Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A comparison of the Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno during the Early Renaissance period and of the “Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci during the High Renaissance period

            The scene of the Last Supper, which portrays Christ’s Last Supper with his followers and disciples, was painted during the Early Renaissance period by Andrea del Castagno and during the High Renaissance period by Leonardo da Vinci.  Although they both share the same subject matter, and they were painted to encourage the monks and nuns “to see that their daily gatherings for meals were almost a sacramental act rooted in biblical tradition” (Stokstad p.614), in Leonardo’s work we see the start of the “dynamic unity” of the High Renaissance, which is lacking in Castagno’s work.
            Dynamic unity, which was a characteristic of High Renaissance artwork, involved compositions in sweeping arcs that were energized with figures in a variety of poses and gestures.  In Leonardo’s painting we can see the dynamic figures of Christ’s disciples that are reacting to the news of Jesus’s announcement that one of them will betray them.  We can see that the figures have been individualized with different expressions and clothing and hairstyles.  Some of the bodies (third man from the right and fourth man from the left) are shown reaching over to speak in confidence to another figure, while others are twisting their bodies and necks to listen to the others talking around them.  The elongated lines of the bodies gives a sense of movement and tension to the figures, and the bodies also overlap into each other’s space, which also helps to create flow and movement of the eye within each group of figures and helps move the eye to the next group.
            In comparison in Castagno’s depiction of the “Last Supper” the figures of the disciples don’t seem as dynamic.  Most of the figures, except for St. John who is asleep with his head on the table, are sitting upright and somewhat rigid and solemn.  The gestures of the hands and body are very contained compared to the figures in Leonardo’s painting of the “Last Supper”, they do not extend very much into the space of the figures near them.  There isn’t the dynamic placement of the bodies or the exaggerated expressions of the men at the table, which gave a feeling of tension and excitement to Leonardo’s work.  Looking at Castagno’s figures, they are fairly evenly divided into their own spaces, except for Judas by himself on the one side of the table and the figure of Christ, who’s triangular shaped body seems to take up a little more space than the rest, and they all appear at the same height.
Leonardo also cleverly separated the figures into groups of three that helped create areas of interest, and it also helped to create individual scenes of drama and movement that helped draw the viewer into the painting but at the same time draw the eye towards the central figure of Christ.  Instead, in Castagno’s work the eye is drawn to the central figure of Christ through the framing of the colorful marble panels and the lines on the ceiling and the lines of the floor tiles.  Movement of the eye relies more on the decorative elements within the piece rather than the figures themselves.  There is very much a use of geometric shapes and patterns, which can be seen decorating the floor, walls, and the ceiling. 
There are definitely strong classical elements that can be found throughout both paintings.  In Castagno’s painting the scene of the Last Supper is placed in a palacial home with marble panels (which remind me of the painted marble panels found in Roman homes during the Early Empire period) lining the walls and is riddled with Roman motifs.  Some of the motifs include a geometric frieze that runs above the panels, the sphinxes that flank the disciples, the urns which are carved into the benches, and the appearance of what look almost like columns at the end of the walls, which are decorated with acanthus leaves at the top.  The figures are wearing Roman style clothing, which doesn’t seem to be the case with all of the figures in Leonardo’s painting.  In his painting we see the use of the arch above Jesus’s head and it helps form an architectural halo and replaces the use of the round halos that can still be seen in Castagno’s painting.
There is an interest in modeling in both paintings.  In Castagno’s painting there is modeling done on the figures in the area of the head, neck, arms, and in the drapery of the clothing.  In Leonardo’s painting we see the modeling taken a step further, which is a characteristic of the High Renaissance period.  He uses shading extensively on the figures to make them more realistic and he uses sfumato, which means smoky, which is shading that gives the affect of haze and creates subtle transitions of light and dark in the shading.
The composition is very stable and balanced in Castagno’s Last Supper and with the disciples balanced on either side of Christ, and the figure of St. John and Judas help to form a triangular shape in the center around Christ that was common in work from the Early Renaissance.  Leonardo’s work shows Christ balanced as well with an equal number of figures on both sides of him.  He also forms a natural triangular shape in the center of the picture, instead of the pyramidal shape which come to characterize the High Renaissance period.
Linear perspective was used in the orthogonal lines in the rafters of Leonardo’s painting and there is a suggestion of atmospheric perspective in the background through the windows we can see that the mountains appear smoky and further in the distance.  In the other painting, there is some linear perspective in the lines of the ceiling tiles, but the lines of the orthogonals don’t converge into a single point.  There isn’t any atmospheric perspective, the only windows in the scene face to the side and the background is filled with a brick wall which prevents any view into any scenery.
In summary, Castagno’s “Last Supper” utilizes some of the styles of the Early Renaissance with the use of Classical elements, the use of modeling and an interest in naturalism with the figures, the triangular composition that is balanced with the central figure of Christ in the middle, and the attempt at some linear perspective.  Leonardo’s “Last Supper” is share some similar characteristics of the triangular balanced composition, the use of linear perspective, and the use of modeling.  His painting, though, shows the dynamic unity of energetic and expressive figures to create interesting movement within the picture.

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