Most scholars and, consequently, many visitors to Italy, consider Leonardo's Last Supper to be
the best ever painted. It is certainly full of drama and wonderful perspective and combines
the reality of the scene with the poignancy of its message about the betrayal of Christ by
Judas. (See my blog entry on this painting.)
But the best Last Supper was painted by Andrea Del Sarto between 1519-27 in the small convent of San Salvi outside the old walls of Renaissance Florence (10 minute bus ride from town center.) He painted it for the refectory of the monks of San Salvi, in the cloister to the right of the church.
Church of San Salvi Cloister entrance
It is possible that Del Sarto had seen Leonardo's Milanese Last Supper, or at least a print of its composition, but equally likely that he conceived of his own Last Supper after having looked at all the Last Suppers painted in Florence before his (see my list in another blog entry.) Del Sarto's is the most exciting and dramatic of all the Last Suppers, more electrifying than even Leonardo's, and it is not just because it is more well preserved.
SIMILARITIES to LEONARDO's LAST SUPPER:
Like Leonardo, Del Sarto imagines the room of the Last Supper extending beyond the space of the
refectory of San Salvi.
His invention also includes the three windows behind the table that show the sky beyond the room, extending the space even further from the picture plane. Like Leonardo, Del Sarto places all the apostles on the same side of the table as Christ so that the viewer must look for clues to find Judas the betrayer among the group.
And like Leonardo, Del Sarto makes Christ the center of the composition and the drama by making the one-point perspective lines converge at Christ's head:
DIFFERENCES from LEONARDO'S LAST SUPPER:
Del Sarto chooses only the betrayal part of the narrative to illustrate, not both that and the Eucharist celebration, as Leonardo does. Bread is placed on the table, but there are no glasses with wine.
The wine is implied in the huge amphora placed on the floor to the far left.
The amphora, together with the ancient robes worn by the apostles, sets the scene in Christ's lifetime.
The Announcement of the Betrayal is most apparent in the central four characters at the table:
Peter in blue at the left,
Judas with dark hair,
pointing to himself and reaching for the bread, Christ in the center, and John the Evangelist to the right of Christ from the viewer's point of view:
Judas is about to take the bread to dip it into the dish (green bowl) with Christ. His dark hair and his hand gestures give him away as the betrayer since Christ has revealed that the one who will betray him is the one with whom he dips his bread in the dish, and Judas points to himself.
Both Judas and John the Evangelist look startled, John reaching his whole body toward Christ with
open mouth and ruffled hair and Judas with open mouth and wide eyes. Their feet under the table also give away their worry at his announcement, as if they are about to jump up at the news:
Saint Peter, in blue on the left, is again the person who represents something between good (John the Evangelist and Christ) and evil (Judas.) Peter looks concerned at the announcement of the betrayal,
but he hides his hand under the drapery of Judas' clothing, foreshadowing the fact that he is not completely innocent either.
His right hand reaches in the same direction that Judas' right hand, does, but the placement of Peter's hand in Judas' clothing implies that Peter has something to hide that aligns him with Judas.
Del Sarto, of course, is referring to the three incidents after the supper when Peter three times denies that he is associated with Christ, after Christ has been arrested. Peter refuses to admit he is a follower because he is afraid of being arrested and killed, too. He is not as culpable as Judas in his evil actions, but he is not purely good, either. Christ predicts that Peter will betray him three times before the cock crows, and that turns out to be the case.
Matthew James the Greater stands up Andrew seated Phillip (red hair)
The figures on the left side of the painting are:
Matthew (money changer) who is seated near the amphora of wine, the material world
James the Greater - right hand on table, standing up with dark beard, brother of John the Evangelist and older than James the Lesser
Andrew - brother of Peter and usually placed on his side
Phillip - both hands on table, standing up between Peter and Andrew, horrified expression on his face registering his reaction to the announcement
The figures on the right side of the painting are:
James the Lesser Jude (Thaddeus) seated Simon (Zelotes) Thomas above Bartholomew seated
The man on the right who stands up and touches both the shoulder of Jude and Simon is probably Thomas, the Doubting Thomas, who required touching in order to believe Christ rose from the dead later in the story. Thomas is usually young and dark-haired and bearded, as he is here. (The painting is damaged from damp in the area around Jude (Thaddeus)'s face.)
Jude (Thaddeus) and Simon (Zelotes) are both old men, and are seated together, as they are in
Leonardo's Last Supper, because they later die as martyrs together on the same day.
Bartholomew is bearded and dark-haired, seated furthest right.
But the most original addition that Del Sarto makes to the supper is that of two extraneous figures above all the apostles, not seen in any other Last Supper. These are two male figures presented in the balcony above Christ's head.
These figures are not apostles, but they may have a relation to the text of the story in the Bible. The
Last Supper event is described in all four Gospels, and in two it is explained how the supper was held. Jesus tells the disciples to follow a man with a water jug into Jerusalem and to enter a house where he enters. There they will find a Master of the house, the innkeeper, and they will ask him to
prepare a supper in an upper room for all of them. These two men could be the servant, on the right, who leads the apostles to the Master Innkeeper, the man on the left.
one of them will betray him." The servant turns back, wide-eyed at the news. The message is passed
between the two, just where the viewer sees the light of the sunset beyond the men through the
These are not monks, but they serve the role of "ANYMAN" in the drama that is put on the stage below them for the monks in the refectory. They appear just above the head of Christ and the light between them reminds us that for 16th-century viewers Christ is the light of the world. They are also reminders
that before this feast Christ had said to his disciples as he was washing their feet, John 13: 16 -
"The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him."
The light beyond the balcony is the light of a reflected evening sunset, when the supper took place. The wall on which the sky is painted is on the east side, so the sun is behind the viewer of the scene.
Shadows cast behind Matthew and the vase indicate the direction the light is coming from in the room.
The two different light sources make the supper appear even more magical. And the ordinary people at the top sharply contrast with the ancient robed men below. The two men above become all future believers who receive the word about Christianity from people like the apostles below them. The jump of time between the participants at the meal and the participants listening in above them suggests that Del Sarto wishes to comment on the text of the story by saying that its message is still relevant, years later.
drama and its exploration of human belief and goodness. Del Sarto paints the figures with such grace that we wish to know what happens to these men after their last supper together.
The beauty of the artist's work is one of the reasons we are able to see this vibrant painting today. In 1529 after the Sack of Rome the Florentine government was worried about Spanish troops coming up from Rome in retreat and sacking the city of Florence, too. They thought one way to prevent an attack was to destroy all outlying buildings beyond the city walls before the Spanish soldiers got there. They sent a group of Florentine soldiers out to San Salvi with instructions to destroy the monastery and all the buildings around it. They began demolishing some of the walls, but when they came upon Del Sarto's painting, they stopped and couldn't touch it.
If you look closely at the face of Matthew, far left, there is some damage to the tip of his nose where a single blow has been delivered.
Such was the power of the scene and the beauty of the painting that the soldiers had to stop, mesmerized by the holy solemnity of the moment captured by the painter on the wall. The only art work in history to be saved by itself, Del Sarto's Last Supper continues to captivate and awe. The electricity of the story is still vibrating on the wall in San Salvi.