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A fresh look at a famous fresco

23 November 2012

Nicholas Cranfield on a work of art placed in historical context


Leonardo and the Last Supper
Ross King
Bloomsbury £20
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 pilgrimage. 

The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints', Blackheath, in south London.

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