May 28, 1999: The Most Abused Famous Painting in History (The Last Supper)

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A Brief History

On May 28, 1999, 22 years of hard work repairing and restoring Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper, was finally completed and the painting became once again open for public display. Believed to have been started around 1495 with a 1498 finish date, the famous painting had suffered environmental damage and human abuse throughout its existence, the trials and tribulations of its 500+ year existence qualifying it for consideration as the most abused painting in history.

Digging Deeper

Headline: In another incident of an outrage against a famous work of art, on May 27, 2018, a drunken Russian museum goer picked up a crowd restraining pole and began smashing the famous painting of Ivan the Terrible cradling his mortally wounded son. The painting by Ilya Repin titled Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581 was painted in 1885 and is housed in Moscow at the Tretyakov Gallery. The vandal claims he normally does not drink vodka but consumed a bit too much at the museum’s buffet. The painting, its glass case, and the frame were all damaged. Police declined to name the man who is under arrest.

Ivan the Terrible killing his son; painting by Ilya Repin

The Last Supper, depicting Jesus and his disciples the night before Good Friday, purports to show the angst caused by Jesus’s revelation that one of those very disciples (apostles) would betray him. The painting was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, a patron of Da Vinci, as part of a renovation of a church refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. One of the larger paintings considered a masterpiece, the rectangular painting stretches 350 inches wide by 180 inches tall and takes up an exterior wall of the refectory.

Problems with the painting started with it being on an exterior wall, with the changing seasons, temperatures and humidity taking a toll on the paint. Deterioration began almost immediately! Reports of its deterioration started by 1517 and by 1532 it was described as “blurry.” By 1556 and later 16th Century accounts the painting was described as “ruined.”

The painting as it looked in the 1970s

In 1652, the first major human perpetrated outrage against the grand painting took place when a door was built right in the painting! That portal was later sealed up with bricks. In 1726, a major restoration took place, but in 1768 the misguided attempt to preserve the painting by covering it with a retractable curtain resulted in more damage from the curtain rubbing back and forth on the painting’s surface. A second major restoration took place in 1770, but then during the Napoleonic Wars when French soldiers occupied the church they abused the Italian national treasure by scratching out the eyes of the apostles and throwing stones at the painting. When the room housing the painting was used as a jail, it is possible the prisoners caused even more damage.

The tragic comedy of errors continued in 1821 when an attempt was made to move the painting to a more secure location, but the mistaken belief that the picture was a fresco resulted in an aborted, partial attempt at removal and a subsequent regluing of the painting back onto the wall! Further restoration work was done in 1901-1908 and again in 1924. World War II provided the next great threat to the painting, which had been heavily sandbagged in an effort to protect it. Allied bombing of the church failed to destroy the painting, but heavy vibrations from bomb blasts probably did some more damage.

A protective structure was built in front of the da Vinci wall fresco. This photo shows the bombing damage in 1943, suggesting the magnitude of the greater damage that was averted.

Art restoring master Pinin Barcilon headed up a major restoration project from 1978 to its completion in 1999, undoing much of the previous “restoration” work and bringing the painting back to as close to its original appearance as possible. Special scientific techniques (such as infrared reflectoscopy and micro-core sampling) were used to determine the form of the original painting which allowed for a fairly confident recreation of the actual appearance of the painting.

Since removing the painting to a modern, climate controlled museum was totally impractical, the refectory was instead converted into a modern facility designed to preserve what remains of The Last Supper.

The Last Supper has been a cultural icon for centuries and is often depicted in other media such as other works of art, movies, television and parodies of the scene. Along with other Da Vinci related works, The Last Supper is also the subject of conspiracy theories about some sort of hidden meaning or message.

Question for students (and subscribers): Can you think of a major masterpiece painting that has been through more than The Last Supper? If so, please tell us which painting and the trials and travails it has been through in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Isaacson, Walter.  Leonardo da Vinci. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

King, Ross. Leonardo and the Last Supper. Bloomsbury USA, 2013.

The featured image in this article, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, is a faithful photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.  This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.  This digital reproduction has been released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.