Fast paced, fashion forward and filled with activity, Milan is no doubt a modern city. But amidst high fashion houses and busy streets, you will see an abundance of reminders of its glorious past, particularly in its churches. The Santa Maria delle Grazie is one such architectural marvel. Besides being a house of devotion and faith for Catholics the world over, it is home to one of the finest pieces of Renaissance art, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper found in the refectory of the Dominican convent.
This masterpiece of Gothic architecture is visited by historians and laymen alike. Evoking images of the 15th century with every inch of its structure, it is the perfect location to travel back in time and revisit the glory of the Italian Renaissance. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, a trip to Milan is incomplete without a visit to the Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Duke Francesco I Sforza of Milan commissioned architect Guiniforte Solari to build the Dominican convent and church in 1463. Santa Maria delle Grazie was to be built where a monastery with frescoes of the Madonna delle Grazie lay. Under Guiniforte, the convent was completed in 1469 and the church in 1490.
Just two years after its completion, the new Duke Ludovico ‘Il Moro’ Sforza decided to remodel the entire structure and use it as a family mausoleum. He appointed Donato Bramante as the principal architect of this project who brought to life one of the most outstanding examples of Lombard Renaissance style architecture. He is said to have expanded the structure, adding huge semi circular apses, a cupola bordered by colonnades, a beautiful monastery and the refectory. However, there is very little documentary evidence linking Bramante’s genius to the construction of Santa Maria Della Grazie except for similarities in his other works bearing the same blend of Gothic and Romanesque style.
The structure bears many traces of a new era in European art in its frescoes and architectural detailing. Amongst frescoes by artists like Gaudenzio Ferrari and Donato da Montorfano, Da Vinci’s The Last Supper in the refectory is the most celebrated and critiqued of them all, commissioned by Ludovico Sforza in 1495.
The Dominican monks continued to run the church and added new embellishments to the structure from 1553 to 1778. The church and the convent were used as barracks and a military warehouse during Napoleon’s rule when religious congregations were inhibited. Church control was restored to the Dominicans in 1905.
On 15 August 1943, during World War II, the convent and the church were bombed by British and American planes. The refectory was largely destroyed, but some walls stood standing, including the one on which The Last Supper was painted which had been sandbagged for protection.
The clash between Solari’s and Bramante’s architectural styles in evident on close observance of the structure.
The seven square chapels on the sides of the Church (except the furthest one on the left) are dedicated to the Virgin of Graces. Milan’s elite clans entreated patronage of those chapels to use as mausoleums for their loved ones. These were then adorned with breathtaking works of art. Sculptures by Antonello da Messina are preserved in the Chapel of Santa Caterina. Gaudenzio Ferrari’s frescoes (Stories of the Passion) are housed in the Chapels of the Adoring Virgin and the Holy Crown. There is a fresco by Bramantino in a little cloister next to the tribune. Frescoes illustrating the Resurrection and Passion by Bernado Zenale were also found in the church.
The monastery is built around three courtyards and comprises the northern end of the church and an arcade with Gothic capitals embellished with leaves. Opposite the arcade, you find the Chapel delle Grazie, the Chapter House and Locuturio rooms and the library built by Solari.
The southern portion of the structure is comprised entirely of the Refectory containing Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and The Crucifixion by Donato da Montorfano.
The church gardens offer a welcoming, relaxing air in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Piazza.
Donato Bramante’s Sacrestia vechhia (The Old Sacristy) today is the seat of a Dominican Cultural Centre where the brethren conduct conferences on spirituality, philosophy, literature, art and sociology. Music concerts and artistic exhibitions are also held here.
The Last Supper
A true pinnacle of distinction in art and an insignia of Western Civilisation, this 460 cm by 880 cm fresco by Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza in 1495 and is painted on an end wall at the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. It was to be the centerpiece of Sforza’s family mausoleum.
The Gospel of John is the theme of the fresco where Jesus announces over supper that one of his disciples will betray him. This epoch making moment of Christian history is so remarkably depicted in Leonardo’s work, that it is one of the most scrutinized paintings in the world. The apostles were said to have had different reactions to Jesus’s declarations and these are very realistically depicted in the eerily lifelike details of the facial expressions in Da Vinci’s masterpiece.
The use of natural light and pigments results in a unique mélange of Florentine and chiaroscuro perspectives.
Leonardo da Vinci painted in a unique medium called Tempera Forte on a two-layered plaster surface and not in oil. This wasn’t damp proof and left the painting susceptible to the elements. Napoleon Bonaparte even let his troops use the frescoed wall as target practice. Thus, despite numerous restoration attempts, the fresco remains just a shadow of its former self.
This however, hasn’t reduced the number of visitors coming for a glimpse of Da Vinci’s brilliance. So large is the number of footfalls that you have to make a reservation to go and see it.
Feast your eyes on The Last Supper. The paint may be fading and crumbling but Da Vinci’s powerful, redolent and poignant portrayal of betrayal will touch you with its spirit.