So great and lasting is the influence of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (c 1498) that even today we tend to think of its formal composition as the standard approach to depicting this scene. So it may have been in the High Renaissance, but fifty years later, that was changing.
In about 1542-44, Titian painted this informal composition which would undoubtedly have been an important influence on the young Tintoretto. Unusually, he opts for his canvas to be in portrait rather than landscape orientation, which crops the table down. There is a dog in the foreground, busily eating scraps which have fallen from the table, but no additional figures such as children or servants. Jesus is the only person to be given a halo, too.
In about 1546, Jacopo Bassano, who was a few years older than Tintoretto, took the traditional formal view and added informality. The apostles are loosely engaged in various discussions and activities, lounging against the table, and almost ignoring the standing figure of Christ. An irregular row of bare feet seen under the table emphasises this informality further. The dog has now curled up, waiting to be fed. Next to it is a large metal bowl from the washing of the feet. Jesus’ left hand touches a symbolic lamb’s head on a platter. The apostle in front of him, John the Evangelist by tradition, has fallen asleep.
After Tintoretto had painted most of his depictions of the Last Supper, in about 1585, Paolo Veronese painted this version. Christ sits at one end of the long table, and the rest of the room is quite disorderly. The dog is now begging for food near a young girl, who is waiting as a glass of wine is poured out by a kneeling man. There is a total of seventeen figures in addition to Christ, some of whom are busy serving at the table.
Veronese had earlier, in 1573, delivered the huge painting now known as The Feast in the House of Levi to the Dominicans of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice as a Last Supper, but that had brought him before the Inquisition, where he was forced to change its title. For all its controversial features, its composition remains firmly rooted in the classical.
Francesco Bassano the Younger’s painting from about 1586 is more orderly, just equally informal. Judas Iscariot is formally identified, sitting on his own in green with his back to the viewer, and his purse of silver tied to his belt. A cat and a dog vie for the scraps, and there are three servants: one pouring wine at the lower left, a small boy serving at the table, and a figure part-way up the stairs.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Tintoretto painted so many versions of the Last Supper either. As the event which instituted the Eucharist, it was an important visual reminder of the sacrament in every church. As a key preliminary to the Passion, it was also essential in any series of paintings showing that, or the life of Christ. If a church was so poor that it could only afford three paintings, they might well be a Nativity, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion.
We are fortunate that so many of Tintoretto’s Last Suppers have survived. I will here try to use their images to show how they changed from 1547 to shortly before his death in 1594.
Tintoretto’s early version from 1547 is quite modest in its departure, and keeps the furniture in its classical arrangement, with Christ sat on the far side close to the centre. Judas is identified with his bag of silver held in his left hand behind his back. In addition to Christ, there are twelve apostles, two serving maids one of whom is carrying an infant, a toddler, and a cat.
This version from 1563-64 is so radically informal that it still shocked John Ruskin when he saw it three centuries later. Its table is almost square and low-set, with Jesus leaning back and talking quite casually. Twelve apostles sit, lounge, slump and lean around the table, of which one at the right is even eating his meal from his lap. There’s a rough assortment of seating, with a chair resting on its side under the table, as if hurriedly abandoned, which is perhaps a reference to Judas Iscariot.
The apostle at the far left is doing something to a serving dish which appears to contain a rabbit; to his left is a boy. In the far distance behind Jesus are two figures apparently seen in a vision, and over to the right is a pile of books and possessions. Almost at the top of the stairs, at the centre left, a woman sits, resting her head on her hands.
This version, from about 1571, is perhaps not quite as radical, but still has some very progressive features. Judas Iscariot is shown conventionally as the figure in yellow with his back to the viewer, just to the right of centre. He has his right hand behind his back, where it holds a small purse of silver. There are also a couple of people serving the meal, and the incongruous figure of a contemporary priest wearing a white cassock, at the left edge. At the lower right is a large dog, but there is no sign of any child.
Tintoretto’s next version was painted in about 1574-75, and moves the location almost out into the open air, as did Veronese a decade later. Christ is here giving the sacrament, holding out broken bread to the two apostles who are standing at the table. There are several supernumerary figures who appear to be serving the meal, and over at the right is a small boy. I can’t, though, see any dogs or cats.
Although it is thought that this 1576 version was painted by his studio, this still appears to have been designed by Jacopo Tintoretto. The table is now raised on a platform, bringing the viewer to eye level with the apostles. Haloes extend to all those sat at the table, which makes it hard to distinguish the figure of Jesus, who is most probably sat at the end closest to the viewer. John the Evangelist is sleeping on the table at the far right, and there are several serving maids, a dog, and an infant crawling up the steps.
This version from 1578-81 still appears to have received some direction by Jacopo, but starts to depart from his previous visual language. The table is similar to that in the previous painting, and raised on a platform, but it is more distant, and smaller within the whole composition. Christ sits at the far end, with his distinctive glowing halo, and all the other apostles have fine circular haloes too.
There is a total of five ancillary figures involved in various hospitality duties, including a couple sat at the foot of the steps in the foreground. Between them is a dog, who looks with excitement towards the table. The young boy is nowhere to be seen.
Of the two versions painted within a couple of years of Jacopo’s death, it is this which is quite widely cited as the leading instance of Tintoretto’s paintings of the Last Supper, although it is now thought to have been painted by his son Domenico and the workshop. It is distinctly more formal than Jacopo’s earlier compositions, and shows Christ standing to administer the sacrament to his seated apostles. The serving staff have grown in number to eight, the dog is almost hidden under the table, and another pet (most probably a cat) is poking its head into a basket of food in the foreground.
There is no sign of any crawling child on the floor, and a double oil lamp hanging above the table is pouring forth angels.
There is much less evidence of Jacopo’s involvement in the design of this last Last Supper from the same period. Christ now stands in a mandorla at the far end of a foreshortened table which is skewed awkwardly off the perspective projection. The pets have vanished, and a mother is giving her infant the breast in the foreground. The ethereal angels seen in the other version from this time are now much more substantial flying winged figures.
Robert Echols and Frederick Ilchman (2009) Toward a new Tintoretto Catalogue, with a Checklist of revised Attributions and a new Chronology, in Falomir op cit.
Miguel Falomir (ed) (2009) Jacopo Tintoretto, Proceedings of the International Symposium, Museo Nacional del Prado. ISBN 978 84 8480 171 9.
Roland Krischel (ed) (2017) Tintoretto, A Star was Born, Hirmer (in German). ISBN 978 3 777 42942 7.
Tom Nichols (2015) Tintoretto, Tradition and Identity, 2nd edition, Reaktion Books. ISBN 978 1 78023 450 2.