Andrea del Castagno, Last Supper, 1447
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper 1498
What we can see of the painting shows that Leonardo took a well-known subject that could have resulted
in a very dull composition—Christ and his twelve apostles seated at a long table—and turned it into a
painting full of variety and drama (compare Leonardo’s painting to Castagno’s done about 50 years earlier).
He did this by creating smaller groups of three apostles each, with the figure of Christ sitting alone in the
center framed by the light of the window behind. Within the smaller groups, each apostle has a different
expression and gesture, so we see a whole range of emotional responses to Christ’s statement that one of
them will betray him. Only Judas knows that he is the one, and the betrayer’s identity is revealed to us in
subtle ways: Judas leans away from Christ, his face is in shadow, and he holds his sack of coins. Leonardo
gave us enough information to understand the message, but he did not spell everything out as artists in the
fifteenth century did
Although the groups of figures in the Last Supper assume a variety of shapes, Leonardo is well known for
his use of the pyramidal composition. Something like a pyramidal composition can be seen in the Mona
Lisa, in which the sitter is placed at a slight angle to the picture plane, her arms forming a solid base. Other
works by Leonardo, like the Virgin of the Rocks (there are two versions, one in the Louvre dated c. 1485 and
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