This iconic work is one of the world's most recognizable paintings. It depicts Christ, his form creating a triangular hub in the center, from which flank his disciples seated beside him at the Last Supper on the eve of his most famous betrayal by Judas. The group sits behind a long rectangular table, which forms a boundary between the viewer and the occupants of this most sacred moment. The walls on either side create diagonals that narrow toward three open windows in the background behind Christ, further illuminating his central importance to the scene, and the powerful dramatic results obtained from the use of linear perspective.
In this work, Leonardo deviated from the tradition of depicting Judas separate from the group, and instead conveyed his betrayal by showing him stiffly hidden in shadow. Previous artists had portrayed this instance of Judas being named as the traitor, but Leonardo chose to paint, for the first time, the moment just before, when Christ said, "Verily I say unto you that one of you will betray me."
This artistic choice highlighted a tense psychological moment, showing how the disciples reacted, each in their own individual way that conveyed their deepest feelings. Leonardo wanted to portray the Apostles in motion, as each gesture conveyed the movement of the soul. As he wrote, "One who was drinking has left his glass in its place and turned his head towards the speaker. Another wrings the fingers of his hands and turns with a frown to his companion. Another with hands spread open to show the palms shrugs his shoulders up to his ears and mouths astonished. Another speaks into his neighbor's ear, and the listener twists his body round to him and lends him his ear while holding a knife in one hand and in the other some bread half cut through by a knife."
Along with his innovative approach to the subject matter, Leonardo's study of optics, shadow, and light inform the work, creating a sense of movement that flows through the group like a wave of emotion. As a result it becomes what art historian Jacob Burckhardt called a "restless masterpiece."
The artist's radical experimentation with media can also be seen. To achieve an effect like oil painting, Leonardo used oil and tempera to paint on a dry wall, after first applying plaster and then adding an underlying layer of white pigment to increase the vibrancy of the colors.
Also of interest is the way Leonardo integrated elements into the scene in regards to its location. Duke Ludovico Sforza commissioned the painting for the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery's refectory, and the artist created it so that Christ and his disciples seemed to be an extension of the space where the monks ate dinner. By using Italian models for the disciples, depicting a Tuscan landscape, and including a plate of orange slices and grilled eel, a popular dish at the time, he brought ordinary elements that the monks would recognize into the famous religious scene.
Within the first few decades the paint started to deteriorate, and other events have damaged the work. Nonetheless, the work has had an extensive influence, being referenced in works by Salvador Dalí, silk screens by Andy Warhol, and works by the artist and filmmaker Peter Greenaway. One of the most popular and recognizable of artworks, it has been reproduced in countless consumer items from wall calendars to velvet tapestries. The contemporary art critic Peter Conrad wrote of the fresco, "I wonder if Leonardo didn't intend it to decay. He knew that creativity fights a losing battle with destruction and that art cannot outwit nature: what better way to illustrate those morbid truths than to produce a miraculously beautiful painting that almost immediately begins to revert, like the bodies and minds of all who look at it, to unformed chaos?"