Leonardo da Vinci vs. Tintoretto

To many people, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is THE Last Supper—it is the image that comes to their mind when they picture the great event.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1495-1498)  460 cm × 880 cm (181 in × 346 in); in Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan (Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication photo).

But what if you are an artist and you want to paint your own Last Supper—something different? Maybe you think you can even improve on Leonardo’s version.
Tintoretto must have looked at Leonardo’s picture and thought like this:

Why did he line his Apostles up so neatly along the table? He seems not to have been able to figure out another way to get all twelve into the picture and show their faces.
Then he was stuck with that long table. But the table means nothing and adds nothing to the drama.
He had to cut all the Apostles off at the middle. I´m going to hide that silly table and show you the Apostles whole. THEY are the subject, after all. I’ll take the same moment of the Bible story as Leonardo did, when Christ has announced that one of the Apostles will betray him, and I’ll let their entire bodies speak. I’ll make it look as though Christ’s words fell like a bomb and floored those Apostles. A painter has to dramatize.

And Leonardo’s colors are pretty but they are independent of the theme or moment of the picture. I think light ought to participate in the show, just as it does at the theater. To Leonardo, color is just make-up. But it is an instrument; and rightly employed it will add a lot to the drama. For example, I’m going to put Judas in the dark: that’s a clever way of pointing to him—right?

And one more thing: what’s all the prettifying—the fine clothes the Apostles are wearing, the linen tablecloth, the palace dining-hall? Weren’t those saints common people? Didn’t they eat ordinary food in a cheap room somewhere? I’ll give them some nice robes for color but I’ll put them in a back room and sit them on cheap stools at a wobbly table.

Here is Tintoretto’s Last Supper in the Church of San Trovaso, Venice

What did people think of it? For a long time it surprised and shocked them. What vulgar, common details! said John Ruskin. “He has degraded [the Last Supper] to the most ordinary of banquets,” said Jakob Burckhardt, the great nineteenth-century historian. What is that apostle doing reaching for a bottle? And all that troubling movement—the tipped over chair, the theatralics? Where is the solemnity of the event?

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24 Responses to Leonardo da Vinci vs. Tintoretto

  1. kimiam says:

    leonardo’s composition is more powerful. The eye is drawn to the central figure with the same lines that depict perspective, a formal feel is created with geometric shapes, mostly rectangles including the table. Movement undulates back and forth from the central figure to the outside figures on both sides of the painting and then back again. He’s managed to represent the flow of ideas and thoughts among the people gathered.

    Tintoretto’s composition isn’t bad, but it’s not as good as Leonardo’s. I do like his line of thinking, to place the scene in a more realistic setting, emphasize the human beings and their living conditions. Composition takes on a pyramidal shape and triangles point toward the central figure, but there are some pointing right off the edge of the painting, which lead the eye astray. It’s more chaotic, disorganized, but he was going for this. Overall a nice painting, but not the caliber of Leonaro.

  2. wrjones says:

    I do visualize the da Vinci as THE last supper. Interesting how we can succumb to propaganda while swearing we are immune to such an influence.

    I don’t care for either painting but I think Tintoretto’s piece is a much better design.

  3. Aryul says:

    I agree with Kimiam, Leonardo’s version is still stronger.

  4. ion danu says:

    I wish I could see Leonardo’s painting the year he finished it… not the rests of it, as it is now… How to judge the painting, the original Leonardo painting, after THAT?

    What I found interesting in Tintoretto’s are the 3 small figure unfinished (2 in the back and one on the stairs) because they could give as an idea about how he painted… But chairs like that? I don’t think so… Jesus and apostles were jews, orientals, I don’t think chairs were known or utilised at the time… Again, books? Maybe Tora but not as a book… I, too, prefer Leonardo’s variant, still. It’s not so “dramatic”, so “moved” but it’s kind of more solemn, more meditative…

  5. 100swallows says:

    Kimiam: Leonardo, like Michelangelo sometimes, carries the geometry a bit far. No wonder Tintoretto wanted to bend the triangles. But I agree that what he comes up with is not as good. Probably what he wanted to do can’t be done: you shouldn’t mess with our a priori requirements of order (though I do see a nice oval in this Last Supper). I saw a big exhibition of his works in Madrid last year and thought most of them had very serious design flaws. How intentional were they? Or was he just bad? He could be very good.

    Aryul: What with all the triangles and rectangles and perspective meeting points, Leonardo couldn’t go too far wrong. It’s a shame there’s so little left of the Apostles.

    Bill: Now there’s a brave guy!

    Danu: There’s a sixth-century painting (a manuscript illustration) of the Last Supper with all of them reclining at the table. The Greeks and Romans reclined at banquets, but I don’t know whether the Jews did. They must have. And the books are a funny anachronism. Don’t painters love to do them?

  6. I was surprised as I had never seen this Last Supper and was struck by how similar it is to Tintoretto’s “Slaughter of the Innocents”. Both have a strong diagonal axis with the light filled exterior in the right quadrant. Such a sense of motion from the lower left to the upper right.

  7. I meant to say that I was surprised by the Tintoretto’s Last Supper.

  8. erikatakacs says:

    I like dramatic, so flawed or not, my vote goes for Tintoretto’s version. I’ve never seen it before, and I like it a lot.

    • Veronica Viggiano says:

      I’ve never seen it before either and also like it a lot. More powerful and realistic than Leonardo’s version. Of course, both are wonderful.

  9. kimiam says:

    I never realized how much I love leonardo. Thank you for posting his work and making me think about it.

