The painting measures 460 × 880 centimeters (15 feet × 29 ft) and covers the back wall of the dining hall at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. The theme was a traditional one for refectories, but Leonardo's interpretation gave it much greater realism and depth. The lunettes above the main painting, formed by the triple arched ceiling of the refectory, are painted with Sforza coats-of-arms. The opposite wall of the refectory is covered by the Crucifixion fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, to which Leonardo added figures of the Sforza family in tempera. (These figures have deteriorated in much the same way as has The Last Supper.) Leonardo began work on The Last Supper in 1495 and completed it in 1498—however, he did not work on the piece continuously throughout this period. According to 'Leonardo Da Vinci' [Kenneth Clark, p.144, Penguin Books 1939,1993], this beginning date is not certain, as "the archives of the convent have been destroyed and our meagre documents date from 1497 when the painting was nearly finished."
The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him. All twelve apostles have different reactions to the news, with various degrees of anger and shock. From left to right:
These names are all agreed upon by art historians. In the 19th century, a manuscript (The Notebooks Leonardo Da Vinci pg. 232) was found with their names; before this only Judas, Peter, John and Jesus were positively identified.
In common with other depictions of The Last Supper from this period, Leonardo adopts the convention of seating the diners on one side of the table, so that none of them have their backs to the viewer. However, most previous depictions had typically excluded Judas by placing him alone on the opposite side of the table from the other eleven disciples and Jesus. Another technique commonly used was placing halos around all the disciples except Judas. Leonardo creates a more dramatic and realistic effect by having Judas lean back into shadow. He also creates a realistic and psychologically engaging means to explain why Judas takes the bread at the same time as Jesus, just after Jesus has predicted that this is what his betrayer will do. Jesus is shown saying this to Saints Thomas and James to his left, who react in horror as Jesus points with his left hand to a piece of bread before them. Distracted by the conversation between John and Peter, Judas reaches for a different piece of bread, as, unseen by him, Jesus too stretches out with his right hand towards it. (Matthew 26: 17-46). The angles and lighting draw attention to Jesus, whose head is located at the vanishing point for all perspective lines.
The painting contains several references to the number 3, which may be an allusion to the Holy Trinity. The Apostles are seated in groupings of three; there are three windows behind Jesus; and the shape of Jesus' figure resembles a triangle. There may have been many other references that have since been lost to the painting's deterioration.
Two early copies of The Last Supper are known to exist, presumably the work of Leonardo's assistant. The copies are almost the size of the original, and have survived with a wealth of original detail still intact.
A first restoration was attempted in 1726 by Michelangelo Bellotti, who filled in missing sections with oil paint then varnished the whole mural. This repair did not last well and another restoration was attempted in 1770 by Giuseppe Mazza. Mazza stripped off Bellotti's work then largely repainted the painting; he had redone all but three faces when he was halted due to public outrage. In 1796 French troops used the refectory as an armory; they threw stones at the painting and climbed ladders to scratch out the Apostles' eyes. The refectory was then later used as a prison; it is not known if any of the prisoners may have damaged the painting. In 1821 Stefano Barezzi, an expert in removing whole frescoes from their walls intact, was called in to remove the painting to a safer location; he badly damaged the centre section before realising that Leonardo's work was not a fresco. Barezzi then attempted to reattach damaged sections with glue. From 1901 to 1908, Luigi Cavenaghi first completed a careful study of the structure of the painting, then began cleaning it. In 1924 Oreste Silvestri did further cleaning, and stabilised some parts with stucco.
During World War II, on August 15 1943, the refectory was struck by a bomb; protective sandbagging prevented the painting from being struck by bomb splinters, but it may have been damaged further by the vibration. From 1951 to 1954 another clean-and-stabilise restoration was undertaken by Mauro Pelliccioli.
