Andrea del Castagno, Last Supper

 

This very large fresco has been a secret for most of its history. It was painted in the 1440s for the cloistered nuns of Santa Apollonia in Florence, which is why it was very rarely seen by outsiders. Eventually, it was covered in plaster, which is why it’s so well preserved, unlike the scenes above it. We have it rediscovered only since the suppression of the nuns by the military in the 1860s, and can now marvel at the poetic effect it achieves and see in what its greatness consists. Indeed, authorship itself was unwittingly a secret, but that, too, has been resolved. The last secret, not likely of resolution, is the story of the author. Castagno is little known except by slander and by his works, and the slander is not honest either. The most famous chronicler of Renaissance Italy, Vasari, offers a great big lie of a story accusing him of murdering another painter out of jealousy–so far as anyone can tell, the lie is meant to explain the dramatic quality of Castagno’s painting–his characters have no softness about them. Art history could step in to help us in our time of need, explaining what painting looked like before him and afterward, but that’s too much of a distraction. We can only attend to the mysteries in the painting itself.

This last supper is one of a rare number of paintings that articulate the mystery of the stories in the Gospels in a quiet way, through the technique. It strikes me that some such paintings make far more of a claim for their makers’ craft than you might expect of wall-painters who merely painted stories everyone already knew–the development of technique seems to be tied up with a reflection on what we believe. So I will first point out the Gospel elements of the painting and then look to what the painter added. You can see the Gospel of John, chp.13 faithfully followed in John lying on Christ’s bosom as Christ blesses him; in Christ’s having just given Judas the piece of bread that identifies him as the betrayer; in the confusion of the Apostles; and in Peter’s inquisitive intimacy. Piety is aided by the names that identify the Apostles. The Christian abhorrence of Judas is such that he’s depicted across the table–he does not confront us–his posture means he cannot look at us. On the other hand, it means, he’s closest to us of the gathering…

Everything else is the painter’s contributions. Some seem to me of great importance to Christians, others less so. The room decorated in the Roman manner, but with a modern table and chairs, speaks to the Renaissance fascination with classical antiquity. It’s worth pondering that Rome is not the Christian’s friend, especially not its imperial wealth, its taste for splendor, and its greatness. The setting serves to make the scene more dignified than it would otherwise look, but at the price of humanity. There is much that is portentous–look at the panel behind the central grouping of Peter, Jesus, Judas, and John. The painter’s interest in marbles, seemingly a frivolous extravagance, allows for this extravagant gesture that hints at the precise moment when Christ announces the fearful fate to come, which we understand, unlike the Apostles. Another similar touch is the mythical beasts depicted–two Sphinxes framing the bench where the Apostles sit, two others, gargoyles, on the walls, which themselves look scaly. Aside from the Renaissance taste for invention, these additions suggest what a different world we’re staring into as though it were next door us. You may say that, as the scene imposes on us, so also the beasts warn us.

And that’s where the problems really become serious–the painter transforms by his art the wall into a window into another world, which is supposed to look as real and compelling as ours, but more important. After all, the audience is us–the characters depicted are not looking at us, we are looking at them, confessing thus that our world is not enough for us, so to speak. The incredibly elaborated painterly convention of the painting as a window opening into another place, a place with all this realistic architecture, raises questions about our beliefs. This is our preparation for two remarkable technical choices which are of theological importance.

Two specific choices deal with perspective, which is the supreme achievement of the Renaissance so far as realism is concerned. They are the secrets that are supposed to guide our self-understanding. One choice is obvious to the point we do not notice it, because it concerns the wholeness of the painted scene, as though it were constitutive to the world; the other is not at all obvious, but we do come to notice it fairly quickly if we stare at the elements of the painting, and will be revealed as truly constitutive to our world.

