We The Italians | Italian culture and history: Santa Maria delle Grazie with The Last Supper

Italian culture and history: Santa Maria delle Grazie with The Last Supper

Italian culture and history: Santa Maria delle Grazie with The Last Supper

  • WTI Magazine #117 Jul 20, 2019
  • 1697

The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, situated in the heart of Milan, is an outstanding work of architecture, and an emblem within the Catholic tradition. Santa Maria delle Grazie is perhaps even more famous for its indissoluable connection to Leonardo Da Vinci's fresco of “The Last Supper,” preserved inside its refectory (dining hall). The Church is one of Renaissance art's most important testimonies and a shining symbol of creative human genius -  thus it became a UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980. 

Often a crossroads for crucial political, social and economic events, Milan has long held an important role in the Italian Peninsula’s history. In 1460, Count Gaspare Vimercati, commander of Francesco Sforza’s militias, gave the Dominican Order a chapel bearing a frescoed depiction of the Madonna delle Grazie until the Dominicans were able to build their own church and monastery. Construction began in 1463, with Guiniforte Solari in charge of planning and direction; the monastery was completed in 1469, the church in 1482. Ludovico the Moor (Sforza) later modified it so that it could serve as mausoleum for his family. With Bramante at the helm of these changes, the structure was enlarged according to his unique genius: the addition of large, semi-circular apses, a majestic cupola with a border of colonnades, a gorgeous cloister and, finally, the refectory.  

The perfect and sophisticated architecture of the church, attributed to Bramante, along with Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, are symbols of Renaissance Milan, as well as of a new era in European art history. On the sides of the Church are seven square chapels dedicated to the Virgin of Graces – all except the last one on the left (that realized by Solari). After the building’s construction, Milan’s most powerful clans reqested patronage of the chapels, in order to have the right to bury their loved ones in them. Those who won this right then decorated them with the artistry of the period’s masters: the Chapel of Santa Caterina now preserves sculptures by Antonello da Messina, while the Chapels of the Adoring Virgin and of the Holy Crown boast frescoes by Gaudenzio Ferrari.

The monastery, organized around three courtyards, is composed of the northern side of the Church, and, on the other three sides, of an arcade topped by Gothic capitals decorated in leaves. Facing the arcade are the ancient Chapel delle Grazie, the rooms of the Chapter House and of the Locutorio, and the library, another Solari work.  The southern side is, rather, entirely occupied by the Refectory containing Da Vinci’s fresco, and “The Crucifixion,” one of the most significant works by Milanese painter Donato da Montorfano.

The Last Supper is one of the most recognized and appreciated artistic masterpieces in the world – by Da Vinci and in general – and is the only fresco of its kind still visible today. The painting’s theme is that of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus announces that one of his apostles will betray him. Da Vinci set the long refectory table at stage center in this room, with Christ at the center of a pyramid formed by extended arms. 

Around Christ the apostles are painted in four groups of three, varied but symmetrically level. The use of perspective and the placement of the personages draws focus to the center of the painting, whence it seems that it is Christ who not only watches over the entire scene, but who seems to be living this decisive moment intensely, and in the very present.

Leonardo da Vinci adopted the technique of layering the fresco (commissioned by Ludovico Sforza) with tempera paint, so that he could be free in his creativity; such has created remarkable problems for the fresco over time, given the dramatic effect that changes in climate can have on it.