Over the years I had read and heard from others that it really wasn't worth going to see because it has decayed and been damaged over time. Many forewarned that the tickets are difficult to come by requiring one to commit to a viewing months in advance. So for three years I blew it off. My friend Ellen was coming for a visit though and she really wanted to see it. Ellen easily booked the tickets. And it wasn't months in advance at all.
After all the negative feedback, the build up, the Dan Brown novel controversy and the commentary, I forged ahead with very low expectations.
When you arrive at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church, you are ushered into a waiting area. The waiting area is lined with photographs and historical plaques. As you wait you can read about the history of the church including the damage it suffered during a bombing in WWII. Miraculously, the refectory wall with da Vinci's painting was spared.
While waiting, you can also read up on the painting technique used by da Vinci and the restoration of the painting. The painting is painted on the wall but it is not a fresco. A fresco by definition must be painted on wet plaster and allegedly, da Vinci rejected the technique because it required that the artist hurry to finish the work before the plaster dried. Da Vinci began the painting in1495. He finished in 1498 so you can see why this method was a problem for him. Besides, no artist wants to rush. Particularly, a masterpiece.
Instead da Vinci invented a new technique using tempera paints on stone. He began by first painting the entire wall with a primer that he hoped would protect the tempera from the moisture and natural absorption of the bricks upon which he was painting. Unfortunately, his method failed and the paint began to degrade within the first few decades. Add the bombings of WWII and the painting was on its way to being lost forever. In 1980, however, a restoration project began which restored the painting to its original glory.
Da Vinci also came up with his own way to of depicting the scene with the appropriate dimension. He placed a nail in the temple of Jesus, tied a string to it and moved it about the painting as he worked. The string guided him around the scene and allowed him to make marks and assess the spatial perspective as he worked. Pretty ingenious.
While waiting in the hallway one is free to move about as you please. Once you are let in to see the actual painting, however, your movement is more limited. Given the degradation from changes in temperature and humidity over the years, the painting is now quite securely air locked away in a controlled environment. Groups of about 25 - 30 are let in to see the painting according to a designated time slot. When your time slot is up, the usher calls your time and an air lock door "shwoooshes" open.
Your group is taken into a second waiting area, a hallway with close up prints of the painting and views of the lovely gardens of the church. As you are looking around, "shwooosh" the door locks behind you and you realize that you are in a sealed hallway. As you wait, you can see the group with the time slot ahead of you waiting in a third anteroom, also sealed with air lock doors. It all feels very futuristic and important. Guests are quiet. Anticipating. We waited in the air locked hallway for about 7 or 8 minutes. You know how an elevator can seem awkward at times? Imagine that, only with a lot more people.
The door for the group ahead opens to the refectory where the painting is and you watch the group ahead of you enter. You are not allowed to leave the hallway until the entire group ahead of you is inside the refectory and the doors are sealed shut behind them. Then, your door opens and everyone must enter the third waiting area. And once again, "shwoosh" you are sealed in. Thank goodness it is all glass or this claustrophobic may have had a problem.
By the time you actually enter the refectory, the anticipation has built up and one is ready to see the painting. The paint is delicate and in order to preserve the painting while also accommodating the vast number of visitors to see it, time is limited to 15 minutes of viewing per group. No photographs are allowed inside the refectory.
All the "shwooshing" of air, the waiting rooms and the secure doors built up my anticipation, but I was utterly unprepared for how moved I would be by this painting. It is much larger than I had imagined and it is really a beautiful piece of art. But, more than that, I was taken aback at what it represented. The history, the millions of followers, the controversy about whether Young John is really Mary Magdalene - it all just kind of overwhelmed me. I was so moved by it that I dragged my husband and kids back to see it a couple of months later.
If you are planning a trip to Italy and are going through Milano, The Last Supper is worth a visit. No matter your religious beliefs or feelings about the controversy, it is simply a magnificent work of art.