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?