In 1447 one of the most influential Italian painters, Andrea del Castagno, created a fresco of The Last Supper. Around half a century later, another well-known Italian artist, Leonardo da Vinci, created his own version. Both artists were known for their contributions of work during the Italian Renaissance period just at different phases of the period. Castagno’s work would be relevant during what is known as Early Renaissance (1401-1490) and Leonardo de Vinci will be associated with the High Renaissance (1490-1527.) The Renaissance was a period after the Middle Ages when Europe saw a revival of the classical studies of ancient Greece and Rome. Along with this reawakening of classic antiquity, came the interest in Humanism. Scholars and artists shifted form a god centered to a human centered interest with the increase of studies and works revolving around the experience of the individual.
The works of many great artists during this time can be attributed to the growing wealth of the Medici family in Florence. The Medici family played an integral part in the success of the Renaissance arts by commissioning and supporting the humanist style of art. With the Medici Family in power, Florence became the center of the Italian Renaissance movement. Both Castagno and Leonardo’s works were tied to the powerful political family.
As a child Andrea del Castagno showed great interest in the arts and would sketch animals and figures on walls and stones with charcoal or the point of his knife. His talent could not be ignored and word spread through the peasants of his abilities. Word reached a Florentine man named Bernardetto de’ Medici and he brought Andrea back to Florence where he could perfect his art. Leonardo De Vinci’s relationship with Lorenzo de Medici started in 1491 when the artist was referred to the Duke of Milan where he would complete his famous commissioned work of The Last Supper. De Vinci would go on to create many of his famous works under the patronage of Lorenzo.
The subject matter of visual arts during the Renaissance period, both Early and High, remained consistent with the matters of the religion probably because so much of the was commissioned by the Church. The Church would put in a work order according to their desires and it would serve as contract for the artist. The Last Supper was an ideal choice for subject matter especially for large surfaces in the church where all thirteen figures could be represented. “When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with The Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, “truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” (Matt. 26.17-30.) Both Castagno and Leonardo’s paintings of The Last Supper were represented on very large surfaces. Castagno’s measured 16’x32’ and Leonardo da Vinci came in at 15’2×28’10.
One of the most important changes in Renaissance style from the previous period was painting subjects and backgrounds as realistically as possible. Many new techniques were introduced during the period that enhanced the realism of the art. Andrea Del Castagno was known for his emotional power and naturalistic elements in the figures of his work. Leonardo da Vinci also made great contributions to the art world in their goals to achieve realism in their works. Unfortunately, not all of Leonardo da Vinci’s techniques were a success. Instead of painting in fresco like Castagno and other Early Renaissance painters, Leonardo da Vinci experimented with a new technique for his mural of The Last Supper. Oil paint on wood would be the preferred medium for High Renaissance artists but Leonardo wanted to experiment. Oil and tempera paints were used on a thin layer of plaster and the painting began to deteriorate just a short time after. Castagno’s Early Renaissance version of The Last Supper appears to have a much more vivid color scheme compared to the faded Da Vinci’s High Renaissance rendition. A wide variety of colors were used during the Renaissance style of art to assist in the portrayal of realism.
Renaissance scholars made great advancements in the world of math, science, and philosophy and we can see the impact on the arts. Early Renaissance painters began using the mathematical method of linear perspective to portray space and depth in art. The idea was to portray a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface. Both works of arts being discussed have evidence of the use of linear prospective but Leonardo’s High Renaissance version seems to have perfected the method. The viewer’s eye is instantly follows the imaginary lines, orthogonals, to a vanishing point at Jesus’ forehead. Castagno’s version seems to lack a vanishing point and portrays the setting with a lot less depth than in Leonardo’s work. Castagno’s uses a lot of classical features and patterns in the details of the structural setting. The marble textures and the ancient sphinxes at either end of the benches were elements common in Early Renaissance art. These detailed elements seem to share the spotlight with the actual figures in the painting where Leonardo’s simpler architecture and background allow Jesus and the disciples to become the main focus of his work.
Early Renaissance and High Renaissance difference in paintings really seem to show the progression and perfection of the implementation of newfound techniques. We can clearly see the use of modeling and shadowing in both paintings that give each individual a realistic form although Castagno’s figures appear a little flat in contrast to Leonardo’s. The clothing and outlines of the figures in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting seem to have a softer, more realistic feel compared to the stark shadowing from the modeling of the garments and robes in Castagno’s work. Leonardo achieved this by the use of his technique, sfumato. Leonardo used the technique to soften the shading and transitions to color to enhance a more natural feel. The term sfumato derived for the Italian term to mean smoky or even the disappearance of smoke. The technique was integral in the naturalistic approach of High Renaissance artists. Another feature Leonardo used that was different from the Early Renaissance style would be the absence of a physical halo. Leonardo uses an arch over the center window that represents the idea of a halo around Jesus’ head whereas Castagno painted physical translucent halos on Jesus and his Disciples.
Another element of art that can be compared between the works ad their time period would be the use of balance and unity. One aspect of High Renaissance painting can be described as dynamic unity. Leonardo groups the disciples into four groups of three and overlaps the figures in a sense of chaos, excitement, and movement. The center point of Jesus and the groupings of the Disciples in complex poses create stability of pyramidal forms. Castagno’s painting presents harmony and balance in a different way with each figure represented separately a triangular grouping in the center of the painting. The presence of texture and repetition of patterns create order.
I believe that Andrea del Castagno and Leonardo da Vinci’s renderings of The Last Supper are perfect examples of the different characteristics and qualities of the Renaissance phases they represent. The High Renaissance was clearly a perfected version of Early Renaissance style showing great development and advances the world of art. I chose these works of art based on my personal preference of the mastery of techniques used by the artists and my personal experiences with the Italian culture. When I was in the eight grade, my family was relocated to Germany for an international assignment for my father’s work at a German company. We lived in a small town named Shoenenberg-Kubelberg of the Kusel district of Rhineland-Palantine. We were located about 20 minutes from the French border. Over the two years we were in Germany, my family spent our time traveling throughout Europe. We often ventured into Italy and experienced many of the cities taking in the incredible historical sites. I often found myself fascinated, not only the incredible detail and technique of the architecture and art, but the history that was celebrated within the culture. Although the adventure was very difficult at times, I am continuously impacted by the experience and often reminded how fortunate I was to have the opportunity.
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