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A non-fiction Interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”

This presentation is intended as a tool to assist us in differentiating between what is fiction and what may be true in the “Da Vinci Code” interpretation of the symbology of “The Last Supper”. (Click to see next frame.)


No Glasses on the Table ? Let us begin with the “Da Vinci Code” scene where the two fugitives are in the mansion of Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan) [who later turns out to be the villain ‘teacher’] as he begins interpreting the Last Supper symbology for Prof. Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou).

The first statement he makes is: “The scene is supposed to be depicting the breaking of bread and the blessing of the wine, the model for the communion, yet there are no glasses of wine on the table. Not one glass of wine can be seen!”


This is not quite correct. As a matter of fact there are indeed glasses of wine on the table, twelve of them to be exact. The wine glasses of each of the twelve apostles (with the exception of Peter’s glass which appears to be blocked by the figure of Judas) as well as Jesus’ glass can be seen in

front of each of the figures.


Leonardo’s original fresco is unfortunately quite faded so some of the finer details are difficult to recognise. Here we see a very well preserved copy of the Last Supper painted (on canvas) during da Vinci’s time (the artist is unknown), in which some details are more easily recognisable.

Of course it seems surprising to us to see clear, transparent glasses depicted, which were not known in the first century A.D. when Jesus lived but were already commonly used (in wealthier households) during the time of the Renaissance. The artistic custom of da Vinci’s time made no particular effort at historical accuracy. Ancient figures were almost always depicted wearing contemporary garments and in contemporary environments.


The Florentine painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, also painted a famous version of the “Last Supper� fifteen years before Leonardo.


Observing the details of Ghirlandaio’s painting, we can see various kinds of transparent and translucent glassware depicted; drinking glasses, wine and water carafes, dipping bowls.

This again illustrates the common practice of Italian Renaissance painters of using contemporary Venetian glass designs in their compositions.


The Scene being Depicted

Specifically, Leonardo's work shows the moment after Jesus has announced that one of those sitting at the table will betray him. The twelve apostles react with various degrees of outrage and shock.


Leonardo’s Sketches & Notes

The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci name all of the disciples in the order in which they are shown (which is how we come to identify them). Leonardo grouped the apostles into four groups of three, with Jesus in the middle. From left to right, they are:


Group One: Bartholomew, James the Lesser and Andrew form the first group of three. (Andrew holds both of his hands up in front of him in a startled gesture.)


Group Two: Leonardo identifies the second group of three as being Judas Iscariot, Simon Peter and John. (Judas is holding a bag of silver in his right hand, while reaching for a piece of bread with his left.)


Group Three: The third group is made up of Thomas, James the Great and Phillip. (These three appear in varying degrees of shock; Thomas has his hand raised and Phillip seems to be asking “Is it I ?�, while James the Great, between them, appears to be recoiling in horror.)


Group Four: The last three, Matthew, Jude Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot (appear to be discussing the matter with each other, in a rendition of Luke 22:23: “They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.�)


It would be helpful at this point to read the Gospel accounts of the scene the Painting depicts:

From the Gospel of Luke And he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. But, behold, the hand of him that betrays me is with me on the table. And they began to enquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing. Luke 22:19 -23


From the Gospel of John Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spoke. Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spoke. John 13:18 -24


From the Gospel of Matthew And as they did eat, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I? And he answered and said, He that dips his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me. Matthew 26:21 -23


From the Gospel of Mark And as they sat and did eat, Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, One of you which is eating with me shall betray me. And they began to be sorrowful, and to say unto him one by one, Is it I? and another said, Is it I? And he answered and said unto them, It is one of the twelve, that dips with me in the dish. Mark 14:18-20


It is obvious, that each of the four writers of the Gospels remembers the scene a little differently. Some describe certain details which the others omit. A synthesis of the accounts, reveals these main points: •

Jesus expounds on the Jewish ‘Kiddush’ (blessing of bread and wine) and introduces the later Christian sacrament of Communion

He afterwards announces that one of the twelve will betray him.

The disciples begin heatedly discussing among themselves who it could be. Some of them ask Jesus directly, “Is it I ?”

The idea comes up that Peter should ask John, who apparently had a particularly close relationship with Jesus, to ask the Master who the traitor is.

Jesus apparently consents to give a sign in the form of an action he will take simultaneously with the traitor, involving the dipping of bread.

Let us consider each of the above points individually as they are depicted in the painting:


The ownerless Knife

• Jesus announces that one of the twelve will betray him. The presence of a traitor and his unknown identity is symbolized by the ownerless hand holding a knife.


It is obvious that da Vinci went to a great deal of trouble to make this symbolic device of the ownerless knife subtle, yet clearly recognisable. The sketch of the position of Peter’s arm is the most detailed of all the preparatory studies da Vinci drew for the Last Supper.


The angle of the two arms in relation to each other also makes it obvious, that Peter’s arm, on which he is leaning, cannot be the arm holding the knife. Another quality differentiating the two arms is the colour of the coatsleeves. The sleeve of Peter’s coat is light blue, whereas the sleeve of the arm holding the knife is brown.


The disciples begin heatedly discussing among themselves who the traitor could be. The agitated movement among the figures, the discussion and the questioning is obvious. Phillip is portrayed pointing to himself with a questioning gesture as if saying, “Is it I ?”


• James motions to Peter who in turn whispers to John that he should ask Jesus to reveal the traitor’s identity to them. Peter’s motion is not threatening as Dan Brown suggests in the “Da Vinci Code” but seems rather to be the friendly, familiar gesture of someone who lays his hand on the shoulder of another to whom he feels close while speaking privately with him.


• Jesus gives a sign in the form of an action he takes simultaneously with the traitor, involving the dipping of bread.

With his left hand Jesus is showing a piece of bread as if saying, “This is my body which is given for you … ” while his right hand is giving the sign by making a reaching motion at the same time as Judas.


John’s Feminine appearance John refers to himself several times in his Gospel as ‘the disciple who Jesus loved.’ There is a very old theory which interprets these references as indicating that there might have been a homosexual relationship between John and Jesus. Da Vinci himself being homosexual, may have been expressing an adherence to this theory by depicting John as being very feminine. This could also be one explanation for the complementary colours he uses for the clothing of Jesus and John. It was however not unusual for mediaeval and Renaissance artists to give young men a feminine, delicate appearance. Several other well known “Last Supper” paintings also depict John as being feminine.


Furthermore, the root of the word ‘loved’ which John uses in these references is ‘agape’ (divine love) as opposed to ‘philos’ (family love, friendship) or ‘eros’ (sexual love). John was the youngest of the apostles and it appears from other Gospel episodes, that Jesus had a somewhat fatherly or older-brother like relationship to him. This is brought out especially in the scene after the crucifixion when Jesus, while still on the cross, speaks to his mother and John: When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he said unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then said he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. John 19:26-27


The Conclusion of the matter …

While our little study doesn’t address Dan Brown’s other “Da Vinci Code” theory concerning the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, it does make it clear that his suggestions of a ‘da Vinci connection’ and his interpretation of the symbology of the “Last Supper” are not based on very good scholarship and seem to be, at best, purely fictional.


Copyrights & Credits The illustrations used are, to our knowledge, in the public domain and are reproduced for informational, non-commercial purposes in accordance with the ‘fair use’ provisions of international copyright laws. Bible Texts are from the King James Version. Original texts, designs and explanations are copyrighted 2006 by Victor Zelikovsky. Please feel free to send the address of this site to whomever you feel would be interested.

Interpretation of “The Last Supper”  

A non-fiction Interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”; a tool to help us differentiate between what is fiction and what ma...

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