The first is a practical matter: The perspectival lines do not seem to coalesce into one precise vanishing point. Perspectival painting is done on a mathematical grid that regulates foreshortening, the rendering of objects in depth by diminishing them in relation to their distance to the viewer. The painter does effect the illusion of depth, but he does not achieve a precision reminiscent of mathematics. The architectural space seems both realistic and strict, but it is not. A unique vanishing point depends on an unique viewer–on the viewer’s position. It is one of the worthwhile details that the witness to the scene, John, seems asleep. We look upon the scene from a perspective that assumes the authority of the Church and perhaps of God–that is what is implied in seeing what we believe. But the construction is not strict–you get the same scene from just about anywhere in the room. Confronting us with the Gospel stories is what’s important to the painter, not designing the space in accordance with an unique viewer–it is important that the painting look realistic, but also that it look in a sense common, always available to the eye.

The second is a theoretical matter: In such a mathematical architectural space, getting a sense of size and proportion is very easy. This leads to a shocking paradox: Everything in the foreground makes sense; everything in the background makes sense; but the intermediate space makes either the one or the other an impossibility and pulls the apparent whole to irreconcilable parts. Look first to the panels behind the gathering. They are replicated on both sides, but greatly foreshortened. If they are, as they seem, the same size as those in the back, the ones in the back should be small, not great. Or if the foreshortened panels are realistic, then the far scene is at a great distance from us, such that we could not possibly see the human bodies as life-size–they’d have to be giants! Either way, the intermediate space must actually be much greater than it seems. Look then to the floor and the ceiling–now you notice the great clutter of the tiling there, again, an effect of foreshortening. That suggests the same concentration of space. This incongruity seems to be the technical equivalent for the painter of the belief of the believer. You may recall the Apostle’s word, Faith is the evidence of things unseen.

The contradiction in the perspectival construction is meant to deal not merely with the unreality of depiction, a mere use of color and shape, but also with the mysterious character of the Gospel stories. We assume in recognizing the scene that it is near us, part of our common world. For it to be at all intelligible, that is necessary–just like our assumption that the body of Christ is about the size of yours or mine! But that first assumption leads to the perplexing problem the painter conceals and reveals at the same time: We are not really in the same world as that of the Gospel miracles and the act of redemption. Our assumption of proximity rests on no known natural power. It is only the grace of God that might bestow on any of us a miracle, a divine presence.

The suggestion embedded so artfully by a painter otherwise at work to conceal his art is that we have to be reminded not to take for granted what we believe. We are tempted to presume on the miracle of our access to the Gospels–to presume a familiarity with those stories and, therefore, with the grace on which they rest. In reading the witnesses to Christ, we presume, we, too, are thereby witnesses, as though it meant nothing more than looking out the window into the house adjacent. We have to be reminded what a leap it is to arrive at any real familiarity with the witness.

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  1. Profile photo of TG Thatcher
    TG

    Thank you, Titus.

    • #1
    • April 19, 2017 at 2:02 pm
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  2. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    TG (View Comment):
    Thank you, Titus.

    My pleasure.

    • #2
    • April 19, 2017 at 2:07 pm
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  3. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Some links, folks: First, go here for all the details & magnifications & broad views of the fresco! Of course, go to Florence, if you can, this is actually on display for free! Only thing of it’s kind, I think…

    Secondly, here is a slightly later Last Supper fresco by another great talent, Ghirlandaio: You will see the similarities & the great differences as to technical choice regarding the use of perspective. & another by Perugino, also a talent. Again, you can see the use of the wall as a window or opening into another room & the world beyond–but none of the stuff I’m belaboring in this essay.

    It’s unique…

    • #3
    • April 19, 2017 at 2:11 pm
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  4. Profile photo of Gary McVey Member

    Titus Techera

    We are not really in the same world as that of the Gospel miracles and the act of redemption. Our assumption of proximity rests on no known natural power. It is only the grace of God that might bestow on any of us a miracle, a divine presence.

    That’s just wonderful, Titus. Thanks for this post; it’s a keeper.

