There’s no doubt that it’s a special painting – a masterpiece, in fact – while its creator is one of the most celebrated and enigmatic artists in history. And the scene the artwork portrays is among the most powerful ever depicted, too – not least because the event so stunningly brought to life is central to the story of a world religion. But could there be even more to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper than this? Well, according to some, the classic mural could hold a clandestine message – or messages – that has eluded understanding for generations.
As one of the most famous and frequently discussed works in Western art, though, The Last Supper should really hold no secrets. After all, countless experts have pored over the painting in the centuries since its creation. Yet while The Last Supper has earned its place in history, many myths and legends have sprung up in its wake.
So, what does the painting itself reveal? Well, central to the work, of course, is Jesus Christ – the son of God according to the Christian religion. And Christ is surrounded in The Last Supper by his 12 apostles. As the Bible tells it, these were the 12 men who most closely followed the teachings of Jesus and who would advance his message after his crucifixion.
And for Christians and art lovers the world over, the scene portrayed in the painting is a powerful one. Conventional thought says that the work depicts the last supper of Jesus and the apostles before Judas’ ultimate betrayal and Christ’s subsequent crucifixion. This event, as set out in the four canonical Gospels, forms one of the most powerful foundations of Christian tradition and rite: the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
But that seemingly isn’t the scene that Leonardo – the celebrated painter of the masterpiece – wishes to concentrate on, although its symbolism certainly exists within the painting. Instead, The Last Supper seemingly captures the moment when Jesus informs his closest followers that one of them will shortly betray him.
And the emotion that perhaps best sums up the expressions of those featured in the painting – other than Jesus himself, naturally – is consternation. Indeed, the apostles’ body language as they come to terms with Christ’s revelation suggests that this may be the most overt message portrayed in The Last Supper.
But the painting has arguably captivated some people because of what it doesn’t reveal rather than for what it does. There are those who believe the messages contained in the masterpiece go beyond conventional interpretations, in fact, and that these secrets in turn make profound statements about the story as reported in the Bible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, some of these theories are rather controversial in nature.
Let us begin with what we do know about The Last Supper, however. For starters, work on the future masterpiece began in around 1495, when Leonardo’s reputation was already established. Leonardo was born in Tuscany, Italy, in April 1452 and later educated in Florence by an artist named Andrea del Verrocchio. And as history tells us, he went on to become perhaps the greatest example of a polymath – or Renaissance man – that the world has ever seen.
Yes, Leonardo is not only credited as being one of the greatest painters in history, but he was also an inventor, mathematician, sculptor and astronomer – to name just a handful of his many accomplishments. Among the inventions to which Leonardo is accredited are the earliest known designs for a flying machine.
When it comes to Leonardo’s paintings, however, many were of a religious bent. Perhaps the first of his works that drew widespread acclaim was Baptism of Christ – his collaborative effort with Verrocchio. Other Christian-themed works followed before Leonardo was asked to create a mural for Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie convent. This in turn became The Last Supper, and to this day the painting can still be found in the refectory there.
And it certainly wasn’t unusual to depict the last meal of Christ and his disciples in works of art at the time. Pietro Perugino’s interpretation – which had been painted only a matter of years earlier in 1490 – even shares similarities with Leonardo’s masterpiece, although Perugino has the traitor, Judas, sitting on the opposite side of the table from the rest of the apostles. Other works from the period shared Leonardo’s placement of the diners, however.
Furthermore, Leonardo’s painting was based on events told in the Biblical Gospel of John. According to the gospel, a matter of days after Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem, an important meal is shared by the 13 central figures in the story. And during the course of this “last supper,” several important events are said to have occurred.
First of all, Jesus apparently predicted that one of his apostles will betray him to the people who will later come to arrest him. This is the scene that Leonardo portrays in The Last Supper, with the apostles seen to be reacting in dismay to the news that someone at the table will be disloyal to their Lord.
The second important event that is said to have taken place at the meal is the establishment of the Eucharist. This is the Christian rite of taking bread and wine as the representation of the body and blood of Christ. It’s a ritual that forms the basis of Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, which is a sacrament still performed by most Christian denominations.
Thirdly, the Gospel of John claims that Jesus had yet another revelation in store: that the disciple Peter will deny knowing his Lord three times before the following morning’s sun has risen. And, understandably, this news again apparently causes consternation among the gathered apostles. However, it’s the prediction of betrayal that concerns Leonardo in his interpretation of the scene as set out in The Last Supper.
