Articles > Mystery
A Magnificent Painting
Leonardo da Vinci's 1497 masterwork "L'Ultima Cena - The Last Supper (Das Letzte Abendmahl)" has served as source of various speculations about encoded hints, as detailed in Dan Brown's 2003 novel "The Da Vinci Code." While having inspired numerous paintings, there is one particularly popular, being often just referred to as the picture with the actors. With its art prints found in places like movie theatres and fast food restaurants, "Invitation (Abendmahl in Hollywood - Supper in Hollywood)," as it is really called, was created in 1988 by the Italian Designer Renato Casaro, who among others also did the poster for Kevin Costner's Oscar awarded Western epic "Dances with Wolves." Typically, in the imitation of "The Last Supper" religious heroes are nowadays replaced by Hollywood celebrities. Marilyn Monroe is taking Christ's position and Chaplin that of the apostle John - or possibly Mary Magdalene? At the end of the table, instead of James II & Bartholomew, you find the unforgettable comedian duo Laurel & Hardy. Right before Easter, on the day of the last supper, typically we eat spinach. In German the day is called "Gründonnerstag - Green Thursday." Eating green vegetables around that time of year was meant to receive the healing power of spring, to renew us after the cold winter time (and make us strong like Popeye the spinach-eating sailor man). Its etymological origin can be found in the German expression "greinen," the whining of the penitent. While the English expression Maundy Thursday refers to the foot washing ceremony, a cleansing ritual Jesus performed before supper, kneeing in front of his disciples in reversal of their hierarchy. Originally, the word "Maundy" is derived from the Latin expression "Mandantum" from the bible quote about the new commandment, to love one another. Good idea, by the way.
Above edited version of "Invitation," also called "Dinner for Great Names (Dinner der Berühmten)," assembles Hollywood's finest including the Silver Screen Legends Oliver Hardy & Stan Laurel, Elvis Presley, Clark Gable, John Wayne (replacing Robert Mitchum), Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Boris Karloff alias Frankenstein's Monster (replacing Groucho Marx) and Marlon Brando.
Secret Supper. "La Cena Secreta (2004)" by Javier Sierra, translated from Spanish into English as "The Secret Supper (2006)" is one of these books emerging on bestseller lists following of the success of "The Da Vinci Code." An investigative novel, as the Andalusian author would call it, it explores the enigmas Leonardo da Vinci possibly hid in his artwork. A story around Leonardo finishing his masterwork under the eyes of a Papal Inquisitor sent to Milan to verify clues from a soothsayer - some sinister fortuneteller. While other paintings of the Last Supper usually depict the first breaking of the bread, the central moment of the institution of the Eucharist, this one shows the disciples, absent of any haloes, in the moment of shock after Jesus has announced that one of them, who dipped the bread in the bowl with him, will betray him. The painting, in Milan colloquially referred to as Cenacolo, shows the disciples in groups of three in lively interaction with each other. On the very left, Bartholomew watches over the scene with his hands on the table. James the Less tries to calm Peter's fiery temper. Discussion arouse around Simon Peter holding a knife behind his back (although the hand may look a little disembodied due to the missing paint and is only confirmed Peter's from earlier sketches). Is it an anticipation of the sword he would use at Jesus' arrest, a dagger as symbol of real betrayal, or just the bread knife mentioned in da Vinci's notebooks? In response to the revelation that a traitor is among them, Andrew shows his innocence by extending his palms. Judas Iscariot though seems to reach for the same piece of bread as his master already...
The beloved disciple John is said having been portrayed after the model of a young girl. Jesus' figure resembles an A or Alpha, symbol of the new beginning. Notable is the absence of Christ's chalice, the Holy Grail. Excited, Thomas points toward heaven. James the Elder announces the Messiah's passion by holding the arms in the shape of a cross. Philip again points at himself, assuring his innocence. Matthew and Thaddeus both turn their backs on Christ, searching for clarification towards the end of the table. Leonardo is suspected having self portrayed himself as that long bearded Judas Thaddeus, second from the far right, turning away from to the Messiah. Dressed in white at the end of the illuminated side of the table, Simon is suggested to be painted after a statue of the Greek philosopher Plato. Anyway, he points with his hands as if inviting the spectator to examine the scene all over again. Maybe to find more clues, as in the novel, the famous artist claims that he learned, if you wish to hide something from the stupidity of humans, the best place to do so is there where everyone can see it. Sometimes you don't notice, what is right before your eyes. Our selective perception plays tricks on us. The mind, just like a wobbly pudding, is unable to think out of the box. Sometimes you tend to see everything through rose coloured glasses, other times you tend to paint everything black. Over-interpretation of simple things makes believe what we want to believe, seemingly confirms our suspicion, a conspiracy theory where there is no treason and plot. (First time these words crossed my path, when an English teacher recited the Guy Fawkes poem commemorating the 1605 assault on the British parliament: "Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot..." The annual burning of Guy-dolls made of straw, presumable look-alikes of the Catholic conspirator, became so popular that the expression "guy" for an ordinary man found its way into common language.) But enough of that now. Just let me have that blood sausage (black pudding) and bread with butter for supper...