    • #4
    • April 19, 2017 at 3:02 pm
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  5. Profile photo of Lily Bart Inactive

    I was just watching an art history lecture (from The Great Courses – one of Ricochet’s former (?) sponsors ) that featured this work!

    • #5
    • April 19, 2017 at 3:10 pm
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  6. Profile photo of mollysmom Member

    I am headed to Florence this fall. I will visit this church because of your article.

    Almost fifty years ago I took an art appreciation class to satisfy a credit requirement, and the class pretty much consisted of watching slides of works of art while the professor droned on. Funny thing…I remember so much of those works and the class itself; you just never know what will capture your imagination and stay with you. That class and the fetal pig I mangled in biology are among of my college highlights.

    • #6
    • April 19, 2017 at 4:36 pm
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  7. Profile photo of James Lileks Contributor

    Vasari embellished? NO! It CAN’T be!

    I appreciate these discussions; great work. But I have an alternate view on the middle ground perspective problem. You wrote:

    The contradiction in the perspectival construction is meant to deal not merely with the unreality of depiction, a mere use of color and shape, but also with the mysterious character of the Gospel stories

    Perhaps. But I think he just couldn’t pull it off. You look at his foreshortening on the Trinity; not well-executed. Granted, I’m a bit biased on Castegno; he’s not a favorite. His drapery can look like extruded concrete. This is his best work, but he wouldn’t be the first to combine first-rate portraiture with second-rate surroundings.

    • #7
    • April 19, 2017 at 5:12 pm
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  8. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    James Lileks (View Comment):
    Vasari embellished? NO! It CAN’T be!

    I appreciate these discussions; great work. But I have an alternate view on the middle ground perspective problem. You wrote:

    The contradiction in the perspectival construction is meant to deal not merely with the unreality of depiction, a mere use of color and shape, but also with the mysterious character of the Gospel stories

    Perhaps. But I think he just couldn’t pull it off. You look at his foreshortening on the Trinity; not well-executed. Granted, I’m a bit biased on Castegno; he’s not a favorite. His drapery can look like extruded concrete. This is his best work, but he wouldn’t be the first to combine first-rate portraiture with second-rate surroundings.

    Well, it’s possible but he is really famous for his design. As I said, just compare with the Ghirlandaio & Perugino–you see it’s perfectly possible to simply avoid the problem with the middle space that’s concentrated. That was a deliberate choice & it’s unique to him.

    As for St. Jerome’s vision–you at least have to admire the way the bodies are turned & sent into depth, so to speak. It’s rare & startling, but a great choice. Few have done it. The rendering of the body of the Christ is really very good.

    • #8
    • April 19, 2017 at 8:08 pm
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  9. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Lily Bart (View Comment):
    I was just watching an art history lecture (from The Great Courses – one of Ricochet’s former (?) sponsors ) that featured this work!

    Well, that’s rather on the serendipitous side! So what do they say!

    • #9
    • April 19, 2017 at 8:09 pm
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  10. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    mollysmom (View Comment):
    I am headed to Florence this fall. I will visit this church because of your article.

    Well, that’s high praise! I’m pleased–I’ve loved showing it to people & I hope more people learn of it. It’s very close to one of the famous sites, St. Mark, due West of it, & free, & often open, & never busy. You can move around the old expanded refectory & stare at the large wall. The fresco was a constant companion, you come to see, to the nuns–you can go back to the opposite wall & still the concentration of space would push you back still more, in search of an illusory true vantage point–presumably the nuns were meant to remember that they could not get a privileged position that would cause everything to fall into place & arrange all the elements of the perspective. You can never be at home with that painting in that place…

    Almost fifty years ago I took an art appreciation class to satisfy a credit requirement, and the class pretty much consisted of watching slides of works of art while the professor droned on. Funny thing…I remember so much of those works and the class itself; you just never know what will capture your imagination and stay with you.

