Leonardo and the Last Supper

Picture Leonardo da Vinci as a 42-year-old artist, struggling with ideas in his head and a world that won’t allow him to bring them to fruition. Ross King planted that picture firmly in this critic’s head, before slowly creating an arresting image of his own — of how one of the world’s most famous paintings was born, thrived, painted over and eventually restored to glory.

It’s an astonishing story, not least because it demolishes tin-pot theories floating around the painting that made a certain writer of thrillers an enormous amount of money. The good thing Dan Brown did, in retrospect, is draw a lot more attention to The Last Supper, probably prompting people like Ross King to look at it anew. If that is indeed the case, Brown deserves a Thank You note.

Another man trapped in the footnotes of history, but equally deserving of thanks, is the ruler of Milan, Lodovico Sforza, who commissioned Leonardo’s work on the refectory wall of his family mausoleum at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. “Paint a wall,” one imagines Sforza saying to da Vinci, a request one of the world’s greatest artists may not have taken in the right spirit. And yet, as King shows, that wall — with its 40-square-metre experimental oil-and-plaster masterpiece — went on to change the way people looked at art. It took what was supposedly familiar, and made it new.

Dan Brown fans, here’s what Ross King has to say: The figure at Jesus Christ’s right is not Mary Magdalene; it’s his disciple John. For his particular reasons, his story of how the painting survived the ravages of time and even a bomb (!) and other interesting things you had no idea about, I strongly suggest you read this book.

— Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King, Bloomsbury, R399. Available at leading bookstores.

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