Gnosticism, Ignorance, and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”

​It seems that in an increasingly faithless age, the Western world cannot get enough of looking for hidden messages in everything. The reprogramming of the History Channel for example, from carefully researched documentaries about actual history, to ridiculous shows about conspiracies involving extra-terrestrials, Bigfoot, or the freemasons – or all three – is but one example of how culturally ignorant and gnostic our society has become. Unfortunately, this wave of secular Gnosticism has also overflowed into our scholarly institutions.

Recently ArtNet ran an article about Leonardo da Vinci and the supposed hidden messages in his famous fresco of “The Last Supper” in Milan, linking to a video on the subject produced by the Smithsonian. Normally, when clicking on such an article, one must take a deep breath before proceeding, and prepare to be astounded by the sheer stupidity that one is about to read. In this case, although I was pleasantly surprised at first, by the end of the piece I was in full eye-roll mode.

The researcher featured in the article/video, Mario Taddei, is a Milanese inventor and Leonardo da Vinci expert. He gained some prominence during the Dan Brown era of about a decade ago, back when the laughably bad book “The Da Vinci Code” was a best-seller, and Tom Hanks had some overdue tax bill to pay which required him to play the lead in the atrocious film of the same name. Since then Taddei has been consulted by a number of media outlets in order for him to comment on, and often debunk, the theories put forward by Brown regarding Leonardo.

To give him credit, in the Smithsonian video Taddei points out that Dan Brown’s theories about the “Last Supper” are utter nonsense. He correctly notes that Leonardo was to some extent restricted in what he was painting by the Christian iconography that preceded his depiction of the Last Supper. The video also points out that hidden letters with obscure meanings could be spotted in virtually any painting ever painted, not just Leonardo’s “Last Supper”. Toward the end of the video however, things go off the rails.  

It is never a good idea to make sweeping generalizations about subjects which you do not understand very well. Thus I am somewhat surprised that the Smithsonian could not simply have called someone over at the National Gallery, before making a rather unfortunate statement in this video. For near the end of the piece, the narrator claims that: “Before Leonardo da Vinci, all versions of the Last Supper showed Jesus and His Disciples with haloes.”
This statement is utterly false.

In Dierc Bouts’ magnificent “Last Supper”, which forms the center panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament at St. Peter’s in Louvain – a work so coveted by many over the centuries that it was stolen to order by the Nazis during World War II – neither Christ nor any of the Apostles are sporting haloes. The same is true of the “Last Supper” by Andrea del Castagno (or more likely by his workshop) which is now in the National Gallery in London, where there is not a single halo to be seen. Even the minor Flemish artist Joos Van Wassenhove painted a halo-less Last Supper for the powerful Montefeltro family, the Dukes of Urbino. All of these works, as it happens, were painted decades before Leonardo’s “Last Supper”.

While it is true that conventionally, representations of the figures at the Last Supper usually had haloes, there were partial exceptions to this rule long before Leonardo. There are countless examples from Byzantine and Romanesque art produced between the 5th and 11th centuries in which the only figure shown with a halo at the Last Supper is Christ. Moreover, many artists before Leonardo never or hardly ever put haloes on their religious figures in any picture, including the great Jan Van Eyck. Thus, Leonardo’s idea was hardly original. 

More curious still is the assertion by Taddei in the film as to why Leonardo chose to omit the haloes.“I believe that Leonardo never put the halos because he thinks that these people are common people, and this is the true secret of Leonardo,” Taddei comments in the video. “There is no extra-terrestrial or supernatural object inside The Last Supper. Leonardo wants to tell us that the 13 men are simple men, and this is something much more powerful.”

It should be noted that, in the early part of his career, Leonardo most certainly did put haloes on his figures. His “Annunciation” of circa 1472-1475 for example, features haloes on both the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, and his “Benois Madonna” of 1478 places haloes on the Madonna and Child. It is true that Leonardo later abandoned the practice of painting haloes in all of his religious paintings, but probably not for the reason given by Taddei. After all, while not conclusive, the earliest-known copy of Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, painted by his assistant Giampietrino about 20 years later, has haloes on the figures.

In both versions of Leonardo’s “The Virgin of the Rocks” – one of which is in The Louvre and the other in The National Gallery in London – an angel accompanies the Virgin, Christ Child, and St. John the Baptist. While none of the human figures in the Louvre version have haloes, the angel is surely “extra-terrestrial or supernatural”, yet it does not have a halo either. In the National Gallery version, all of the human figures have haloes, but again the angel does not. Even if the human haloes were added by a later hand, since neither of the angels bear haloes, it is hard to argue that Leonardo abandoned the halo because he was trying to humanize a figure that was, by definition, not a human being. Moreover, throughout art history, angels sometimes wear haloes, and sometimes they do not; this was the case long before Leonardo.  

More importantly, putting aside the bizarre use of the term “extra-terrestrial” in the context of analyzing a work of Christian sacred art, Taddei betrays his lack of understanding in saying that there is nothing “supernatural” going on in this scene. For Catholics, and certainly for the Dominican Friars who commissioned Leonardo’s painting, the Last Supper marks the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Leonardo would have known and understood this, as would the men who paid him to paint this picture. He was not simply portraying a meal, like he might a Kiwanis Club banquet in Des Moines, but rather a supernatural event.

