Leo Steinberg and the Incessant Last Supper

May 24, 2012

Introductory note
The following book review, presented by Dr. Frank DeStefano is dedicated to the memory of art historian and author, Leo Steinberg, who died in March 2011, aged 90. Steinberg's work is not commonly known or discussed outside of specialist circles, and hence formed a natural point of interest for 3PP, which aims to bring such topics into an openly accessible format.

Steinberg was born in Moscow to German-Jewish parents. His father, Isaac Steinberg served as commissar of justice under Lenin, but was reportedly forced into exile in Berlin. The family then moved to London following the rise of Nazism in Germany. In London, young Leo studied painting and sculpture at the Slade School, concluding in 1940. He moved to New York following the Second World War, working as a freelance writer and translator, as well as teaching drawing at the Parsons School of Design. He studied art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and completed his Ph.D. on Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in 1960. During his prolific career he also amassed an impressive collection of Italian prints, which was donated to the University of Austin, Texas in 2002.

Steinberg in 1967

Described as a modernist in his approach, his work on Renaissance art remains among the most unique and controversial in the field, though sometimes chided by commentators such as E.H Gombrich for being unprovable, and a "dangerous model to follow." His most widely discussed exploration of Renaissance art was presented in the book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and In Modern Oblivion, first published in 1983. Less well known is his work on Leonardo's Last Supper, a subject he first explored in the 1970s, and returned to in a book published in 2001, Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper. It is this book which is the subject of the following review. -hn

Leo Steinberg: Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper
by Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

The damage to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper is well known. Even after the most recent restoration the huge fresco that measures over 29 by 15 feet is in such perilous condition that viewing access is strictly controlled and limited.

We know from early copies that much of Leonardo’s work has been irretrievably lost or covered. Early on the feet of Christ and the Apostles had so disappeared that the monks had no reluctance to put a door in the wall under the figure of Christ. We know of this from copies but even the earliest copies are often unreliable and omit or alter certain important details. Finally, although the painting is still in its original venue, it is impossible to replicate the monk’s dining room and see the painting as its original viewers would have seen it.

The restored Last Supper

Compared to the physical damage that Leonardo’s work has suffered, the interpretive damage has been even greater. It was this damage that Leo Steinberg set out to repair first in an extended essay, Leonardo’s Last Supper, that appeared in the Art Quarterly in 1973. In 2001, Steinberg returned to this work, revising it for publication in his book, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper. In the introduction to his book Steinberg recalled two questions that he had raised in the 1973 study. “Is there anything left to see? And, Is there anything left to say?” Of course his answer was positive,
What remains to be told about Leonardo’s Last Supper is not some residual matter previously overlooked; the novelty of the subject is the whole of the work responding to different questions. In the present study, the picture emerges as both less secular and less simple; contrary to inherited notions, it is nowhere “unambiguous and clear,” but consistently layered, double functioning, polysemantic.
Steinberg took on an academic tradition that had been entrenched ever since the time of the Enlightenment, especially after Goethe’s famous essay claimed that Leonardo had depicted the psychological shock on the faces of the Apostles at the moment immediately following the announcement of the betrayal. Goethe’s interpretation had seemingly settled the matter for all future observers. Steinberg, however, blamed nineteenth century secularism for a profound mis-reading.
In the art of the Renaissance, the obscurantism imputed to religious preoccupations seemed happily superseded. Ideal art was believed to reveal humane truths which the service of religion could only divert and distort. And it was again in Leonardo in whom these highest artistic goals, originally embodied in ancient Greece, seemed reaffirmed. In this projection of nineteenth-century values upon Renaissance art, the masterworks of the Renaissance were reduced to intelligible simplicity, and Leonardo’s Last Supper became (nothing but) a behavioural study of twelve individuals responding to psychic shock.
By 2001, almost thirty years after his original study had been published, he could remark that his interpretation was “no longer news,” and that the “common view” was “no longer pandemic.” But I wonder if he was too sanguine. A quick web search found the Wikipedia article begin with the following pronouncement, “The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him.” 

