Images de page


On Jesus' left, we see James the Greater, Thomas, and Philip. James has thrown out his arms and shouted aloud his horror. I have already referred to the touch of realism underlying the idealism, which is chiefly noticeable in James, in painting whom the artist held none of his power in reserve. The right arm is almost on a level with the shoulder, and would, perhaps, be too prominent, were not its somewhat too great horizontal line counteracted by the bolt vertical of Thomas's hand, and especially by the prominence of his index finger, which will not let the eye rest for long on James's arm. And this brings us to Thomas. He has started from his place, and is the only one of the party who seems to be contemplating physical force. We see only the back of his hand, his eyes are flashing, and he is probably asking, “Rabbi, did I hear you say that there is a traitor in this room?' According to all the rules that govern variety and balance in composition, this physical trait should have its counterpart; and, enough, here it is in the sweetness and gentleness of Philip, who, young, delicately beautiful, and trembling with love and pain, points to his heart as he protests his innocence. It will be noticed that Philip gets great prominence by the fact that he is standing, his head being higher than that of any other member of his group. Why is this, seeing that Leonardo is so particular about composition ? It is clearly necessary because of the delicate refinement, and almost effeminate appearance, of Philip. Were Bartholomew, for instance, in Philip's place, he should be treated differently. In fact, we cannot fancy Philip less prominent without feeling that there would be a want, especially as he is balanced against the physical Thomas.

At the end of the table, Thaddeus and Simon, theirs the only two Semitic faces, are represented as two aged men, somewhat hard of hearing and somewhat dull of comprehension. We see from the position of Thaddeus, he being turned towards Simon, that they had been holding a little private conversation, and so did not catch what Jesus said ; but Matthew, the gentleman of the party, has turned to tell them. By the way, his turning destroys unity, but the very pronounced gesture with both arms re-establishes it—Leonardo loved to play with variety on the very verge of daring. Simon puts out his hands protesting that it cannot be; but Thaddeus, while pointing up the table with his thumb (fine touch of nature), says : But Matthew heard the Master say it, then it must be so.' And as to Matthew himself, we are told he was a tax-gatherer. This meant, to put it briefly, a position practically similar to that of the middle landlord in the former Irish land system. Tax-gatherers had it in their power to fleece the people, and, being Jews, they did it. They were then wealthy but very unpopular. Because of his prominent position, Matthew is represented as an aristocrat, but an aristocrat who has thrown away all ideas of social standing, as is manifest from his consideration for the two plain old men. Matthew the tax-gatherer would probably have looked down on them, but Matthew the disciple is their brother; and it shows great subtilty on the part of the artist to place him beside these two, the plainest and oldest at the table. Again I wish to direct attention to this interplay of idealism with realism. There is a something very nobly graceful in the poise of the fine patrician head, and in his whole attitude, even to the aesthetically bent fingers of the delicately moulded hands. And how naturally he has gathered up the gown which falls in fleecy folds over the left forearm! He would look noble and graceful even in the Roman Senate, and aspiring elocutionists could not do better than practise his beautiful gesture.

1 Modern artists are very particular about the counteracting effect of

horizontal and vertical lines.

The artist had no difficulty, save for final touches, in dashing off the different types, until he came to Judas and Our Lord. He used to follow people in the street if he noticed any peculiarity of feature, and then quietly made a drawing of it; he used also gather around him the tatterdemalions of Florence and Milan, and, being a great humorist, used to set them in roars of laughter and then sketch the different faces—which sketches, by the way, are now in the Royal Palace at Windsor. In passing, I might remark that he always acted on the principle that ugliness is to beauty what disease is to health, and as it is only in disease health can be fully appreciated, so he arrived at beauty by eliminating ugliness. From his experience, then, he had a substantial tower of realism on which to erect the spire of idealism. Still, when he came to Judas. he suspended work. The Prior complained to the Duke, and on the latter remonstrating with him, Da Vinci said that he was trying to evolve a face for Judas, but if the Prior doesn't give me peace,' he slyly remarked, “I suppose the only thing to do is to paint himself.'

* Cardinal Newman, in one of his sermons, calls Matthew the gentleman of the party.

We admire the novelist who can firmly portray a character, although he can devote page after page to the work ; still more do we admire the dramatist, for he has to portray within limited time and space, and, without direct description, by clash of character with character. But what of the artist who must do all this through the silent medium of line and colour? Well, at last Judas did appear, and-alas for the human face divine that it could come to this! It is fortunate that he is drawn in profile, for, otherwise, more than children might be frightened at the medusa face of the man from Kerioth who sold his Lord. No, I cannot describe but only indicate :-the hard, round poll, with its crop of black, thick, kinky hair, and in shape like a rolled-up hedgehog ; the hollow, low-bred, avaricious forehead that falls back from a shaggy, amorphous craglike eyebrow; the long, ugly, hooked nose; the heavy, sensual lips, tightened and pursed as if in preparation for the kiss that, for evermore, shall be a byword ; the lank, protruding jaw, tipped with beard scraggy as mountain furze; the eye watching the Master's face with defiant, unwinking, alligator stare; and all silhouetted in shadow, symbolic of foul heart—here surely is no paltry malefactor, but a man Mephistophilitic in character and in sin. Still, the spirit of evil must not dominate the scene-a fault, as we know, into which Milton fell in Paradise Lost. Judas is made to flinch before the Majesty who faces him, while the spasm of the left thumb (one of the subtlest things in the painting) shows that the shot of exposure has gone home and unnerved him.

