Especially for those of you taking "Humanities 1" this semester, let me offer a few photos I took recently of the Last Supper. As you may have already guessed, I haven't made a quick trip to Milan, and this isn't Leonardo Da Vinci's work. It's a copy, on canvas, (probably) by Giampietrino, a "shadowy" contemporary of the master's who seems to have made something of a career doing knock-offs of his work. The painting was almost certainly done in the presence of the original, though probably not under Leonardo's supervision. It's moved a number of times in the last 400 years, first around Italy and thence in 1790 to London, where it finally came into the hands of the British Royal Academy. During World War Two it was rolled up for safe keeping and stayed that way for decades in the Royal Academy's basement. At long last the Academicians went looking for a place where they could show it to best effect, i.e. up high where the perspective wouldn't be distorted, rather than simply sitting at eye level as it had for the century or so that Academy students had been set to copy it. And so it came at last in 1993 to the antechapel in Magdalen (pronounced 'maudlin,' or just 'maggie') College, Oxford (which space is also roughly contemporary to the painting, as it happens).
That's where I saw it a couple of weeks ago on the one day a year that Oxford opens its doors wide to the public and we all troop through seeing sights that are otherwise difficult of access. As you can see from the photos, while it sits suitably high on the wall as intended, this makes the painting hard to examine in much detail. I had to scramble around a bit just to get these shots without the antechapel's north pillar (or "pier" in the technical lingo) in the way. So, my apologies to those who want a good close look.**
Then again, you might be consoled to know that Lord Piers Rodgers, Secretary of the Royal Academy (and no relation to the pillar) admitted (on the occasion of its formal installation at Magdalen) that another reason for hanging it up so high was to keep viewers from being confronted by what he politely called the "rather overemphatic handling of some of the figures." In fact, when the painting was unrolled for the first time right after the war, pre-eminent British art historian (and former Magdalen College Fellow) Sir Kenneth Clark pronounced it an "ugly thing" and had it rolled back up. And those of you who are reading (or have read) Leo Steinberg's book on the Last Supper know what a hard time he gives most copyists (though I admit I can't remember what he says of this one specifically).
Yet as much as Steinberg also demonstrates that Il Cenacolo was painted to be seen (felt?) within the confines of the Santa Maria delle Grazie, I was happy enough with my distant brush with it at Magdalen. In fact, I am thinking about arming myself with a proper tripod for my camera and going back in to get some more detailed shots (a challenge in the chapel's low light). Till then, I hope you'll not look too askance on my own modest copies of a copy.
** I point the adventurous to a nifty "virtual" tour of all of Magdalen College, including the antechapel, at this website:
If you click on the circle at the far left of the Chapel on the map (the biggest dark-blue bit down at the lower right hand corner above the "High Street") you will be able to get a 360-degree view of the entire room, including the painting (though with the pier in the way, I'm afraid). Here's a view of Magdalen from "the High" just to give you a sense of the place: