November 2012

A genius and his most famous work

By Ross King
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When you read Leonardo and The Last Supper by Ross King, you can’t help but think of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Both books deal with Leonardo Da Vinci and his famous painting, “The Last Supper”; but where Brown’s book relies on suspense, the strength of King’s book is in its scholarship. Still, having read The Da Vinci Code only added to my enjoyment of Leonardo and The Last Supper.

There is much mystery behind this masterful painting, in part because of Leonardo’s reputation as a heretic, but also because the faded fresco contains the spectral images of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, allowing us to interpret their placement at the table, their gestures and their facial expressions. This is what makes any book on “The Last Supper” so enjoyable, and King’s book doesn’t disappoint. First, we learn about Leonardo’s life. By the time he began working on “The Last Supper,” he was suffering a sort of midlife crisis. His work on a 75-ton bronze horse was suspended when the bronze was melted and made into cannons to help Italy thwart an invasion by France. The commission to paint “The Last Supper” on the wall of a Dominican convent seemed like small compensation at the time. But Leonardo forged ahead, taking three years to complete what would become a masterpiece equal in acclaim to his “Mona Lisa.”

As for the mysteries within “The Last Supper,” King has a good time exploring Leonardo’s use of mathematics and geometry to bring symmetry and perspective to the painting. And for Dan Brown fans, King spends considerable time delving into the “clues” contained in the placement of the Apostles at the supper table, their facial expressions, the shape and location of their hands and the type of food and drink being served. Among his conclusions: Two of the Apostles were modeled after Leonardo himself, and the food reflects the artist’s vegetarian leanings. One of the most delightful chapters in the book is King’s playful debate with The Da Vinci Code’s claim that one of the disciples in “The Last Supper” was actually a woman—Mary Magdalene, to be exact. I won’t spoil things by giving away his bold conclusion.

I highly recommend Leonardo and The Last Supper, whether you are a serious scholar of art, history or religion, or a casual reader who happens to enjoy all of the puzzles and mysteries that lie behind Leonardo and “The Last Supper.”

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