Last Supper, the Last Day of the Year


The day of  New Year’s Eve, to celebrate the holiday, we visited the Park Ave. Armory in Manhattan to take in filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s mind-blowing multimedia presentation of Leonardo’s “Last Supper.”

(Thank you, Barbara, for urging me to see this show before it closes on January 6th).

Part audio-visual extravaganza, part backstory, part guided meditation on how to really look at art (specifically, this work, Leonardo’s masterpiece), Greenaway  envelopes, enchants, and absorbs you into the moving images and stunning visual effects by wallpapering the surfaces inside that cavernous space (including the floor) — with projected film.

Recreated for the exhibition was the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie convent, a replication of the actual site where the famous fresco resides in Milan. On the far wall “hung” Greenaway’s digitized, continually-morphing “Last Supper.”

A voice in the crowd remarked: “I didn’t expect the painting to be this big.”

In the late 1980s, when I stood before the real “Last Supper” in Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan (it had actually once been a convent), my initial thought was, “I thought it would be bigger.”

Additionally (and, since I did study art history, embarrassingly), I hadn’t realized the painting would be a fresco. I was expecting a canvas. And although the fresco is about 15 x 29 feet, it still felt small, dwarfed as it was by the towering, vaulted ceiling and peeling walls of the refectory.

That was twenty-two years ago. After spending one glorious week in art-soaked, beautiful Florence, I took a train to Milan, ready, but not willing, to fly back to New York the following day.

Milan was my last day in Bella Italia. Around 12:00 p.m., I checked into my hotel for an overnight stay, ordered an Insalata Caprese and glass of wine from room service and had to decide whether to visit one of two “must-sees” on my list: Teatro La Scala or DaVinci’s “Last Supper,” in the limited time that remained in the day.

I knew at 2:00 p.m. everything would close down for the customary afternoon “pausa pranzo” — an extension of the lunch break the Italians set aside for relaxation (what a country). So I made my decision and dashed out of the hotel. From a kiosk on the street, I purchased una carta geografica of Milan.

The scale of the map of Milan, I would discover, differed from the scale of maps in Florence (never assume) — a unwelcome fact that became all too clear in the middle of my long trek in uncomfortable shoes across the city toward  Santa Maria delle Grazie.

At 1:50 p.m., the rear of the church came into view. Two American tourists, man and woman, were struggling to communicate with a caretaker, in English, about the painting. He gestured wildly, speaking in rapid Italian, which they didn’t understand.

In my limited Italian — my father and relatives spoke it during my childhood, so the language wasn’t exactly foreign to me — (and prior to my trip, I’d listened to How-To-Speak-Italian cassette tapes in my car), I understood that he was telling them to go around to the front.

So I went around to the front. When I got there, the same tourists I saw in the back, plus small crowd of people, were being turned away — by the same Italian man! He must have sprinted through interior of the church. Pausa pranzo, apparently, had started 10 minutes early.

With what had to be a pained expression (my feet, by this time, were killing me), I asked in a weakened voice: “E chiuso?” (“Are you closed?) to this same Italian man.

His eyes darted from side to side (the small crowd had since dispersed) and then waved me over. He escorted me inside. (N.B.: It pays to know a little bit of the language, wherever you go. Looking like an Italian probably didn’t hurt, either).

An elderly Italian woman was sitting behind a small podium, a sort of box office where tickets were sold to view the fresco. The Italian man proceeded to tell her, in Italian, that I had walked for miles (true) on a religious pilgrimage (well, not really…). Anyway, he convinced her to let me in.

I couldn’t believe it. The woman looked me over, then smiled, and said, “Bene.” I paid the nominal fee and walked into the refectory, nice as you please.

All by myself.

I was alone with the “Last Supper.” It was dark and dank and crumbling and full of echoes and ghosts. Restoration on the fresco was underway and about 1/3 of the way through.

I just love viewing “process.” It was marvelous.

Overcome by a feeling of awe and privilege and sacredness that afternoon in Milan, I never thought I’d feel that way again, all at one time.

But standing in front of Greenaway’s creation, it happened.

What an unexpected way to end the year. A gift.

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