Signor Taddei may be many things, but he is neither an art historian nor a theologian. He should be given credit for debunking the nonsense that Dan Brown attempted to pass off as fact, and the Smithsonian should be credited as well for putting together this video allowing him to do so in a concise way. Yet one does not remedy someone else’s chicanery by making easily disproved assertions, nor by presenting half-baked theories based on a poor understanding of the subject matter.


>Tuesday of Holy Week: Judas Iscariot

>The Gospel reading for today comes from St. John, where Jesus reveals to the Apostles that one of them is about to betray Him. It is a moment in Salvation History that has been portrayed frequently in art: sometimes not particularly successfully, and other times in a very contemplative or innovative way. Surely the most familiar, iconic image of this scene is Leonardo da Vinci’s, where the Apostles are all reacting quite differently to Christ’s prediction that one of them will betray Him.

Truthfully it is difficult for an artist to try to get pictures of thirteen similar-looking men around a dinner table to look particularly interesting. However, he can at least have some degree of inventiveness with respect to how he sees the central character of Judas Iscariot, based on what the Gospels tell us. St. John recalls:

When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”

The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.

One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.”

So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”

Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified; if God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going you cannot come.’

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward.”

Peter said to him, “Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the cock will not crow, till you have denied me three times.

Gospel of St. John 13: 21 – 33, 36 – 38

The panel shown below, by the great Catalan artist Jaume Huguet, demonstrates how late into the 15th century Catalan painters were still following the lessons of both early Flemish and Sienese painters, and not playing particularly close attention to the development of linear perspective as embraced by their Florentine contemporaries. This becomes all the more clear when considering the dates of execution: this Last Supper was painted around 1470, and this Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio was painted around 1480, only ten years later. The figures in the latter painting, but particularly the interior, are far more realistic than those of Huguet’s work, although not as dazzling to the eye.

In some respects there is an almost Byzantine feel to Huguet’s painting, with the faces of Christ and the Apostles emerging from heavily tooled, gilt backgrounds. Yet at the same time there is the High or International Style Gothic with florid attention to detail that one often finds in Flemish painting. We can appreciate the incredibly intricate attempt at geometric floor tiles, for example, the texture of one of the knobbed glasses on the table, or a cat underneath Judas which appears to be stalking a bird clutching a piece of bread.

In Huguet’s painting Judas has not yet been given the command by Jesus to leave; he is still reaching for a piece of the roast lamb in the center of the table. We cannot see his face, but Huguet cleverly shows Judas hunched over slightly as he reaches for the tasty morsel, in a stealthy, almost cat-like fashion. The Apostles are so alarmed at Jesus’ news that they are not paying attention to what their dining companion is doing. I suspect that it is no accident that Huguet decided to add a bit of extra symbolism in placing the stealthy cat under Judas’ bench, symbolizing what Judas was about to sneak off and do.

The sadness of Judas’ fate – for it is a sad one – is that he could not bring himself to believe that God loved him enough to forgive him. Thomas Merton writes in “No Man Is An Island” that, in order to love God, man must be humble enough to realize that he was given goodness as a gift from God, but that he himself can choose evil and reject hope in God of his own free will. “The damned have confirmed themselves in the belief that they cannot hope in God.” As Father Benedict Groeschel has often said, if Judas had not given up hope and hanged himself after realizing what he had done, but instead come back to the foot of the cross on Calvary and asked Jesus’ forgiveness, there would be a Church of St. Judas in every major city in the world.

The Last Supper – Jaume Huguet (c. 1470)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

>Monday of Holy Week: St. Mary Magdalen

>Because this is Holy Week, I will be sharing the Gospel Readings for the day with my readers, along with a piece of art that provides some reflection on that particular reading. Today we read about how St. Mary Magdalen anointed Jesus while at dinner, and wiped his feet with her hair:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.

There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him.

Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.

Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came, not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus also to death, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.

Gospel of St. John 12: 1 – 11

Below we see a painting of St. Mary Magdalene dating from around 1490 by the Florentine artist Piero di Cosimo. Cosimo is one of those Old Masters whose style changed so many times during his career, as he absorbed influences from those around him, that sometimes it is difficult to identify his work. In this particular case, clearly Leonardo da Vinci was holding sway over Piero’s brush during the time this panel was painted.

I want to draw the reader’s attention to the small jar that is seen standing on the table at the Magdalen’s left elbow, as she studies the Scriptures. The presence of a particular object in a work of Christian art can often help us, the viewer, to identify who is being portrayed. In this case, we know that this is an imagined portrait of St. Mary Magdalen because she is shown with the jar of nard which she used to anoint Jesus, as described in the Gospel reading today. Sometimes, in representations of the Crucifixion, she is shown at the foot of the cross along with her jar, so as to distinguish her from the Virgin Mary and the other women who accompany Jesus to Golgotha.

Imaginary religious portraiture, as opposed to the portrayal of scenes from the Bible, often allowed the artist to try to develop something more about the psychology of the saint. These more intimate portrayals, as opposed to painting the actual scene of washing the feet of Jesus, allowed the gentleman or lady who owned this painting to reflect quietly and in private on the entire life of the saint depicted, and their relationship to Christ. We all know from the Gospels how the Magdalen was there from near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and all the way through to the end, as well as His Resurrection. Her quiet contemplation of God’s Word in this picture should remind us to take some time during this Holy Week, and reflect on these monumental events in salvation history.

St. Mary Magdalen – Piero di Cosimo (c. 1490)
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome