I was held in the airlock for several minutes before being released into the hall with Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. The room was large, but not vastly so, with light coming in from windows on one side. To be honest, I don’t think I am a good witness to the qualities of the room, because almost immediately what I saw was melded with what I knew about it from my reading. The doorway, enlarged by the Dominican Friars in 1652, cut off the feet of Christ. Later, Napoleon road his horse through that door, into what was once the Friar’s dining hall, but which Napoleon had converted into an armory and stable. Is that why I remember the floor being dirt? I’m sure it’s not. But in my imagination, that floor is dark brown densely packed dirt.
Leonardo, dissatisfied with the clumsy technique of fresco painting, where the artist is limited by what can be painted in a single day on newly applied plaster, created a new technique for this mural. In so doing he was also able to apply greater detail and achieve higher luminosity. He covered the wall with two layers of dried plaster and added a coat of white lead to enhance the brightness of the oil and tempera that he applied to that surface. This “experiment” resulted in more brilliant colors and allowed for a level of detail not possible in fresco painting. However, moisture seeping through from the thin wall almost immediately corroded the surface.
That was the least of the assaults that the painting would suffer over the years. Napoleon’s soldiers used the mural for target practice, and in World War II the Allies dropped bombs that took down most of the building. Sandbags and mattresses that were piled up against the wall at the beginning of the war saved the mural. Even after the bombing, the painting remained under the bags for months, with just a tarp protecting it from rain.
I moved close to the fresco and examined what was left after the most recent restoration. Twenty years in the making and much controversy led to its current state. Despite the removal of large swaths of paint, there was a clarity to some of the colors that was reassuring. Details were revealed – a delicately painted glass, a piece of fish or was it an eel? A rhythm danced over the surface of the painting, running along the heads of the Apostles. The hands told a different story. Christ’s hand reaching toward Judas’ foretold the betrayal. The knife in Peter’s hand was a reminder that he would cut off the ear of a Roman standing in the way of Christ. Thomas’s finger, held in the air, presaged his doubt.
And what do we make of John – – hands entwined and thrust toward Christ. Or is it John? Perhaps it is Mary Magdalene, as has been suggested. I thought that John’s head was based on a drawing that Leonardo had made of Leda, but that drawing came later. The pose is exact: the tilt of the head, the position of the mouth, the downcast eyes. You can practically impose one upon the other. This, I am sure is no accident, a part of the artist’s personal vocabulary, its meaning remaining personal to him.
I stand toward the back of the room. The perspective lines converge at Christ’s head. It was a Renaissance construct that the lines of perspective converged in infinity at the Divine. Even if I didn’t know this, I feel it here.
When I look up at the painting, I don’t see the painting so much as I see the air between the painting and myself. It is as though the dust motes swirling in the sunlit air are imbued with pigment and tiny bits of plaster chipping off the surface. And suddenly, it is as though the entire painting is just suspended bits of pigment floating through the room, and I too, am splintering into tiny pixels of paint. I am no longer looking at the painting; I am part of this animated space of color and light, where everything exists at once in this constellation – Leonardo painting, Napoleon riding his horse, the bombs dropping, the tourists milling about, and me. And it seems like a divine state, one I’ve been hoping to reach my entire life, but I never knew that this was what I was waiting for, because I could not imagine such a state, one where I could not cohere, but never needed to.
Monet described this phenomenon. He called it “the envelope.” It is what he said he was painting. The envelope was the atmosphere between himself and the object he was gazing at. But maybe he meant something else by that. Maybe he too, was experiencing the divine pixilation of himself becoming what he painted.
There is a feeling that occurs when you are drawing or painting, when you wonder if you are making the painting or the painting making you. As you drag your brush over the surface of the canvas, is there someone on the other side touching their brush to your brush and painting you into their painting?
I couldn’t stay long with Leonardo, just twenty minutes before being ushered out as the next group in the airlock was let into the space. The sun shown brightly outside, made even brighter by the darkness of the room behind. I walked out of that room, but parts of me stayed and live there still.