As that final gathering plays such an important part in the Christian religion, then, it’s unsurprising that Leonardo’s painting was far from the first to portray the event. But unlike other depictions of the last supper, Leonardo’s piece has become the focus of widespread debate, conspiracy theories, myths, legends and puzzles. So, does the master’s work really contain secret messages?
Well, many believe so, and there’s one theory in particular that has really grown in prominence in recent times. You see, Leonardo was known to paint male figures who could be seen as androgynous in nature – most notably in his works Bacchus and John the Baptist. And according to some, that’s also the case in The Last Supper.
Most markedly, there’s a fairly androgynous character situated to the left of Jesus as you look at the painting. And while most art historians and scholars claim that this figure is the disciple John, the gender of the person can easily be questioned owing to the length of the subject’s hair and their effeminate features.
As a result, it’s been claimed by some that this figure is in fact a woman. And if that’s true, then her identity becomes an even greater source of controversy. One of the most popular theories in this vein was used as part of the central theme in Dan Brown’s incredibly popular 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code.
As the novel’s title suggests, its premise is that the great polymath and artist planted hidden messages in his works of art. And Brown’s book claims these symbols apparently allude to the fact that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene. It’s said, for example, that there’s a letter “M” featured in the center of the painting, with this apparently representing both Magdalene and the idea of marriage.
And Mary Magdalene is undeniably a key figure within Christian scripture. The close follower of Jesus was purportedly present at his crucifixion, for one, while she was also said to have been among the first to note his resurrection. As such, she’s become referred to as the “apostle to the apostles” among numerous denominations.
So, could Mary Magdalene have been the wife of Jesus? Well, most historians and religious scholars reject such a notion out of hand, as there is no strong evidence to suggest this was the case. In fact, the concepts raised in Dan Brown’s novel were actually just reworkings of earlier ideas that were based on the same premise.
There’s little doubt that Leonardo was a master of ambiguity, however, and his most famous painting takes open interpretation to the highest levels. La Gioconda, known in English as the Mona Lisa, portrays a woman with an enigmatic smirk upon her face that has intrigued viewers for centuries. The work is a particularly good example of Leonardo’s famous use of the technique of sfumato, which translates as blurred, soft or vague. It’s a shadowy effect that could perhaps apply to the meaning of Leonardo’s work as much as the artistic style itself.
Nonetheless, Leonardo expert Mario Taddei also rejects the theory as set out in Dan Brown’s novel. And central to Taddei’s position is the fact that Leonardo’s painting cannot stand alone in terms of what it depicts, as he was far from the first artist to interpret the scene set out in the Gospels.
“Before Leonardo da Vinci, there were hundreds of ‘Last Suppers,’ and when he painted The Last Supper he had to follow some rules,” Taddei told Smithsonian in July 2016. “These rules want to have the people in that position and with that smile so that people could recognize the apostles one by one.”
So, when it comes to the theory set out in The Da Vinci Code, Taddei is dismissive. “Is this John or Mary Magdalene?” he asked. “It’s a very easy question, but it’s a stupid question, because it must be John, because Leonardo had to copy the last suppers before him, and John looks like a woman.”
But that doesn’t mean Taddei dismisses the idea of a hidden message in the work of art – far from it, in fact. Instead, though, Taddei believes that Leonardo was trying to make a less overt statement in his painting – one that centers on the concept of using halos.
In the period in which The Last Supper was created, you see, it was the done thing to include halos around any depictions of Jesus and his apostles – aside from Judas. These features were naturally intended to imply that these people were divine, or at least holy. And as The Last Supper was produced in a devout era, it’s somewhat of a surprise to see Leonardo break with the contemporary tradition of including any halos.
So, Taddei believes the omission of halos was in itself Leonardo’s real message – and the decision was itself a potentially controversial one. “I believe that Leonardo never put the halos because he thinks that those people are common people. And this is the true secret of Leonardo,” Taddei explained. “There is no extra-terrestrial or supernatural object inside The Last Supper. Leonardo wants to tell us that the 13 men are simple men, and this is something much more powerful.”
Even discounting the Mary Magdalene suggestion, though, it seems that there could be yet more messages hidden within The Last Supper. There’s one theory, for example, that relates to the numbering system used in Leonardo’s groupings of the diners in the painting. And there are two bands of three apostles on each side of Jesus, meaning the placement can be interpreted as 3,3,1,3,3.
