Leonardo and the Last Supper
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT517
ROSS KING has an inimitable style of
treating famous art as the product of its period, and illuminating
the familiar by his extensive historical reading. In his The
Judgement of Paris he rescued Ernest Meissonier, the most
highly paid French painter of his day, from the shadow of Manet to
write a fascinating account of the rise of Impressionism.
Brunelleschi's Dome is not
just a superb building history of the Duomo in Florence, but also a
readable account of politics in the age of the Medici, as well as
demonstrating the debt we owe to Filippo Brunelleschi for
reimagining architecture. Papal Rome under Julius II and Leo X is
tellingly scrutinised in his account of the Sistine Chapel.
Now he has turned northwards in the
Italian peninsula, and follows Leonardo to the court of Milan. My
one regret is that Leonardo and the Last Supper was not
available at the time of Luke Syson's exhibition of Leonardo's
paintings last winter, at the National Gallery, for the wider
avoidance of confusion.
King writes evenly and engaging-ly of
the process by which the Dominican commission for the "Cenacolo"
came about in 1494-95 for the refectory at S. Maria delle Grazie.
We learn a great deal about the middle-aged artist, and his
persistent fear of failing to complete commissions.
Even when faced with the ludicrous
speculations of the fantasy novelist Dan Brown, King writes
sensitively; including the Magdalene in scenes of the Last Supper
was nothing new, and may even have appealed to the Order of
Preachers as she was the "Apostle of the Apostles". In Chapter 12,
King roundly shows that she is obviously not the ambiguous figure
of the "Beloved Disciple".
King deftly situates both his subject,
and the immense appeal of the work in our own day (which would have
surprised Leonardo, and astounded the religious confraternity), in
the history of the Renaissance. The book will bring new insights to
all who have visited Milan, and will encourage others to make that
The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is
the Vicar of All Saints', Blackheath, in south London.