Sunday, April 10, 2011


The painting of the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci (1470-1516), a Renaissance artist, and polymath has undergone a major restoration during the 1990's. The painting was executed between 1495-98. It covers an end wall of what became the refectory at the Monastery of Santa Delle Grazie, Milan. 

In certain academic art, religious and possibly culinary circles, there has been great curiosity about what was shown on the plates of the Passover meal that Christ is depicted as attending. With the masterpiece now to be seen almost in its original glorious colours, there is greater clarity about the food on the table.

The lead restorer, Singora Brambilla, is definite that there is fish on the plates. Also oranges are on the table. There appear to be some anomalies with the repast. Some people who have closely viewed the work are sure that it is eel that is being eaten, decorated with citrus fruit. These are considered to be two artistic anachronisms. 

1.How much, I wonder, did Leonardo Da Vinci know of Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws? Eel is not Kosher. It should not have been eaten Might the artist have been playing a joke on the Church and Ludovico Sforza, who commissioned the painting? 

2.Oranges are said not to have arrived in Europe till the fifteenth century, brought in by Dutch sailors from the Indian Subcontinent. Leonardo, therefore, would have seen oranges in his time. The Last Supper occurred centuries before oranges were seen in Italy. 

3.However, a further dilemma arises about this artistic anachronism. This fruit may have been introduced to the Roman Empire around the 1st century B.C. so, could have been a legitimate item of food on the Passover meal table, although it might not have been the sweet variety of orange that we eat today.

There are some practical considerations about the food that is presented in the painting, if you accept that there is eel and that there are oranges. In Da Vinci's time, bringing fish overland for a journey of many days was not viable, whereas, eel could live about five days and could be transported for a 'fish supper'. The oranges remain a point of conjecture, as it is possible, if not for the right reasons, that Leonardo Da Vinci was correct in his depiction of this citrus fruit. It could have been available as a sour fruit at the time the meal took place.

If the artist, who was a bit of a joker, was not exercising his humour in the painting of eel, there are three other possible explanations for the type of food there is, being present. 
a).First, the picture is describing the kind of food that monks at a particular monastery would eat It was not uncommon to do so;

b).The other explanation is a religious one. It could have been a determined attempt to distance Christ from his Judaic heritage and Judaism, which the church was actively doing for centuries. 
c).The third explanation is that both of the above apply. 

The painting should be thought about at the time it was painted, its cultural time. That said, it still raises conundrums. Is that what Leonardo Da Vinci wanted to do; he was certainly capable of it!

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