What’s more, if Taddei’s interpretation of the painting is accurate, then Leonardo was seemingly setting himself out as a religious sceptic – which would have been hugely controversial at the time. Undoubtedly, the artist was a man of science, and that didn’t necessarily tally with religious theory. Plus, if – as speculated – Leonardo was gay, that also would have placed him outside of heaven according to beliefs of the period. But what’s the relationship between these facts and the apparent 3,3,1,3,3 ratio?
Well, according to one theory, the answer lies in Lamentations 3:31-3 – with the chapter and verse numbers all neatly tallying with the numerical ratio of the people depicted in the painting. And this particular passage from the Old Testament begins, “For no one is cast off from the Lord forever.” Could this have been Leonardo predicting his own salvation?
Whatever your take on that particular theory, though, it’s arguably not the most obscure secret allegedly held within the brush-strokes of The Last Supper. Nor is the myth that the human models used for Jesus and Judas were one and the same person – although that particular hypothesis does make for a fascinating allegory about sin.
One version of that tale claims that Leonardo identified a young man who possessed all the facial characteristics the painter was looking for in his depiction of Jesus. Then years later, as the story goes, The Last Supper was nearly complete but for the face of Judas. So, seeking a suitably sinister subject to base his interpretation on, Leonardo supposedly went to a local prison and sought out a prisoner. It was only after completing the picture, however, that the artist discovered the models for Jesus and Judas were in fact one and the same man – or so legend has it, anyway.
Sadly, though, that particular story is too full of holes to be accurate. The purported timeline doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, for one, as the painting was reported to have been completed in a four- or five-year period at most. But then there’s yet another theory about The Last Supper – and it’s one that seemingly contradicts the suggestions that Leonardo was somehow a non-believer.
Specifically, it’s claimed that the grand master included musical notes in the picture. And, on the surface, that’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility; Leonardo was also a musician and instrument-maker, after all. The potential for yet another secret piqued the curiosity of Giovanni Maria Pala, too, and Pala consequently began looking into the possibility that there was a hidden musical composition included in the work.
Pala even found something intriguing after he transposed musical staff lines over The Last Supper and used particular religious symbols such as the bread and the hands to identify notes. But the composition only truly made sense when the Italian realized that the score had to be read in Leonardo’s distinctive method of writing: right to left.
The result is a 40-second piece of music that Pala has described as a hymn to God. He also suggests that the pipe organ – used ubiquitously in Leonardo’s day for religious music – delivers the composition to best effect. And Pala has even recorded the tune he’s interpreted from The Last Supper as well as detailing the process in his book La Musica Celata, which translates as The Hidden Music.
In addition, Pala believes that his findings point to a rather different version of Leonardo than those put forward by some of the other theories relating to The Last Supper. “A new figure emerges. [Leonardo] wasn’t a heretic like some believe. What emerges is a man who believes – a man who really believes in God,” Pala told the Associated Press in November 2007.
Whatever the truth, though, perhaps The Last Supper’s true genius lies in the way in which it still captivates viewers all these centuries later. And thanks to its beautifully crafted figures, expert use of perspective and clever inclusion of apparent symbolism, the masterpiece still possesses the capacity to create endless debate, too. But this isn’t the only painting of Leonardo’s that’s hiding a secret.
You see, in August 2019 a group of researchers from the National Gallery examined another of Leonardo’s important works: The Virgin of the Rocks. And what the team ended up discovering beneath the canvas amazed the world.
As we already know, Leonardo produced some of the most remarkable paintings in history, such as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But his famous works don’t end there.
Indeed, Leonardo was also behind two pieces of the same name: The Virgin of the Rocks. These particular paintings depict Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary, along with an angel and John the Baptist. The older version is currently displayed in the world-famous Louvre museum in Paris, France, while the second is housed at the National Gallery in London, England.
And interestingly, an uexpected discovery was made about the latter work back in 2005. During that period, experts at the National Gallery found an alternative composition of the Virgin underneath the painting. Then, some 14 years later, a larger revision came to light thanks to an ambitious research project.
During our younger years, we’re given the opportunity to learn more about certain aspects of our history. Whether it’s through our families or our time at school, these lessons can be incredibly fascinating. But for some of us, though, those teachings weren’t truly appreciated until we visited places such as museums.
Those trips often proved invaluable, as they provided us with a firsthand look at items from the past. For that reason alone, museums are still very popular for people of all ages today. Meanwhile, galleries offer a very similar experience to their patrons, many of whom no doubt hoping to learn more about historical art.
