Editorial: Ultima Cena

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 29

“The Church has need especially of those who can do this [communicate the message] on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ Himself made extensive use of images in His preaching, fully in keeping with His willingness to become, in the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God.” —Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists

When I hire an accountant I do not expect him to act like an artist, so why then do I hire an artist and expect him to act like an accountant? Today, if we are to support a new Renaissance in sacred art we need to better understand the charism of the artist. We respect artists for their creativity and technique developed over long years of study and practice. The artist’s drive for excellence is all consuming and often leaves little time for developing the practical skills necessary for the business world.

In fact, one of the most noted artists of all time was also notorious for being a terrible businessman. He could not follow directions, fulfill deadlines, or even finish projects. Yet the world would be far poorer had he not lived and attempted to create art. Commissioned by the Augustinians in Florence, his early project for an altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi resulted in an unfinished canvas. He left us four unfinished commissions and only eleven completed works, and yet this artist is credited with beginning the High Renaissance in Italy.

When he painted an altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan, he did not follow the agreement’s description of an Immaculate Conception with God the Father. Ten years later the painting was still not finished, he argued about payment, and the painting was sold to another buyer, never to be installed in a church.

His fresco on the wall of a Dominican refectory was innovative in its portrayal of a beardless Christ and twelve animated apostles. He seems to have combined the institution of the Eucharist with the betrayal of Judas in one image. In his lifetime he was lauded as maestro, yet he had difficulty holding down a job. Brilliant in his use of perspective, with detailed knowledge of human proportions, he is said to have discovered the laws of complementary colors. He began work on the largest equestrian statue in history, but the horse was melted down. Perhaps his greatest love was architecture, where he focused on the design of centralized churches, geometric solids, defensive walls, and war machines. Yet none were built and he remains, albeit influential, a “paper architect.”

If you want to understand artists of today you need to learn more about this artist who is considered the quintessential Renaissance Man. First, forget all that you learned from Dan Brown and instead read Ross King’s carefully researched and wonderfully written book entitled Leonardo and the Last Supper. In it we learn that at the same time Leonardo was commissioned to paint the Last Supper, another artist was commissioned to paint a Crucifixion on the opposite wall of the refectory. And it turns out that not all artists were poor businessmen like the genius from Vinci. As his contract stipulated, Giovanni Donato da Montorfano finished his Crucifixion one year later “on budget on time,” collected his fee, and went on to the next project. Meanwhile, three years later, with many other projects distracting him from the Last Supper, Leonardo’s scaffolding was still there and he was collecting a yearly stipend from Il Moro. The Crucifixion by Montorfano is a fine work, but overshadowed by the masterpiece that was neither on budget nor on time.

Leonardo’s patrons were not always happy with the artistic liberties he took, such as changing the Immaculate Conception into a Madonna and Child sitting with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist in a landscape (now known as the Virgin of the Rocks). Later generations, however, are in awe of Leonardo’s portrayals of nature and the human person. In spite of the untested methods of fresco painting and the resulting delamination of the pigment from the wall, The Last Supper remains the most famous and imitated painting in the world.

Leonardo had no business partners, accountants, legal advisers, or marketing people to assist him in meeting deadlines, fulfilling contracts, or collecting fees. Yet his creative abilities and inquisitive mind left us with some of the most inspiring works that have ever been made. He did not leave us with a lot of art, but what he left us with is excellent.

The Church needs artists. They make manifest the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Passion, and our salvation. We need to support artists, to commission them to do great works, and to give them freedom to innovate. We also need patience, because great art takes blood, sweat, and tears . . . and an artistic temperament!