Leonardo da Vinci – The Last Supper with Angela Voss – £10

72 minute lecture (Voice over PowerPoint)

In this lecture, I focus on the possibility of a hidden meaning within the fresco The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, painted between 1495 and 1498.

I want to ask whether he intended to hide a cosmic dimension behind or within this portrayal of a pivotal episode in Christian history, and if so, why. Leonardo lived and worked in Northern Italy (mainly Florence and Milan) at a time when neoplatonic and Hermetic ideas about cosmology, nature and the human soul were being revived and embodied in art, music and the practices of natural magic.  Between 1466 and 1482 he was in Florence, learning his craft in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, at the same time as a group of intellectuals known as the Platonic Academy were reviving ancient ideas about the immortality of the human soul and its correspondence with cosmic and divine principles or archetypes. According to one source, in the 1470s he was involved in the humanist and artistic circle around Lorenzo de’ Medici which met in the Piazza San Marco, and Leonardo would surely have known Botticelli and at least had some contact with Marsilio Ficino, the leader of the Academy, to which Lorenzo also belonged.  But there is no doubt that Leonardo would have been exposed to neoplatonic image-theory, originating in The Enneads of the great Neoplatonist Plotinus (204-270 CE), in addition to his love for natural science, mechanics, anatomy, optics and the techniques of drawing and painting. For the neoplatonists, images could embody and reveal divine or eternal truths, if they were viewed through the eyes of the soul. This meant that they were symbolic, pointing to meanings beyond their literal representations. These meanings could only be grasped by viewers who had a ‘symbolic sense’ and who could allow their imaginations to take flight beyond the confines of the rational mind.


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