Luxurious tapestry version of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper went on display at the Reggia di Venaria in Turin as part of an exhibition on how the popes used tapestries in rituals and ceremonies. The combination of religious ceremony and tapestry spread from the Vatican to France, and from there to other courts in Europe. The Last Supper tapestry is the cornerstone of the exhibition, as it played an important role in the foot-washing ritual of Holy Week.
The tapestry was commissioned by Louise of Savoy and her son, the future King Francis I of France, around 1514, while Leonardo was still alive. Perhaps even Leonardo saw it with his own eyes when he moved to the castle of Clos Luce in Amboise at the invitation of Francis I in 1516. Francis appointed him “the king’s first painter, engineer and architect” so that he could spend the last three years of his life pursuing his many and varied interests in comfort and ease.
Leonardo was extremely famous during his lifetime, and The Last Supper, which he painted on the wall of the refectory church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, was hailed as a groundbreaking masterpiece as soon as it was completed in 1498. experimental approach, tempera painting on dry plaster. Some copies were did early 16th century, the earliest documented copy commissioned in 1506.
Francis and Louise commissioned Brussels weavers to make a copy of the tapestry from a caricature by an unknown artist at the end of 1516. It is 30 feet long and 16 feet high and is woven exclusively from silk, gold and silver threads. The dinner scene itself is an exact scale copy of the original, even with Leonardo’s signature. shade technique, but the setting is very different from the minimalist space with the dark coffered ceiling of the original.
Instead, the tapestry sets the table within a light-colored courtyard draped with two millefler tapestries on each side against a High Renaissance architectural backdrop. A three-arched bridge connecting two buildings lined with multi-colored marble and a distant landscape of a stream flowing down from the hills. Above the arches, hanging from the balustrade right at the level of the head of Jesus below, is the coat of arms of the King of France with gold fleurs-de-lis on a blue background. The border on all four sides is woven with symbols of Francis and Louise – salamanders, winged horses, knots and monograms.
Francis presented the tapestry to Pope Clement VII in 1533 as a generous gift in honor of the marriage between Francis’ son, the future Henry II, and the pope’s niece Catherine de’ Medici in Marseille. The wedding was politically significant, cementing the alliance between the papacy and France five years after the sack of Rome by the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
It was highly regarded even among the exceptional tapestries of the Vatican by the likes of Raphael, and was used on special occasions such as the Corpus Christi procession and Holy Week. However, it began to deteriorate from use. It was first restored in 1681 and less than a hundred years later, in 1763, Pope Pius VI commissioned a copy for use in processions and ceremonies, ensuring the long-term preservation of the original. It has only left the Vatican once since its presentation in 1533: in 2019, when it was exhibited at the Château Clos Luce, the last residence of Leonardo da Vinci, on the 500th anniversary of his death.
It was restored by the Vatican’s unique textile conservation team before its departure in 2019. You can see the team at work stitching together the tulle mesh to reinforce the back of the tapestry in this fantastic video.