American Horse. Logically, the next step was reading a biography of "Leonardo da Vinci," where the one written by Charles Nicholl in 2004 promised to not only admire the universal genius of the Renaissance era but also focus on his human side. It was kind of funny that I read its first couple pages in a small Carinthian restaurant in a street with the same name as a small beer (Seidl) in the 3rd Viennese district, while waiting for a colleague residing in a nearby hotel and remembering being there last with a friend for a Hirter beer many years ago. The same friend used to wear a Leonardo T-shirt, probably because of the similarity to his own first name. Reminiscing those days, once in a while I would pick up a bottle of Tuscan red wine from the supermarket, Chianti of the brand "Leonardo" to be precise. And I remember standing below the giant hoof of the Da Vinci's Horse in Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, MI. Nina Akamu’s 24 feet tall bronze statue "The American Horse" had been installed in 1999, fulfilling Leonardo's 500 year old dream of sculpting a horse, three times bigger than life-size. It is based on his sketches of an equestrian sculpture for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, an idea dating back as early as 1482. A second statue was dedicated to the city of Milan and following da Vinci's original intention, later moved to the park of Sforza castle.
1492 is not only the year, America was officially discovered, conquest of paradise as they called it later. It was also around the same time that Leonardo da Vinci created his famous sketch of "Homo Vitruvianus - The Vitruvian Man (Der Vitruvmann)." Discussing the theory of "homo bene figuratus - the well proportioned man" by Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, it represents the most famous geometrical study of the anatomy of the human body - stretching inside a circle, with the belly button in the very center.
Leonardo probably first crossed my path as a kid when reading a story where the Disney character Goofy - which we could not properly pronounce back then - slipped into the role of the Renaissance artist at the beginning of an album series called "A comical history (Eine komische Historie)." Much later I would find a sketch with Donald as the man with the unspeakable name in my boy's funnies pocket book collection.
Even drawings of Marvel's favourite webspinner and movie hero emerged, promoting an event called "The Other." Its logo showed the title hero stretching inside the letter "O" in the most familiar way, which kind of looked funny in the "A"-letter of the German translation "Das Andere." And following the introduction of the common European currency in 2002, Italy decided for the same "homo ad circulum et quadratum" surrounded by the 12 stars of the European Union as the unmistakable design of the national side of its 1 Euro coin, further increasing its popularity.
Michigan trace of Leonardo: American Horse sculpture in Grand Rapids, Meijer Gardens.
Vitruvian Man. Besides da Vinci's stirring "Last Supper" and his cautiously smiling "Mona Lisa," the stretching "Vitruvian Man" is one of the pieces of art most often referred to, imitated, or quoted. To see da Vinci's top three, you have to travel Europe though. For the "Mona Lisa" you have to visit the Louvre museum in Paris, 1st floor, room 5 to be exact, hosting Italian Renaissance Paintings.
"The Last Supper" is kept in the church Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, appropriately in the dining hall of the convent, and can be only visited following a reservation. The notebook containing the sketch of the "Vitruvian Man" is stored in the Accademia gallery in Venice, on display on special occasions only. Finishing the Leonardo biography, I found the quote: "Every evil leaves behind a grief in our memory, except the supreme evil, that is death, which destroys this memory together with life."
In a way it reminded me of all those thoughts about what I did wrong. Just he other day I was upset with myself for backing up the car, when a truck couldn't fit around the corner and blocked an intersection. Just following the example of the automobiles in front me, I reverted right into the car behind me. Although there was no damage, as the other driver assured me, still I knew, I should have done better. Not just blindly following others without verifying and evaluating the own situation. My son on the back seat said that he knows the feeling: "You also have to forgive yourself!" Very wise, that kid.
It surely ain't easy to do a 1000 piece puzzle of "The Last Supper".
"You got the smile of a Mona Lisa,
Know it all and giving nothing away."
(Lie Down, Whitesnake, 1978)