Indeed, in various galleries around the world, people are able to view the work of some of the most famous artists in history. And Leonardo is undoubtedly one of the biggest names of them all, having produced several masterpieces during his time. However, Leonardo’s talents extended far beyond his paintbrush.
Following Leonardo’s birth in 1452, he lived with his mom in a village named Anchiano – located in Tuscany, Italy. Then, a few years later, the youngster moved in with his dad, Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, who plied his trade in the legal sector. And he also stayed with his uncle and grandparents.
Off the back of that period, Leonardo’s family went on to pack their bags for Florence in the 1460s, which led to a pivotal moment. Not long after their move, the teenager earned a position under the celebrated artist Andrea del Verrocchio. He subsequently spent around three years working as a “studio boy” for the painter, ahead of a significant promotion.
Aged 17, Leonardo was named as one of Verrocchio’s apprentices, learning plenty of lessons along the way. While working at the studio, he dived into several different subjects including chemistry, woodwork and draftsmanship. In addition to that, the Florence resident also honed his talents in painting, modeling and drawing.
While Leonardo continued to develop his skills in Verrocchio’s studio, the latter was working on a piece known as The Baptism of Christ. And in keeping with his other work, the master employed the help of his apprentice when putting the painting together. As a result of that, it’s believed that Leonardo was responsible for one of the angels in the picture.
Due to Leonardo’s efforts in the workshop, he was eventually named as a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in 1472. Alongside that success, his dad bought a studio for him as well, but the painter had other ideas. Instead of striking out on his own at that time, Leonardo resolved to stay on alongside his mentor.
So on that note, Leonardo remained in Verrocchio’s studio and worked on some other pieces with him. However, that didn’t stop the Vinci native from producing his own work during that period, starting in 1473. That year, he produced a picture of Tuscany’s Arno river with his pen.
Then, a few years later, Leonardo’s career took an exciting turn as he was tasked to work on a painting to sit above an altar in 1478. The work was intended to be hung in the chapel located inside the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s administrative hub. But while he worked on that, the former apprentice was also asked by monks in Scopeto to complete another project in 1481,a painting titled The Adoration of the Magi.
Leonardo continued to work on those pieces for another 12 months, before he made a bold decision. The artist opted to give up on the two jobs in 1482, as he chased down a different opportunity with Ludovico Sforza, the future Duke of Milan. From there, he packed his bags and headed for the famous Italian city.
Once Leonardo arrived, he went on to make Milan his home for the next 17 years, as he worked on numerous jobs for Sforza. In addition to that, the multi-talented painter was asked to produce some other pieces as well, leading to an important period. As it turned out, two of those works would help cement his name in history.
To begin with, Leonardo worked on the first The Virgin of the Rocks painting, completing the job in the mid-1480s. Then, he produced The Last Supper a few years later for a monastery: the Santa Maria delle Grazie. Following those efforts, he eventually went back to Florence at the turn of the new century.
After that, Leonardo continued to produce some other famous pieces of work, including the now-world-renowned Mona Lisa. During that period, he also painted the second version of The Virgin of the Rocks, which shared a number of similarities to the original. However, when the artist reached his mid-60s, he began to encounter a few difficulties.
Unfortunately for Leonardo, his health started to deteriorate at that point, with his right hand becoming paralyzed. Despite those issues, though, he pressed on as best he could, before his condition left him confined to his bed. Sadly, the polymath eventually passed away in May, 1519.
Despite centuries having passed since Leonardo’s death, his work continues to fascinate people across the globe. And while the Mona Lisa still attracts millions of visitors to the Louvre in Paris, The Virgin of the Rocks is another very popular piece. In fact, the two near-identical paintings have inspired plenty of discussion between art-lovers over the years.
By way of illustration, after the National Gallery shared a picture of the second painting on its Facebook page in 2016, a couple of users offered up some interesting insights. “One of my faves,” wrote the first individual. “Love the copy in the Louvre too, although technically, this is a copy of that one!”
The social media user continued, “After da Vinci painted the one in the Louvre, he was asked to do a copy for an English noble. And by the time he got round to doing it, his technique had changed. The one in the Louvre is painted with brushes, the one in the National Gallery is painted with his fingertips.”