    Tintoretto- I took a few minutes and looked at other images of his paintings and he has some incredible compositions…I mean totally captivating to me. This one really doesn’t do him much justice. To take one of his (in my opinion)lesser compositions and compare with a great, famous one from well loved artist…that’s a rough ride for anyone.

  10. erikatakacs says:

    It’s interesting to read all the comments and see the vote split. Leonardo’s version has no passion in it, the scene is solemn. Even though the figures are in action, they seem static without much emotion. Tintoretto’s scene is almost exploding with so much emotion. Only Christ in the middle looks calm and in control. I love so much movement in every direction, and still the composition is not falling apart. I think Tintoretto did just as well as da Vinci.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Kimiam: I didn’t think I had chosen one of Tintoretto’s minor works for my comparison. A critic writing in the big catalog from the Tintoretto exhibition in Madrid last year called it “a key work in his career, one of the two mature and completely autograph paintings of a theme that is especially associated with [Tintoretto's] name”. I actually thought it was the most “classical” of the Last Suppers I saw by him. I agree with Bill and Erika and Todd that the basic design is good—I just can’t take all the restlessness. The scene reminds me of a third-grade art class with the kids out of control.
    I don’t know which works you saw and liked. I’m going to post two more Last Suppers by Tintoretto, just to show everyone how troubling, if original, the guy can be.

  12. 100swallows says:

    Erika: I like drama too but this is soap opera.

  13. MEE says:

    Actually this isn’t Tinteretto’s only last supper, and not his best. I have a personal preference for the last of his (he did 6 or more).

  14. malin says:

    I’m doing a project in school about Tintoretto, and now I was just looking around to see if anyone else was comparing Tintoretto’s last supper to Da Vinci’s. And I have another of Tintorettos “the last supper” in my comparison,and I find that one prettier. But that one feels very true in a way, as you mentioned…Neigther Jesus or any of the apostles where rich men, so why did some artist cover them and made them into others? Sure, they became saints in a way and people wanted to point that out…
    Oh, this became longer than I first wanted to post, and at some points I sounded half-retarded. Anyway, I just wanted to say that I think that the other last supper (I have only seen this one, and the other one I’m working with) is deffinently more “well thought out” or how I should say it, I’m not so good at explaining in english, so sorry if my english isnt accurate… Anyway!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Placing the table in that position was intentional, it was to extend the altarpiece it was placed in, it was meant to lead the eye astray. And, maybe I didn’t understand when someone said they didn’t use chairs. of course they did, Jesus was a carpenter…
    Also, I don’t agree about this being too dramatic. It’s the last supper for crying out loud, what can be more dramatic?
    Tintoretto’s dramatic use of light and

    • 100swallows says:

      Anonymous: Jesus may never have made a chair, which wasn’t apparently a very common piece of furniture in those days. At those Passover meals they probably sat on benches (if they didn’t recline, as the Romans did). Carcopino says first century Romans sat on chests and benches and beds but not chairs. It doesn’t seem likely that the Jews would have had them.

  16. Ken Januski says:

    My pal Tintoretto sure can cause a stir can’t he?! I think another thing to consider is artistic creativity. Sometimes an artist knows how good older artists are, for instance Leonardo or Beethoven, but as an artist you want to do your own work, not just a copy of past greats. So sometimes in doing your own work you actively rebel against the masters of the past. ‘I’ll take care of Leonardo’s classical stolidity!’

    Sometimes it is a painful rebellion to watch. Too strong, overdone, too dramatic. But in the end the rebelling artist may come up with his own way to work that both acknowledges and digests past masters.

    I always think of Tintoretto as someone who struggled to come up with his own way of doing things. I’m far less taken with him now than I once was but I can appreciate what I think he was trying to do.

  17. Rich says:

    It may be easier to find out Judas in Tintoretto’s painting – he’s quite obvious there. But a close and somewhat more dicriminating investigation might find out the dark Judas in Leonardo’s as well. Does it need Sherlock Holmes for it?

    “What is that apostle doing reaching for a bottle?”
    Isn’t Jakob’s shocked statement amusing? Even Christ himself looks somewhat drunk on this bacchant revelry. An almost Dionysian masquerade, the whole drama here.

    After all I’d prefer Leonardo’s version over Tintoretto’s great attempt, not unlike like prefering Michelangelos’s version of David over Bernini’s.

    Another great lineup between two masters you have given us here, Swallows.

  18. 100swallows says:

    Rich: That “what is the apostle doing reaching for a bottle?” looks strange in quotes. Since I didn’t use any I suspect Jakob didn’t say exactly that–it was me, enlarging on his former statement (a swallowism). I’ll have to check my source, which I think was a catalog I bought at the Tintoretto exhibition here.
    But you are right, there is a real breakdown of discipline at that banquet. In another Last Supper of his, Tintoretto has an apostle passing the dog food under the table. You’d think sometime soon Jesus would have to clap his hands and tell the men to straighten up–he has something important to declare.
    That is good about the comparison with Michelangelo and Bernini.

  19. Rich says:

    he he he – that was another good one!

    Next time i shall have to take into consideration those deceptive swallowisms.

  20. Anonymous says:

    this took me by surprise! like many who landed here via search engine, i am tasked with comparing Tinteretto’s and Leonardo’s versions of The Last Supper for a homework assignment. This was not the Last Supper in my text, and I had to do more research as to why. Apparently, Tinteretto painted at least three versions of this scene! Yikes! Thanks for sharing.

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