The Last Supper: A Painting with Mary Magdalene?
There are numerous theories and legends attached to the Last Supper, a painting already rife with symbols. In recent years, many of these theories have appeared in novels and in movies depicting Leonardo’s The Last Supper, controversies that have only been blown up with their inclusion in the huge selling Da Vinci Code.
One of the first legends attached to the painting, not quite a controversy, but an interesting legend regardless, is that the model used to paint Jesus is the same as the one used to paint Judas. It has been said that Leonardo hired a nice young baker, around 19 years of age to be the model for Jesus. A few years later, when finishing the mural, Leonardo hired a criminal to sit as the model for Judas. The legend has it that the model was the same person as the one used for Jesus. However, there is no direct evidence that any of this is true, especially as the mural is believed to have only taken 3 years to complete.
The biggest theory though, and one that has gotten a lot of press and attention in recent novels, is that the figure seated to the left of Jesus is actually Mary Magdalene and not John. These theories describe the figure as having a womanly bosom and the facial features of a woman. The posture is described as feminine and graceful, while Peter appears to be making a threatening gesture toward the throat. In Dan Brown’s famous Da Vinci Code, the correlation between the Last Supper and the picture of the knife were made world famous. The theory of course goes deeper as writers have postulated (and not always in fiction) that Leonardo was the head of a secret society which held such secrets.
The theory itself is subject to much criticism though. First, critics argue that the damage to the painting makes it impossible to know if the figure is male or female. Furthermore, the figure is wearing men’s clothing.
Next, there are only thirteen figures in the painting. If John were replaced by Mary Magdalene it would mean that an apostle was removed altogether. It would have been noted much earlier if an apostle were missing from the painting. The knife itself is pointing towards Bartholomew, a man who is later executed by being flayed. It is largely believed that the knife might allude to Peter’s impulsive acts later in removing a soldier’s ear.
The original sketches do not reveal any of the secrets of the Last Supper either. Originally preserved in Da Vinci’s notebooks they do not show any female faces either nor do they offer any clues that John might in fact be Mary Magdalene.
Another reason why John might look so feminine is that it was common during the time period to paint John as a youthful, feminine looking male. Because he was the youngest of the apostles, he was often shown with long hair and a clean face. He is also shown often as the most devout of the apostles, asleep beside Jesus, a common technique.
Another popular theory is that there is in fact no cup in the painting, despite the directions in which Jesus’ hands point. There are numerous cups located on the table, though the actual location is hard to discern because of the deterioration of the mural. The argument over realism in Leonardo’s paintings though continues. He largely disagreed with the use of methods such as Michelangelo’s showing supernatural forms or embellishments.
Another theory that has been created due to the nature in which the painting was created on a wall, is that a grail like image appears behind the figure of Bartholemew. However, because of the cup that some say is within reach of Jesus (though it’s impossible to be sure), it is hard to know if this is merely an optical illusion or a purposeful representation of the Holy Chalice. The image itself usually only appears in small scale reproductions. On the larger scale, the series of shapes that create the illusion only appear to do so when certain parts are removed, as with what occurs in small scale reproductions. It’s ultimately impossible to know with the deterioration of the painting.
The presence of the number 3 in Da Vinci’s painting, the Last Supper has also created much speculation over the possibilities the painting represents. The disciples are bound in threes, there are three windows behind them and Christ is placed in a pose similar to a triangle.