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“Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci: Iconographical Interpretation

The Last Supper mural was created by Leonardo Da Vinci in the years 1495-1498 and belongs to the High Renaissance period. The work is located in the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan and depicts the last supper of Jesus and his Apostles. In particular, Leonardo portrayed the moment of Jesus’ announcement of the betrayal of one of his Apostles. While the work is an example of Biblical art, it is much more symbolically complex. In particular, Leonardo Da Vinci captured the world with his raw emotion demonstrated in his historical painting.

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The interpretation method which will be used in this work to study the problem is iconographic. The iconographic analysis includes the study of both the influence of the personality of the author and the patron of the work, which is important in the context of the stated problem. The iconographic analysis allows the Last Supper to be studied as “a documentation of Leonardo’s personality, or of the civilization of the Italian High Renaissance” (Leeuwen and Jewitt 2001, 101). Thus, this method is the most relevant for considering the problem.

The Last Supper is a mural the size of 29×15 feet. The painting depicts thirteen people seated at a long dining table covered with a white tablecloth (Da Vinci 1495). On the table, one can see thirteen dinner plates, ten glasses of red liquid, and ten pieces of bread. Despite the fact that twelve people look upset or surprised, the central figure remains calm. The central figure is also more illuminated than the others, with six people on either side of it. Additionally, one can notice the further division of people into smaller groups of three men. The dominant color found in the clothing of almost all figures is blue. On the wall behind the table are three windows, and on each side of the room, there are three doors. The second person to the left of the central figure is holding a small pouch in his hand.

Leonardo’s work is a significant work of the High Renaissance and attracted the attention of many experts, whose work will be used in this study. The most valuable from an iconographic perspective is Leo Steinberg’s (2001) book “Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper,” in which the author describes multiple details which make the picture not only sacramental but also narrative. Martin Kemp (2011), Claire Farago (1992), and Kenneth Clark (1939) provide extensive information about the context of Leonardo’s painting, which is also important for iconographic research. Thomas Brachert (2014) made an extremely detailed examination of the composition and its symbolism in the painting by Leonardo. Thus, these researchers laid the foundation for the study of the stated problem.

Leonardo, in his work, pays most attention to the figure of Jesus. His calm appearance and stable triangular position contrast with the various expressions of the apostles. He is also highlighted with a black window behind, and the gazes of people around him inevitably lead the viewer to his figure. Moreover, Jesus is given more space than other people, and his figure is slightly larger (Steinberg 2001). Thus, he, as in other paintings of religious themes, is depicted as the center of the plot. The architectural elements and the head of Jesus as the top of the perspective make the work an example of the single-point perspective of the Renaissance.

The apostles are identified by researchers as Bartholomew, James Minor, Andrew, Judas, Peter, John, Thomas, James Major, Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus, and Simon. Leonardo, in his work, defines each character with the help of visual details. For example, some details point to the fate of Bartholomew, who, according to legends, was either crucified or skinned (Steinberg 2001). Leonardo illustrated this aspect with a knife, which Peter directs to Bartholomew, as well as his crossed legs. Andrew also raises his hands in the air, which resembles the crucifixion. Judas, who betrayed Jesus for silver coins, holds a pouch. He also overturned the salt cellar, which could mean bad events or discord between the apostles (Wasserman 2003). Steinberg (2001) describes several similar identifiers, which indicate how carefully Leonardo approached the symbolism of his work. For the artist, the most important was not to follow traditional canons but to convey as many individual stories as possible.

Despite the fact that Leonardo used many traditional techniques, he interpreted the iconography of the biblical plot according to his own vision. The artist prioritized composition and visual techniques that could enhance the dynamism of the painting. For Leonardo, “painting is a science, the science of painting, not just a mere representation but an instrument of knowledge” (cited in Sârbu 2019). Contrary to traditional depictions, the author depicted Judas on the other side of Jesus, which allowed him to achieve greater symmetry in the composition. He also portrayed the moment of active discussion, gestures, and facial expressions, which makes the figures dynamic. Leonardo chose a simple background in which Jesus and the apostles appear much more prominent than in the paintings of his predecessors.

