Did Da Vinci help paint Tongerlo’s copy of ‘The Last Supper’?

Summary

Art historian Jean-Pierre Isbouts is convinced, but more research will be needed to settle the argument

A close look

Researchers taking a close look at a copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” that hangs in Tongerlo Abbey are increasingly convinced that Leonardo himself may have had a hand in painting it. However, more work will be needed before the claim can be made with certainty.

“We have to wait for the results of our data analysis to say that for sure,” said Jean-Pierre Isbouts, the American art historian who is leading the research. His reassessment of the Tongerlo “Last Supper” partly comes from work in the archives, which suggests a possible provenance for the canvas. 

The original “Last Supper”, completed between 1495 and 1498, is painted directly on to the refectory wall at the Santa Maria della Grazie convent in Milan. It seems that King Louis XII of France admired the painting so much that he wanted to take it back to Paris with him. When that proved impossible, he commissioned a copy on canvas from Leonardo’s assistants. It was this canvas that eventually found its way to the Flemish abbey in 1545.

The archive research also suggests that Leonardo was experimenting with painting on canvas at the time the copy was made, increasing the likelihood that he may have been directly involved.

Supper powers

The latest phase of the work has involved a close inspection of the canvas using a multi-spectral camera, provided by Flemish research organisation Imec. This technology allows researchers to see through the paint layer, identifying underdrawing and areas of later restoration.

 

If we can demonstrate that the pigments were similar to or the same as the ones that Leonardo used, then we have a very strong case

- Jean-Pierre Isbouts

Most important of all, it has identified pentimenti, evidence of the artist’s hand at work. “These are changes to the composition that suggest this is not a replica or a copy, but a new version in which the master Leonardo directly had an involvement,” Isbouts said. “Personally, based on my analysis of the painting, I believe that the face of John was painted by Leonardo himself.” 

Further work will now take place on the pigments used in the painting, which may reveal more. “If we can demonstrate that the pigments were similar to or the same as the ones that Leonardo used, then we have a very strong case,” Isbouts told VRT Nieuws.

Yet Ivo Cleiren, the curator of the Abbey museum, is sceptical. “You can probably never prove such a thing, there are only indications,” he told De Morgen. And for him, the result may not even matter very much. “It does not alter the beauty of the painting.”

Photo: Imec