And, finally, the Saviour Himself. What is Leonardo to do, for he has already exhausted his power? He consulted his friend Zenale, but the latter said that, after painting the two James's so, only the Holy Ghost Himself could help him. How he envied Timanthes his happy device! Let us recall the incident, for he got a hint therefrom. Timanthes, in painting the sacrifice of Iphigenia, graded the sorrow on the faces of those present, according to their relation to her, from Kalchas gloomy and Ulysses downcast, to Ajax weeping and Menelaus wailing loud, but when he came to Agamemnon he could go no further, so he represented him with his face vejled in his mantle, and the spectator, on seeing the grief of the others, was left to imagine what the father's grief must be. Leonardo, as I have said, got a hint from this, he left a little to the imagination, he never fully finished the face, in the sense that he omitted the final touches—in any case he could not have done so, as his hand used to tremble when he came to it. But, even in its unfinished state, it is, unquestionably, the finest face of Christ in the realm of Christian art. Never before, and, if we couple Raphael's Sistine Madonna, never since, has human eye lifted itself to higher aim, and never has human hand so succeeded. We know that the aim of the artists was to give a face of sweetness and strength. The sweetness we get in practically every case—but the strength ? Yes, here at least. Veiled with pallor and with the eyes downcast, it is the face of a man who has borne our infirmities, who knows that on the morrow He shall have to stretch out His arms to die on a cross, but it is likewise the face of a man who laid down His life because He willed it. Who, on seeing that divine form haloed with majesty of isolation ; on seeing that high, serene forehead from which the parted hair falls in wavy masses to the shoulders ; on contemplating the calm dignity of the outstretched arms, eloquent in their very repose the tender repose of those divine hands, the hands of many healings; who, on noting the sublime detachment from the agitation all around, whilst, at the same time, every thought and look and gesture must be interpreted in regard to Him—who, I ask, will not say that He and He alone dominates the scene? Is it inspiration, or is it only genius ? - in this sursum corda of art the unattainable has been attained ? The verdict of four centuries has said so, from the critic who sees only the skill to the peasant who dwells on the image in prayer; and generations as yet unborn will confirm that verdict, for, chiefly through that divine face, the ‘Last Supper' is catholic with the Catholicity of the Church itself, and bids fair to endure so through all

[ocr errors]

the ages.

But, alas ! that it should largely have shared the fate of so many of Da Vinci's works. Gone is his colossal equestrian statue, in its day one of the wonders of the world; gone his 'Battle of the Standard,' in which he pitted his prowess, and not in vain, against the young giant Michelangelo; gone many of his easel paintings, and the · Last Supper' is nearly gone. Apart from suffering

[ocr errors]

nearly every indignity that ignorance and vandalism could inflict, the many daubing renovations being not the least, it early began to suffer from a technical defect in the materials used. Da Vinci, unlike Michelangelo, was a greater believer in oil, as only through its medium could he get the 'sfumato' effect, the interplay of light and shade which he so loved, and which he saw in perfection in ascending smoke. But the oil was not a success on the damp cold wall, with the result that it soon began to flake and peel, and is now only the pale ghost of its former self -the greatest loss to art since the destruction of the Phidian marbles of the Parthenon. It is a ruin, but what a ruin ! Leonardesque to the last, it has in it more than ruin's claims. Whilst leaning on the guard rail-symbolic of sanctuary all too late—and pondering on its majestic going down, I could not help thinking how like the setting of the sun. As the sun's broad red disc sinks into the west, although shorn of its beams, it still has lingering about it much of its noon-day grandeur. And so with the 'Last Supper.' It has a glory all its own, a fascination that entrances, and even in the pale twilight of its day it retains not a little of the radiance of its splendour when Leonardo first flamed forth his thoughts to light, to dazzle, and to charm.

But I must conclude. The limitation of space prevents an examination of the Madonna of the Rocks,' that marvellous creation of mystery and charm, with the haunting, mystic smile? of the Divine Mother, and the ardent, almost hypnotizing gaze of the adoring, angel. But even if this, and the 'Mona Lisa,' and all his other paintings were treated by a pen more efficient than mine, yet how little should we thereby learn of this extraordinary man, who, more interested in science than in art, relegated his painting to a secondary place ; who, in his first letter from his native Florence to Duke Sforza of Milan telling him of his many inventions and scientific attainments, wound up the long series by saying: “And I also can paint. Why, the ‘Last Supper

' was chiefly painted during the hot hours of the day when the blazing sun drove him from work on the famous equestrian statue, twenty-six feet high, which occupied

1 He painted this subject twice, once in Florence and once in Milan. The former is in the Louvre, the latter in the London National Gallery.

2 Called the Leonardesque smile, which no imitative brush can reproduce.



« PrécédentContinuer »