    That’s true, & a part of our inability to predict what our experience will be, or how it will affect us. Really, we’re right to marvel at ourselves–we are very strange…

    That class and the fetal pig I mangled in biology are among of my college highlights.

    Wow. That’s quite a juxtaposition!

    • #10
    • April 19, 2017 at 8:18 pm
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  11. Profile photo of Lily Bart Inactive

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Lily Bart (View Comment):
    I was just watching an art history lecture (from The Great Courses – one of Ricochet’s former (?) sponsors ) that featured this work!

    Well, that’s rather on the serendipitous side! So what do they say!

    It is a fun coincidence! Actually, he said rather a lot! But I was making a fruit galette while I watched, so I’m afraid my attention was divided – I promised myself I’d go back and rewatch that lesson. I do remember his saying this work didn’t have the influence it might have had if it hadn’t be commissioned for a convent. He also spoke about the work around – just above – not shown in your picture. I really must go back and watch the lesson with my full attention!

    The lecturer also asked us to notice that the artist differentiated each of the figures with their individual beards and cloaks – very careful attention to this detail, apparently.

    • #11
    • April 19, 2017 at 8:31 pm
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  12. Profile photo of Gary McVey Member

    How many people “on the outside” would think that the Rightweb sustains this kind of cultural discourse? Thank goodness there’s always been a place for it at Ricochet; Titus and Lileks dress it up a little, bring it some flash to match its class!

    • #12
    • April 19, 2017 at 9:21 pm
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  13. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Lily Bart (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Lily Bart (View Comment):
    I was just watching an art history lecture (from The Great Courses – one of Ricochet’s former (?) sponsors ) that featured this work!

    Well, that’s rather on the serendipitous side! So what do they say!

    It is a fun coincidence! Actually, he said rather a lot! But I was making a fruit galette while I watched, so I’m afraid my attention was divided – I promised myself I’d go back and rewatch that lesson. I do remember his saying this work didn’t have the influence it might have had if it hadn’t be commissioned for a convent. He also spoke about the work around – just above – not shown in your picture. I really must go back and watch the lesson with my full attention!

    The lecturer also asked us to notice that the artist differentiated each of the figures with their individual beards and cloaks – very careful attention to this detail, apparently.

    That’s all true. Above is a kind of large scale triptych–left to right, resurrection, crucifixion, deposition. That was never covered in plaster, so it’s deteriorated quite a lot, unfortunately. It’s integrated with the Last Supper in a strange painterly way that was somewhat common in the age–it’s made to seem as though it’s happening in the hinterland, so to speak. In the landscape behind the building.

    There’s something similar in Perugino painting I linked above: Behind the Last Supper scene, in the background, is the Gethsemane garden scene!

    How was the galette?

    • #13
    • April 19, 2017 at 10:16 pm
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  14. Profile photo of Little My Member

    Titus, thank you again for another wonderful set of insights.

    I have a technical question: do you know how they remove the plaster without destroying the painting?

    • #14
    • April 20, 2017 at 5:54 am
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  15. Profile photo of Manny Member

    I want to say that I’ve heard of Castagno – his name sounds familiar – but I can’t say that I’ve heard of him before, and I’ve never seen that Last Supper. My first reaction is that it’s nowhere as good as Da Vinci’s. Your analysis of the space, Titus, is spot on. The setting is such a closed in area, claustrophobic actually, unlike the Da Vinci that opens out. Placing Judas on the opposite side of the table is interesting. It certainly communicates. I dislike the way John is lays down on Christ’s arm, but I can’t say why. Perhaps because it seems so out of place with the other disciples and rather forced. The other disciples seem to lack any characterization; they are just people. The only thing that strongly appeals to me about this painting are the colors, soft and pastel, and they have a sense of balance. The colors seem to accentuate the story line of Judas’ betrayal, seeming to focus the viewer to Judas’ dark clothing and black hair.

    Thank you for introducing me to Castagno and this painting Titus.

