The lived Cenacle

The first shades of the “Cenacle” impressed the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie towards the end of the fifteenth century, at the request of Ludovico il Moro.

The Duke was determined to transform that small and elegant convent into the Sforza funerary chapel; a quiet corner of Milan, adjacent to the walls of the Castle.

The restructuring work began and the works thus assigned: Donato Bramante was entrusted with the reconstruction of the tribune, and with Leonardo the painting on the north wall of the refectory. The object of the representation, at Ludovico’s request, was a representation of the Last Supper, a famous scene in the religious art style of the sixteenth century.

When the first touches began to settle on the wall, and the colors revived the gray tone, a crowd of onlookers began to undertake a slow procession that would be repeated until the completion of the work: they came and went from the convent, some stood, while others sat silently on either side of the refectory, reverently observing the artistic vagaries of Leonardo.

For the time, the work of a painter was an event of common interest, but Leonardo’s attitudes had something singular and extravagant. Some days he could be found at work from the first light of dawn, intent on painting late into the night, sometimes forgetting even to eat. Other days he remained motionless to contemplate the work, without ever placing any brush on the wall. Other times he went to the refectory to complete only a small detail, a shade, an expression or a slight hue; then he went away, leaving the friars of the convent baffled, who were uneasily murmuring about him.

The strange attitude prompted the Prior to ask Ludovico il Moro to solicit the artist, urging him to complete the work. “I wish he had never stopped the brush, that he did the work that they were digging in the garden,” said the prior to the Duke, with a certain distrust of Leonardo.

Ludovico promised the Prior that he would talk to him, and a few days later he summoned Leonardo to the Court, but what must have been a rigid warning turned out to be a rather affable chat. Leonardo explained to the Duke that the time required by creativity cannot be reconciled with the time marked by the hourglass. “Some details are missing,” said Leonardo at last, addressing the Duke. Two heads were missing and the work would have been completed: that of Jesus and that of Judas. However, if he had not been allowed to continue the work smoothly, the face of Judas would have taken on the appearance of the prior. The allusion amused the Moro, who, despite being shortly depressed by the death of his beloved, added the artist with a severe exhortation, including the reasons for it.

The Cenacle was completed at the beginning of 1498. Leonardo had chosen an innovative technique for the time: the painting was carried out on two layers of plaster, to which he had added white lead. It was finally used for fat tempera, mixed with linseed oil and egg. Despite the artist’s calculations, the technique turned out to be unsuccessful, however, and twenty years later the painting was already beginning to peel off.

If you observe the Last Supper today, you will notice the absence of a portion, part in which the feet of Jesus were represented. It is said that in 1652 “the Cenacle” was so badly reduced that the monks had no qualms about opening a door in the wall of the refectory, demolishing the area now missing.

The Cenacle was subjected to other damages over the years. The first documented restorations date back to the mid-700s. In a first attempt, the missing parts were covered with oil paint, and the entire surface was painted over again. A singular testimony, reports an abnormal restoration attempt towards the end of the same century. The new restorer, after eliminating what had been done from the first renovation, reproduced the faces of the apostles at will. The man, now three-faced from the conclusion, was stopped by a movement of public indignation that prevented the completion of the works.

In the 1800s, while the air of the Revolution was swinging the seat of the French sovereign, the anticlerical troops, arrived in Milan, scraped their eyes from the faces of the apostles and used the refectory as a prison room. The war scarcely touched the artistic legacy of Leonardo, and in the following years, during the bombardments of the First World War, a part of the convent was demolished but the wall of the “Cenacolo”, and the refectory, remained miraculously intact.

It will be only during the second half of the 900s, from the 70s to the end of the millennium, that an intense restoration will bring the original face of the Last Supper back to life. The movements of the soul, and the original faces of the apostles, hidden for long years under the rough white lead, emerged from the authentic core of the painting. The drama of the Last Supper was brought to the surface and the narrative of a moment was returned to Leonardo’s faithful and immortal story.