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Fact Checking Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper'

Updated April 3, 2019 45.0k views12 items

People spent years searching Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper painting for hidden clues. And whether or not any conspiracies exist, Renaissance symbols in da Vinci's Last Supper prove the artwork portrays events differently than how they may have actually happened. Instead of being historically accurate, the artist's piece reflects the time in which he lived. He reinterpreted a famous scene for his audience.

Considered one of the best painters of all time, da Vinci finished the piece in 1498 as a fresco painted directly on the wall of an Italian monastery. Painting on dry plaster was a flawed technique, however, and the painting started disintegrating only years later.

Numerous anachronisms in the Last Supper exist, showing the artist took comfort in 15th-century culture. But many of those inaccuracies come from da Vinci's desire to play with and expand Renaissance art styles like naturalism and perspective. Still, though, the Last Supper demonstrates his skill as an artist, if not a great historian.

  • The Subjects Look Like Western Europeans Not Middle Easterners

    Leonardo da Vinci wasn't the only artist to depict Jesus and his apostles with European features. The Byzantine Empire adapted the look of Greek mythology's Zeus into a representation of what a god might look like in human form. Artists used this version of Jesus so heavily, it became normalized. Researchers believe the real Jesus would have had short hair, though, as it was on trend in his era.

    Additionally, da Vinci hired people from his community to act as models for his paintings, contributing to the diners' European physical traits. 

    Rumors even suggested da Vinci found the model for the Last Supper's Judas in a prison, only to learn the man posed for him once before in a different painting of Jesus. Scholars discredit this idea, though.

  • The Painting Is Set In The Daytime, But The Real Supper Would Have Started After Sundown

    According to three of the four Gospels, the Last Supper took place after Passover, the holiday held in remembrance of the Jewish people's Egyptian Exodus. Consequently, many scholars believe the Last Supper was a Passover Seder. Traditionally, Passover calls for the slaying of a lamb in the morning and a celebratory lamb feast after sunset. Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper painting, however, features the blue skies and clouds of a daytime event.

    Perhaps da Vinci's setting was inaccurate, but Renaissance art trends may have dictated his choices. Painters of his era wanted their subjects to seem more natural than they had in earlier artworks. People, especially revered religious figures, had more humanistic appearances in Renaissance pieces.

    For example, instead of having a giant disc-like halo, da Vinci's Jesus seemed radiant because of a bright doorway behind him. The contrast between the darkness and the light, known as chiaroscuro, also draws the viewer's eye to Jesus and his importance in the scene. 

  • The Apostles Wear Renaissance Clothing Instead Of Period-Appropriate Garb

    In addition to celebrating an important religious event, Leonardo da Vinci also reinterpreted the Last Supper for his audience, reflecting his era's values and trends. The classic toga, for example, was popular in Renaissance art. Moreover, artists working in da Vinci's time period did not have access to the same kind of paints that we do now.

    Colors of paint like blue and red were particularly expensive, so they were reserved for the most important subjects in the artwork. Notably, in da Vinci's Last Supper, Jesus wears bright red, showing his status, authority, and power.

    In reality, most people from Jesus's era did not wear colorful clothing. Jesus and his companions most likely wore simple tunics that were the color of undyed wool

  • The Bread On The Table Has Yeast, But Passover Meals Avoid The Leavening Agent

    According to the Bible, Egypt's Pharaoh suffered through 10 plagues before giving the Jewish people their freedom. Pharaoh changed his mind, though, and went after the people. To escape as quickly as possible, the Jewish people only brought water and flour with them. They had no yeast to make their bread rise, so the mixture produced a hard, flat loaf of unleavened bread or matzo. And those of Jewish heritage honor their ancestors' journey by abstaining from any bread products with yeast or baking soda for the duration of Passover, eating matzo instead. 

    The Gospels claim Jesus shared bread with his followers at the Last Supper, but if the event truly was a Passover Seder, the bread would've been flat. However, Leonardo da Vinci's painting features fluffy bread rolls.