    • #15
    • April 20, 2017 at 5:58 am
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  16. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Thanks for the compliments, folks.

    As for the plaster removal–I do not know how it is removed! You need archeological skills &, I imagine, to know your masonry! There’s a lot of such work done–or rather such work has already been done to a great extent, trying to dig up or reveal Florence’s splendid past. Going around Florence, it’s hard to miss how much mediocre 18th & 19th c. stuff was done over far more impressive earlier work.

    One is recalled of the Roman situation–one of the founding stories of the Renaissance is the adventure of Pippo & Donatello! In the year 1400, or so, Filippo Brunelleschi, who had lost a contest to design the bronze sculpted plates on the Southern gates of the Baptistery, went to Rome with his friend Donatello. They spent maybe two years, if I recall & were the first to really look at the ancient stuff, draw it up, & decide to redo it.

    At the time, columns and any number of other artifacts of antiquity were popping up everywhere in Rome, & apparently next to nobody cared. People had this marvelous stuff & did nothing about it but ruin it in whatever mundane way…

    As for the painting–yeah, that’s how Last Suppers are almost always done, from the Gospel of John, so that John is supine or asleep nearest Jesus, & you have Judas across–you can see from the other two paintings I linked to, usually Judas is on the other side of Christ. But most of the Apostles get even less characterization than in the Gospels, which also don’t do much for most of them. I guess you can see Thomas looking upward–that may be part of his doubting… The confusion among some of the others, & the discussion, seems to be tied up with Jesus having just said to them one of them will betray! The two on the left side are debating it, it would seem.

    • #16
    • April 20, 2017 at 6:40 am
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  17. Profile photo of Susan Quinn Contributor

    Just a small point, Titus. I expect that the “bread” handed to Judas was likely matzah. Don’t you think so, since it was supposed to have been a seder?

    • #17
    • April 20, 2017 at 6:58 am
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  18. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    I expect so. Of course, the Gospels do not use the Jewish terms, but now that I think about it, I’ve no idea what the words are in Greek or Latin for John 13!

    • #18
    • April 20, 2017 at 8:16 am
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  19. Profile photo of Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    So the Greek is, arton for bread at John 13:18 & psomion for morsel at 18:26, 27, & 30.

    • #19
    • April 20, 2017 at 8:24 am
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  20. Profile photo of Old Bathos Member

    I think we are failing to face the real truth about what this painting says about the patriarchy. Notice that not only do the apostles have assigned seats but their names are etched in the marble base symbolizing the rigid immutable class and identity strictures of white cis-male-centered ideation. Judas did not get an assigned seat so he should have known that his exclusion from the social construct was imminent (as if the micro-aggressive look of disdain from one of the Simons at the end of the table were not enough of a clue.)

    As for tiresome issues of perspective debated by @titustechera and @jameslileks, the simple fact is that all of the good males are on the other side of the table and the intended viewing audience (cloistered nuns) are on the same side of the table as Judas. Enough said.

    Lastly, there is the detail and skill level (AKA “showing off”) of a kind that fosters the illusion of cognizable “excellence” which is merely a competitive predisposition ultimately used to rationalize rape.

    I think we can all see why the forces of enlightenment once sought to cover up this political atrocity and may yet do so again.

    • #20
    • April 20, 2017 at 10:21 am
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  21. Profile photo of Manny Member

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Just a small point, Titus. I expect that the “bread” handed to Judas was likely matzah. Don’t you think so, since it was supposed to have been a seder?

    It was Passover. It would have to be. The Communion hosts at a Catholic Mass must be unleaven.

    • #21
    • April 20, 2017 at 11:50 am
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  22. Profile photo of Nancy Spalding Thatcher

    You give me a lot to think about, and a work of art I have never seen to focus my reflections– thank you! And thank you, @old bathos, for the (wry) laugh… you are almost frighteningly good with that language!

    • #22
    • April 21, 2017 at 7:47 pm
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