Hidden Art in Oxford

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     Emma Whipday discovers a copy of The Last Supper in Magdalen ChapelEver since Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was published, Leonardo da Vinci’s classic representation of The Last Supper has found itself at the centre of a whirlwind of controversy. Brown’s theory may have been largely discredited, but the fact remains that it is difficult to look at the painting today without wondering whether the feminine depiction of St. John is intended to represent Mary Magdalen. The mystery is basically insoluble, for the original itself is all but destroyed. This is not merely due to the passage of time, nor to vandals; the problem is that when painting The Last Supper, Leonardo was experimenting with a new technique.

    The Last Supper is traditionally assumed to be a fresco, a style which involves painting onto wet plaster, forcing the painter to plan meticulously, work rapidly on each area, and use broad brush-strokes. However, this was incompatible with da Vinci’s way of working, and so he pioneered a new method, mixing tempora (egg yolk and vinegar) with the oil paints so that could paint onto earlier painting that had dried. This allowed him to retouch as much as he wanted, using smaller, neater brush strokes which gave a more detailed finish. Whilst Leonardo was generally considered to be a genius, this was not one of his better ideas. It may have improved the painting, but it also made it dramatically less durable. Humidity has caused the paint to crumble from the plaster, and now the original is, to all intents and purposes, lost.

    Luckily, there are a number of contemporary copies in existence, and the copy which is widely considered to be the most accurate now hangs in Magdalen Chapel, on loan from the Royal Academy. Generally attributed to Gianpietrino, a follower of da Vinci’s, this precious copy was almost itself lost. Rolled up and placed in vaults for safe-keeping during the last war, it might never have resurfaced, for the combination of grime, discoloured varnish and later overpainting had left it almost unrecognizable. Thankfully, a lengthy restoration process has returned the piece to a state close to its former glory, and it now hangs at Magdalen for anyone to see. The antechapel provides the perfect setting, not merely because it is itself contemporary to the piece, but because the placing of the painting corrects the perspective, allowing us to fully appreciate its genius. Whilst the copy is doubtless inferior to the original, it remains the closest we can get to viewing da Vinci’s vision of that immortal moment where Christ says to his disciples: “One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.”

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