The user’s insight didn’t end there, though, as they made one last point in the comments section. They added, “You can see [Leonardo’s] fingerprints all over it. This was because he said he had realized that his talent was God-given, and the brush was just an encumbrance between him and God.”
That admiration was shared by a fellow social media user on Facebook, who offered their own thoughts on the painting. In their comment, they also looked at one of the key differences between the pieces in London and Paris as well. And according to them, that particular detail was fairly significant.
“Always loved this painting, and the older version in the Louvre, but this one is much stronger and real to me,” the user wrote. “Also, I prefer not to have the angel’s right hand pointing across, as in the Louvre version, because I think it just distracts from Mary’s beautifully foreshortened hand! Da Vinci is so cool!”
Meanwhile, as fans continued to hail Leonardo’s work on those paintings down the years, some stunning news came to light back in 2005. That year, a group of researchers at the National Gallery discovered a sketch underneath the piece. As it turned out, it was an alternative composition of Mary in another position.
The incredible find was made thanks to the use of “infra-red techniques,” with the experts picking up on some other outlines. Then, at the start of 2019 more research was conducted by the gallery, as it prepared to open up a new exhibition. However, few people could have predicted what would be revealed.
In their most recent examination, the group of researchers scanned the painting exploiting a new technique, known as macro X-ray fluorescence. This meant they were able to uncover more of Leonardo’s initial sketches beneath the piece. This was made possible due to the drawing material the artist had used, which included traces of zinc.
Thanks to those scans, the experts could see additional drawings of both Jesus and the angel, alongside the previous sketch of Mary. A representative of the National Gallery spoke to U.K. newspaper The Guardian about the discovery. “Why Leonardo abandoned this first composition still remains a mystery,” they said in August 2019.
The spokesperson continued, “Handprints resulting from patting down the priming on the panel to create an even layer of more or less uniform thickness can also be seen. Probably the work of an assistant – but perhaps even by Leonardo himself.” That wasn’t all, though, as they also touched upon the composition itself.
“Both figures are positioned higher up in the drawing,” the representative added, “while the angel, facing out, is looking down on the infant Christ with what appears to be a much tighter embrace.” A short time after that, the gallery’s conservation head Larry Keith shared his reaction to the findings.
During an interview with BBC News in August 2019, Keith explained what the discovery signified to him about the painter’s process. “[The sketches] give new insight into how da Vinci was thinking,” he said. “[It fits] into a wider narrative of how we understand him as an artist who was always changing, adjusting and revising.”
Keith added, “We had an awareness of part of the composition. And now we have a great deal more understanding of the whole group arrangement.” As for the exhibition, the piece will play a starring role at the National Gallery, with guests being given the chance to look at Leonardo’s work.
The exhibition is due to open in November 2019 and will stay open for around two months. Titled “Leonardo: Experience A Masterpiece,” it will take place within four different rooms at the gallery, noting various points about the piece. Then, to conclude the showcase, Leonardo’s masterpiece will be on display in the final room.
Furthermore, this particular exhibition has been put together by both the National Gallery and 59 Productions. The latter company is already highly regarded in the creative industry, having been involved in various other projects. For instance, it had a hand in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012.
So ahead of the grand opening in November, 59 Productions’ managing director explained what visitors could expect from the showcase. “It’s somewhere between an exhibition and an experience,” Richard Slaney told The Guardian newspaper in August 2019. After that, he shed some light on why they only focused on one particular piece.
Slaney continued, “Da Vinci’s view of the world meant he was fascinated at looking deeply into anything that interested him. And by giving people the chance to refocus on one painting we’re allowing people to do the same thing. It’s a bit like mindfulness in a way, as it slows things down and people can focus on one idea.”
Slaney’s thoughts on the matter didn’t end there either, as he made another interesting point about the project at the National Gallery. “This is scholarly research that has been turned into an experience that feels theatrical,” the managing director added to the newspaper. “You’re learning by seeing, rather than reading a paper.”
Meanwhile, Leonardo’s hidden artwork wasn’t the only fascinating discovery made in 2019. For you see, back in May a hand-drawn self-portrait of the artist was uncovered in Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Collection, which contained many of his sketches. And as it turned out, that was just the second known picture of him.
With that in mind, Martin Clayton of the Royal Collection Trust offered his take on the find. “It is a very quick casual sketch of Leonardo,” he told The Guardian. “It is the closest that we get to a snapshot of Leonardo during his own lifetime. It may be trivial as a work of art, but it’s hugely important as a record of the man himself.”