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Essay: Symbolism in Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’

Categories: Art, Film and Music
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The Last Supper is one of the greatest works of art the world has seen. Although Leonardo da Vinci completed only a few paintings, The Last Supper is evidence of his amazing artistic talent and vision. Da Vinci uses both, along with his understanding of the Holy Scriptures, and gives reality to the last moments before Jesus’ betrayal. The painting becomes a vision of the ultimate sacrifice and, for some, evidence of hidden truths and unyielding power of the Church.

Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint the Last Supper. He spent three years working on the large painting, using the accounts of the event found in the four Gospels. The painting is a snap shot of the moment after Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. Da Vinci’s skill is evident in the incredibly life like depictions of each person, the usage of space, and his ability to draw the eye to the focal point of Jesus Christ. Through the years the painting has gained popularity for more than its artistic accomplishments. The use of symbolism has led to increasing controversial theories.

The actual story of the Last Supper is filled with symbolism. It was the Passover meal and Jesus is the sacrificial lamb. He uses bread to symbolize his body. The bread is broken and given to be shared, just as his body will be broken and his life given up for others. He uses the wine to represent his blood. It is similarly poured out and shared. There is not much controversy over the use of symbols within the biblical account. However, the depiction of this important moment leads many to see different realities. Symbolism in The Last Supper begins with the beliefs of the viewer and results in theories about what really happened and why.

One of the most controversial discussions regarding Leonardo’s use of symbolism focuses on the person sitting to the right of Jesus. The historical account has this person listed as the Apostle John. However, the feminine face has led many to believe it is Mary Magdalen. This theory, of course, leads to discussions of her place in Jesus’ life. There are many that believe she is actually more than his disciple, that she is his wife and the mother of his children. Their dress and positioning of their bodies combine with her role in the life of Jesus to build this idea. The curiosity concerning the lack the Holy Grail in The Last Supper has added to the theory regarding Mary Magdalen. It is believed that she is actually the Holy Grail, or chalice, which holds the blood of Jesus. The followers of this reasoning believe she held his blood, or continued his bloodline, by bearing his children.

There are other symbols that seem to have different meanings. For instance, the hand holding a knife is mainly believed to be that of Peter as he prepares to defend Jesus from the betrayer. However, there is also the thought that da Vinci is making a statement about the Church and how he believed it would use any means necessary to control opposition.

Leonardo da Vinci is known for his fascinating mind and exceptional artistic abilities. Both of these qualities come together in The Last Supper, bringing vision to the faithful and controversy to the questioning. The Last Supper is a beautifully painted representation of Scripture to the Christian believer. The painting is also viewed as proof that Leonardo da Vinci knew hidden truths. The Last Supper is filled with symbolism that feeds both faith and doubt and is an example of the ultimate battle.

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