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For iconography, it is important to consider the context which influenced the meaning conveyed by the author of the work. Chosen techniques were not accidental since Leonardo paid major attention to how to tell the story (Kemp 2011). Consideration of each figure presented in the picture reveals a separate small plot. Together, they represent a large dynamic story that Leonardo tells through visual techniques. Thus, the painting can illustrate Leonardo’s special attitude to drawing as a deeper and more meaningful means of communication. He strove to convey the biblical story through the most dramatic depiction. Leonardo wanted to give each character his own expression, related to different emotions. It was not so much the fact of the event which was important to him as the completeness and depth of the process which it affects.

Leonardo had a special view of painting and the artist’s craft in general. First of all, he considered painting to be a philosophy of life that reflects the nature and ideas of God. Additionally, he viewed this art as an exact science, similar to geometry, since it starts with lines and perspective (Farago 1992). Leonardo uses perspective in his work, as well as allusions to the number 3, which refer to the Trinity. Such mathematical and geometric techniques, first of all, make the viewer pay attention to the center of the picture, as well as connect the plot with biblical images. Researcher Brachert (2014) provides extensive information about the composition of the painting, which uses various methods of ordering. Due to the complex grouping of elements, Leonardo’s painting acquires harmony and additional expressiveness (Clark 1939). Leonardo arranges the scene in such a way that the viewer considers the reaction of each apostle at the moment of the shocking announcement, and does not perceive the plot exclusively as a whole. However, Jesus remains calm, unaffected by the emotions of those around him.

Leonardo considered painting as an intellectual activity, which is illustrated by the symbolism of his painting. Walker (1999, 233) notes that his work was “considered revolutionary because it depicts the psychological reaction of the Disciples to Christ telling them ‘One of you will betray me.’” Leonardo strove to convey vivid human emotions so that the plot was understandable to the viewer. Through numerous symbols referring to biblical stories, he described not only the event but also the features of the life of the apostles. Clark (1939,151) notes that the Last Supper “is one of the greatest manifestations of intellectual power in art.” The artist was able to use various techniques such as perspective and lighting to create the focus of the work.

The composition helped the author to create a harmonious illustration of the event. Lively and expressive figures added emotion to the characters, reflecting their state. All these techniques allowed Leonardo to turn traditional biblical art into an accessible plot for the viewer. Moreover, the work was created not as historically accurate but as emotionally close to the monks of the Dominican monastery, who could in some way participate in the events of the painting.

The Last Supper, created by Leonardo Da Vinci, is an example of a religious painting reflecting a biblical plot. However, the artist, using various symbols, conveyed the raw emotions of the event presented in his view of historical illustration. Leonardo placed particular emphasis on composition and perspective, which focus on the figure of Jesus. He also emphasizes not only the emotions of the apostles but also their characters and stories. Thus, the artist managed to depict the traditional plot from a completely different viewpoint. Additional research for a deeper understanding of the problem may consist of considering the traditional techniques of High Renaissance iconography. It is also necessary to pay more attention to the context of the location in which the mural is situated and the materials used by Leonardo.


Brachert, Thomas. 2014. “A Musical Canon of Proportion in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.” The Art Bulletin 53 (4): 461-466.

Clark, Kenneth. 1939. Leonardo Da Vinci An Account of His Development as an Artist. London: Penguin.

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Da Vinci, Leonardo. 1495. “Last Supper”. Web.

Farago, Claire. 1992. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Paragone: A Critical Interpretation with a New Edition of the Text in the Codex Urbinas. Leiden: Brill.

Kemp, Martin. 2011. Leonardo (Revised Edition). Oxford: OUP Oxford.

Leeuwen, Theo, and Jewitt, Carey. 2001. The Handbook of Visual Analysis. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Sârbu, Carmen. 2019. “The Transfiguration of the Visible. Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’.” Studies in Visual Arts and Communication 6 (1): 1-7.

Steinberg, Leo. 2001. Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper. Zone Books.

Walker, Harlan. 1999. Food in the Arts: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. London: Prospect Books.

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