Moreover, I suspect that today, one year after Steinberg’s death at the age of 90, his thesis is still only known by a small coterie of art historians. Reading Steinberg’s Incessant Last Supper not only brings one deeper into a great masterpiece, but also deeper into the mind and culture of the genius who was Leonardo. However, since the common view holds that the painting depicts the psychological reaction to the announcement of the betrayal, I would like to concentrate on Steinberg’s analysis of Leonardo’s portrayal of the Apostles.

Beginning with the general principle “that nothing in Leonardo’s Last Supper is trivial,” Steinberg asserted that the subject of the picture was not merely the betrayal announcement but the whole story of the Last Supper, the Eucharist, the Passion, and the significance of it all to the viewer.

Leonardo’s task,
...never before attempted, was to collect in “conjoint presence” a superdozen male sitters strung across nearly 29 feet of wall, to convert the drag of enumeration into what he called a “harmonic total effect." 
Leonardo’s solution of the problem is “an untiring marvel” but first we must identify the Apostles. In their places from left to right there are Bartholomew, James (the eventual head of the Church in Jerusalem), Andrew, Peter, Judas, and John. On the other side there are James (the son of Zebedee), Thomas (who has thrust himself ahead of James), Philip, Matthew, Thaddeus (sometimes called Jude), and Simon.

 Anonymous 16th century copy, now at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Much of the detail of the original has been lost but an anonymous copy c.1550 gives a very good look at the hands and feet of the thirteen men in the picture. Steinberg’s stresses the significance not only of the feet of Christ but of the Apostles. Christ’s feet are central and larger and they announce his impending crucifixion. The feet of the Apostles are there to be washed but also represent their role and future destiny, "This very night, each of these feet is washed and wiped dry by the Master. In view of the gospel…how negligible can these feet be; surely, this is their hour!" 

Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon

Starting with the three on our right at the end of the table, the six open hands in gesture toward Christ, seemingly in response to the word “take!”. Steinberg proposes the Eucharistic interpretation, indicating that Communion of the Apostles is imminent. Hands take on special significance.  Steinberg takes special note of the “affinity” of the left hand of Thaddeus to the left hand of Christ, "Thaddeus’ hand toward Christ; Christ’s toward us. It is missing a lot to dismiss the correspondence as accidental."

Thomas, James (Major), Philip

Feet, hands, even fingers are important. In the triad at Christ’s left hand (Philip, Thomas, James). The upright finger of Thomas, who has thrust himself forward toward Jesus, is particularly noted for its repeated use by Leonardo, "...this upright finger occurs in Leonardo’s rare paintings no less than four times, invariably pointing to heaven… The steeple finger is Leonardo’s trusted sign of transcendence."

Judas, Peter, John

Then, Steinberg moves on to the triad on Christ’s right hand; Peter who denies, Judas who betrays, and John who remains to the end at the foot of the Cross.
The inner triad refers to imminent Crucifixion. It contains the dark force that sets the Passion in motion, then, behind Judas, St. Peter. Peter’s right hand points the knife he will ply a few hours hence at the arrest. And the interlocking hands of the beloved disciple are pre-positioned for their grieving on Calvary.
The figure of Judas who recoils from the plate is given special attention. Steinberg’s interpretation is buttressed by an analysis of a Leonardo drawing:
Leonardo’s initial rendering of the betrayer tracks inner conflict; lips clenched under enchanted eyes that gaze on their gift of light,…the wretchedness of a man who had once been chosen by Jesus…but whose nature, having experienced devotion, retains its capacity for remorse…Leonardo brought a tragic vision far in advance of what his contemporaries could fathom. The subjective experience of abjection never received more humane understanding.
Head of Judas. c.1495. Royal Collection, UK.

Bartholomew, James (Minor), Andrew

In the outermost trio on the left, Andrew sits next to his brother Peter; and James, the first Bishop, imposes a hand on each of them.

As for Andrew, 
For those who have seen a priest at the altar, who recall the corresponding pose of St. Francis stigmatized and, finally, Andrew’s own story, he is the Apostle whose lodestar is crucifixion… 
The last Apostle is Bartholomew who “stands exposed to the knife levelled at him by Peter’s right hand….an oddly apt accident or else staged with intent.” According to tradition Bartholomew was skinned alive, but another tradition had him crucified, a martyrdom he yearned for in order to emulate the Master. Crucifixion, according to Steinberg, explains the odd crossing of Bartholomew’s feet, an otherwise inexplicable oddity that even led some copiers to correct Leonardo’s “mistake.”

