Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is a masterpiece. When he painted it, Leonardo used an experimental technique using egg tempera and oil paint on plaster, so it began to fade soon after it was completed. Luckily, Leonardo’s pupils created a copy using oil paint on canvas that has better stood the test of time.
Now, that oil painting is available online after a partnership between England’s Royal Academy of Arts and Google Arts & Culture, the latter says in a statement. Google applied its Art Camera to scan The Last Supper, and 19 other works from the Royal Academy, in “gigapixel” resolution, creating a final image with over one billion pixels. With the new scan, users can zoom into the image as if observing it from inches away, as artnet News reports.
Scenes of the Last Supper depict the moment when Jesus reveals that one of his 12 disciples will betray him. In the 1498 Leonardo work, each figure is depicted with a unique gesture and expression to reflect their reaction in the biblical story. But because of the technique that Leonardo used, as well as its poor treatment in the Dominican monastery in which it was painted (and where it's still visible today)—Napoleon used the room as a stable when he invaded Milan, according to a Google walkthrough of the new scan—many key details have faded or been lost. In 1652, a doorway was cut through the mural, removing Jesus’ feet.
The copy of The Last Supper held by the Royal Academy was likely created between 1515 and 1520 and is attributed to his pupils Giampietrino and Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. The painting has been a useful resource for scholars because it is about the same size as the original Leonardo, though it lacks the top third of the piece, and it hasn’t faded as severely with time. The students’ copy was even used as a reference when the original was restored between 1979 and 1999. Yet another copy, this one painted by Leonardo himself, was rediscovered in 2018 and likely created based on the same cartoon—a full-scale guide—as the mural.
Narrative details in the painting stand out in the Giampietrino and Boltraffio version. For example, a container of salt lies, toppled, next to Judas’ right arm, because spilled salt was widely considered a bad omen.
Like the shadows on Judas’ face and the coin purse that he holds in the painting, the spilled salt is a reference to the fact that Judas will betray Jesus hours after the scene. Beside Judas, another disciple Peter holds a knife, a reference to the fact that he will sever a soldier’s ear while attempting to stop Jesus’ arrest. The painting also shows Jesus’ feet under his teal and red robes.
More than a decade ago, technicians at HAL9000 created a 16-billion-pixel scan of The Last Supper in Milan, Nicole Martinelli reported for Wired in 2007. Like the new scan of the oil painting copy, the high-resolution image can also be explored online. Comparing the two scans reveals a few differences between the two designs as the copy created by Giampietrino and Boltraffio is not an exact replica. There are slight differences, like in the positioning of Jesus’ right hand reaching toward a glass of wine.
Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott wrote of the paintings in 2019, “The clarity and sheen of Giampietrino’s painting also underscores how much the meaning of Leonardo’s original is now bound up with its poor condition.”