The two Paintings of the Santa Maria delle Grazie

Milan, Italy

Thursday, October 3rd, 2019

The cobblestone Piazza in front of the famous church buzzed with small clusters of tourists and a singular postcard seller. The air was brisk, the jacket of my five-year-old sister flapping as she twirled; impatient, filled with boundless energy. The great bricked arches of the church soared above us. The church Santa Maria Delle Grazie; Holy Mary of Grace.

Our tickets carried us through quiet corridors inside, windows peering out into the gardens beyond until at last the automated doors deposited us into a long dark room with a vaulted ceiling. Lingerings of paint whispered over the walls, echos of further work, once great, now gone to the call of time.

The air was hushed as footsteps turn away to the right side of the room, drawn to the painting on the far wall like pins to a magnet. You need not read the plaque below it to know its name.

The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci, covered the entire wall from end to end. The illusion of its angles seeming to extend the room into an even longer hall, ending with a trio of windows looking out over a hillside. Soft shades warmed the faces of the almost life-size people, their expressions ranging from distraught and confused to angry and accusing. It was the moment when Jesus revealed to the disciples that one of them would betray him, reimaged by Leonardo, captured with lifelike grace in careful brushstrokes of fresco paint.

Such fame, such talent, such lovely art portrayed before the silently awed crowd below.

But turn away, turn away if you can, from the household name that finds itself in history books, textbooks, novels, and essays beyond what it’s painter had ever imagined.

Down the long, dim hall of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, far on the other end, you will find another work of art.

There is no crowd flashing cell-phone cameras clustered below this painting, resting a mere hundred feet away from its companion.

I see only one person paused before it as I approach. They study it for a moment, glance at the plaque, and then turn away, leaving me the solitary onlooker.

Crucifixion, painted by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano in fresco, the plaque reads.

While the last supper gives off an air of simplicity, Crucifixion is crowded with the figures of many people. Horses, soldiers, men, and women. They seem a confused sea about the base of the three crosses that rise above the scene. The cross in the middle of the scene holds Jesus, going through the event he foretold in the painting on the opposite wall. From his figure, one’s gaze is drawn downwards, to where Mary kneels at the base of the cross, her arms wrapped around it.

It’s strange that this painting is so much lesser known than the Last Supper; it is just as impressive. Outside of this, however, the Last Supper only tells half the story that this hall portrays. Two different moments from the fulfillment of God’s plan, two different paragraphs from the same chapter of history.

Indeed, although they were both painted by different artists, I wonder if they were not meant to be one piece of art. You can still see, after all, the relics of paint on the walls and ceiling of this hall, that likely connected the two paintings at one time.

Two paintings, in the same place, the same size, painted in the same medium, each focusing on the same man.

Yet one is world-famous, and the other many people likely never hear of until they are standing in the room with it. I wonder what Leonardo and Giovanni Donato would think of it.

The success of art, it seems, is not something that can always be apprehended or controlled.

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