place Judas, the disciple who betrays Jesus, on the same side of the table as Christ. This subtly symbolizes the trust that Jesus shared with his followers, and it is more realistic. By placing Christ in the center, as the focal point, with orthagonals leading towards him, Da Vinci creates a 3-D/pyramid effect with Christ that shows his still and stable calmness and poise amongst the distraught group. He also places Jesus inside the second window, symbolizing Jesus’ position as Christ, the son in the Christian trinity. The group of twelve is split into groups of threes, symbolizing the trinity, and supporting the symmetry. Tintoretto’s Last Supper uses symbolism very differently. He places genre figures throughout the painting, such as the waitresses, to ground the viewer in reality. This may act as his way of making the piece more realistic or closer to personal experience and therefore, more comfortable. Yet, he also places angels flying into the room, throwing off this grounded feeling but giving a nice balance of both heaven and Earth.

These two accomplished artists, Da Vinci from the High Renaissance Period, and Tintoretto from the time of Mannerism, decided to paint the same event, but chose different narrative moments, exemplifying each of their purposes. Leonardo da Vinci chose to illustrate the moment in which Jesus proclaims that one of his disciples shall betray him, creating a sense of shock and question. Each of the followers of Jesus embrace fear, doubt, protestation, rage, and love in a beautiful symmetry. Tintoretto, on the other hand, chooses to use a different scene of the same event, the first communion. Although the painting is very expressive and exciting, the subject is of a joyous festival that continues on in many Christian churches today. He chooses not to work with a scene of betrayal and dishonesty, but instead a time of great miracle.

Leonardo da Vinci’s goal of painting not only the man, but the intention of his soul is shown in his Last Supper; one can almost see John the Baptist in shocking contemplation after hearing such news. The painter withholds the High Renaissance aesthetics of symmetry and stability, while creating a stirring of emotion inside of the viewer through composition, symbolism, and narrative subject. Tintoretto is a true Mannerist. He decided upon a different scene and brought it alive with colors, composition, and movement. His fascination with color is revealed, while he creates uncertain emotions in the viewer through symbols, lights, and shadows. Both of these artists exemplify not only their times, but also their incredible ability to manipulate art to express their purpose.

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