Finally, no review can do justice to Steinberg’s discussion of the figure of Christ, no longer seen as a passive figure sitting back while the Apostles react to the betrayal announcement.

The central figure of Christ

For Steinberg, the institution of the Eucharist is central to the painting:
As the person of Christ unites man and God, so his right hand summons the agent of his human death even as it offers the means of salvation. The Christ figure as agent—both hands actively molding his speech, and both directed at bread and wine…Christ becomes the capstone of a great central pyramid…And midway between the…slopes of Christ arms and the floor lines that transmit their momentum, exactly halfway, there lies the bread, and there lies the wine.
It should be clarified here, Goethe's widely quoted interpretation of the Last Supper omits this point, as he had only seen the painting briefly in Milan. Hence, his analysis primarily relied on a copy that left out the bread and wine of the Eucharist. (nb. see notes under Antoniewicz)

The above discussion primarily relates to the analysis presented in the third and fourth chapters of Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper. Steinberg goes on to show how the painting must be understood in terms of the whole room in which it was viewed, and even in terms of the whole complex of which S. Maria della Grazie was a part. This final quotation gives a good summary.
I think we see—or would have seen had the mural survived intact—a willed visual metaphor. Within the geometry of the picture, the elements of the Eucharist, placed in extension of Christ’s earthly presence, serve as conveyors: from the centrality of the Incarnate toward the faithful this side of the picture.
Steinberg backed up his interpretation with a virtuoso display of all the tools available to a modern art historian. He displayed a magisterial familiarity with the interpretive history; the texts; the traditional legends; the related paintings; and with the entire body of Leonardo's work. More than anything else, however, was his ability to convey the culture of devotion in Medieval and Renaissance Christianity.

Antoniewicz, JB. Das Abendmahl Lionardos. Anzeiger de Akademie der Wissenschaften in Krakau. Philologische Klasse. Historische-Philosophische Klasse, Cracow. 1904. Cited in Steinberg, 2001.

Steinberg, L. Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper. Zone Books. 2001.

Entry for Leo Steinberg at the Dictionary of Art Historians. Accessed May 23 2012 link

Image notes
Last Supper HQ Image via Mendicant Me source
Last Supper - 16C copy via Hermitage website source
Steinberg 1967 image via Brooklyn Rail source 
Head of Judas via Royal Collection website source

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano is a retired assistant professor of history, who now dedicates his time to writing and lecturing independently on history and art history. His key area of interest is Venetian Renaissance art, particularly the works of Giorgione. His ongoing research into historical and sacred themes influencing artists in the Renaissance can be read at Giorgione et al, and its parent site Tempesta News.


Edward Goldberg said...

Thanks, Frank! I have not read Leo Steinberg's book but I will certainly do so. The main point, I think, is that we no longer have to choose between:

(1) a "Modern" (if Goethe is "modern"!)reading of the "Last Supper" in terms of human psychological drama, and

(2) a "Medieval" reading in terms of spiritual and doctrinal concepts.(The "Middle Ages" remain an ahistorical construct for many, since it was long assumed that "Medievalism" lived on in the hearts of all believers.)

It seems clear that Leonardo didn't have to chose one or other (nor do we). Nor did Leo Steinberg (one of the most "incessant" personalities ever to walk the halls of Academe!)The chief--probably unanswerable question--is how far we can and should go in reconstructing patterns of "historical context".
There are so many "keys for reading" works of art--ancient, modern and post-modern!

Thanks again for focusing our attention on this important book.

Dr. F said...


I'm glad you enjoyed the review and I'm sure that you and anyone else will find that I just scratched the surface when you read it yourself.

I came to Steinberg's work only after I had made my original Giorgione Tempest discovery but his insights and concepts provided valuable support even though I have found no evidence that he spent much time with Venetian art.

I plan to post on this subject on my own blog but for now I will just say that he confirmed my belief that we must learn to view the Last Supper and other masterpieces not through our own eyes but through the eyes of Leonardo, Giorgione and their contemporaries.


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