Unreal Nature

November 26, 2012

Far In Advance

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

… As Leonardo did not confine the scene to a single scale, nor to one temporal moment, so the gestures ambiguate.

This is from Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper, by Leo Steinberg (2001). Today’s chapter is ‘The Twelve.’ I’m picking out just some of what he says about the depiction of one: Judas:

… A stupendous drawing, Windsor 12547, preserves Leonardo’s thought for the features of Judas. The face is averted. But more ominous than the lost profile is the snarl of vein, muscle, and sinew that excoriates the neck like an écorché’s, as if already postmortem, anatomized. The neck of a man who will hang before the night’s end.

Judas’ recoiling grasp is not reducible to a single narrative present. Though he seems stopped at the moment of accusation, he does not actually dip in the dish, and his forward hand cannot — and did not for Rubens — exclude the transgression of unworthily receiving the eucharist. St. Paul writes: “Whosoever shall eat of this bread and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” In Rubens‘ reading of the Cenacolo, the terms of the equation reverse: he who is guilty of the Lord’s blood is partaking unworthily.

study for Judas, Windsor 12547

… What the Judas face in the mural was believed to express was consensually predetermined. The older Cenacolo literature finds the face Leonardo would have given to the betrayer expressive of bottomless evil, a compound of slyness, hypocrisy, thievish greed, ungodly defiance. All this to describe the aspect of Judas on a patch of wall where no vestige of Leonardo’s brush has survived. The restoration by Giuseppe Mazza in 1770 is known to have produced a new Judas, and the cleansing of the 1990s, though it claims to reveal authentic Vincian underpaint at the other faces, admits that the betrayer’s head had to be done up from scratch, led on by the best early copies.

How closely these copies reflect Leonardo’s final conception of Judas we’ll never know.

Leonardo’s initial rendering of the betrayer [as sketched in the Windsor drawing] tracks inner conflict; lips clenched under enchanted eyes that gaze on their gift of light, and the brows upped almost beyond a forehead’s endurance. This brow takes its shape from a spasm — which the copies read as a structural malformation, a misshapen crag. On the face of the ultimate sinner Leonardo’s drawing did not stamp ready-made execration, as one might on the devil’s snout. To the agon, the wretchedness of a man who had once been chosen by Jesus — whom Satan entered on cue (John 13:27), but whose nature, having experienced devotion, retains its capacity for remorse — Leonardo brought a tragic vision far in advance of what his contemporaries could fathom. The subjective experience of abjection never received more humane understanding.

Steinberg closes next-to-last paragraph of the chapter on ‘The Twelve’ with this:

… within the balanced asymmetry of the grouping, the themes of the Supper suffuse one another. As Leonardo did not confine the scene to a single scale, nor to one temporal moment, so the gestures ambiguate.

My most recent previous post from Steinberg’s book is here.



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