The painting's appearance in the late 1970s was badly deteriorated and unrecognizable. From 1978 to 1999 Pinin Brambilla Barcilon guided a major restoration project which undertook to permanently stabilize the painting, and reverse the damage caused by dirt, pollution, and the misguided 18th and 19th century restoration attempts. Since it had proved impractical to move the painting to a more controlled environment, the refectory was instead converted to a sealed, climate controlled environment, which meant bricking up the windows. Then, detailed study was undertaken to determine the painting's original form, using scientific tests (especially infrared reflectoscopy and microscopic core-samples), and original cartoons preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Some areas were deemed unrestorable. These were re-painted with watercolour in subdued colours intended to indicate they were not original work, whilst not being too distracting.
This restoration took 21 years and on May 28, 1999 the painting was put back on display, although intending visitors are required to book ahead and can only stay for 15 minutes. When it was unveiled, considerable controversy was aroused by the dramatic changes in colours, tones, and even some facial shapes. James Beck, professor of art history at Columbia University and founder of ArtWatch International, had been a particularly strong critic.
Some writers identify the person to Jesus' right not with the Apostle John (as is supposed by icongraphical tradition and confirmed by art historians) but with Mary Magdalene. This theory was the topic of the book The Templar Revelation, and plays a central role in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code (2003).
Critics of these theories will point out that:
There have also been other popular speculations about the work:
Slavisa Pesci, "an information technologist and amateur scholar", superimposed Leonardo da Vinci's version of The Last Supper with its mirror image (with both images of Jesus lined up) and claimed that the resultant picture has:
Giovanni Maria Pala, an Italian musician, has indicated that the positions of hands and loaves of bread can be interpreted as notes on a musical staff, and if read from right to left, as was characteristic of Da Vinci's writing, form a musical composition
In modern times the painting has also been much imitated and parodied in art and photography. Mary Beth Edelson's "Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper" (1971) reproduced the composition with Georgia O'Keeffe in the central position. Likewise, Yo Mama's Last Supper, a controversial work of art by Renée Cox, was a montage of five photographs of twelve black men and a naked black woman (the artist's self portrait) posed in imitation of Leonardo's painting. Cox is pictured naked and standing, with her arms reaching upwards, as Jesus. The piece is exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and received acclaim and criticism in heavy measure, the latter notably by former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani.
In 2003, when pop star Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch was raided in a search for evidence regarding child molestation charges, a pastiche of The Last Supper was found. It depicts a similar scene, except this one has Jackson posing in the position of Jesus, with the apostles replaced by great creative figures of history. It hangs above Jackson's bed in his private quarters.
In 2007, Pennsylvania artist Mark Beekman created the world's largest Lite-Brite of The Last Supper, breaking the record held by the previous Guinness record holder for largest Lite-Brite object. As of December 2007, the object was being auctioned on eBay.
On 30 July 2008 "The Last Supper" was the subject of an animation by British film-maker, Peter Greenaway, who projected interpretative images onto its surface to bring the scene to life. His plans to do so had faced criticism and concerns that it would damage the work, but eventually went ahead when the proviso was given that the show would only occur once. He plans to replicate it in a more permanent form onto a full-size reproduction of the painting in a British gallery, and to carry out similar shows on Las Meninas by Velázquez, Picasso's Guernica, Monet's Waterlilies, a Jackson Pollock painting in New York and Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
The painting has been parodied in several films, the first and most notable being Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961). Robert Altman's dark comedy MASH (1970) includes a sub-plot about the camp's dentist, the high point of which recreates Leonardo's tableau. The 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar has Jesus and the twelve apostles, gathered in the Garden of Gethsemane, pause at one point in the music and freeze into the tableau positions. In the 1975 Jim Sherman film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when the Criminologist is speaking just before the dinner scene his book shows The Last Supper. The 1981 Mel Brooks film History of the World, Part I features Brooks as a waiter at the last supper who poses in the background as a Leonardo character is painting their portrait. The movie Paradise Now, just before the Palestinian suicide bombers Said and Khaled leave for their "mission", they sit down to enjoy a "last supper". Said, Khaled and 11 other recruits sit facing the camera, similar to Leonardo's last supper. There are 13 people in the scene though, with no one exactly in the centre (where Jesus would be), possibly to avoid offending both Christians and Muslims, who see Jesus as a prophet of Allah, and portrayal of any of Islam's prophets is forbidden.