As I was growing up, what I knew about art, especially art history, wouldn't fill a teacup. In thinking back, I'd heard of the Michelangelo, maybe of his David, knew who Gilbert Stuart was, and Leonardo da Vinci. I knew of his Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. Believe it or not, Mr. Ripley, that was about the extent of it. Forty years ago, before art education was part of most school curricula, that kind of ignorance was common. Today, despite the best efforts of hard working art teachers around the world, it still is, especially among those of my own generation. For instance, you'll notice I mentioned the Last Supper, as if there were only ONE. Probably not one in a hundred men or women on the street is aware that Leonardo's Last Supper was neither the first nor the last, nor even necessarily the best of the lot. It's good, what's left of it, perhaps, if we use our imagination a little, even great, but certainly not the Last Supper as if none of the others even mattered. Even among artists, my guess is that, while they may be vaguely aware there were others, few could name their artists of locate them on a map. Most probably couldn't even locate Leonardo's Last Supper on a map. (It's in Milan...that's Italy, by the way.)
Since we have our map out, that's one in Milan, I know of at least two last suppers in Venice, and an astounding nine in Florence. And of course, in the National Gallery in Washington, DC, we have Salvador Dali's modern day masterpiece on the subject. And, there are undoubtedly others. For perhaps two or three hundred years, they were standard decor in convent refectories. Apparently though, it was pretty much a Northern Italy thing; I know of none in Rome or from there south. Although there are apparent visual references to the Eucharist in a Roman catacomb or two dating from the first century, and a sixth century bas relief in the church of Monza, Italy, the earliest serious fresco on the subject would be that of Taddeo Gaddi (originally thought to be the work of Giotto), the Cenacolo of Santa Croce. (The term "cenacolo" refers to the upper room as described in biblical references.) It's located in what was once the refectory, now the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Croce in Florence. It dates from 1340.
Also in Florence, Santo Spirito has one (or at least a fragment of it) dating from 1370, and Santa Apollonia has one by Andrea del Castagno from around 1450. Ghirlandaio painted three, the first in 1476, then another in the refectory of the Ognissanti convent in 1480, followed by yet another in the refectory of the Dominican convent of San Marco around 1482. In 1495, about the time Leonardo began his Last Supper in Milan, Perugino completed one of the most beautiful, The Cenacolo of Fuligno in the refectory of the Franciscan tertiares of St. Onofrio. It's most notable for its brilliant, Umbrian landscape background - though, strangely, the figures are thought to have been completed by his assistants. Another Florentine last supper, The Cenacolo della Caiza, painted by Franciabigio in 1514 is, sadly, hardly in better shape today that Leonardo's. And finally, ninth but not least, we find Andrea del Sarto's The Cenacolo of San Salvi painted in 1527 in the old refectory of the Vallombrsan Abbey on the outskirts of Florence. Of them all, it's considered the most lifelike. Vasari records how this one narrowly escaped destruction during the 1529 siege of Florence when the soldiers sent to plunder the area were so awe-struck by its beauty, they spared the refectory while destroying the church, the campanile, a nearby hospital, and even part of the convent.
Many of us already know much about Leonardo's Last Supper, about his disastrous experiment with a mysterious oil tempera applied to damp plaster, how it began to deteriorate within just a few years after its completion, how the monks begged him to return and repair it, how it fell into such a state of disrepair by the mid sixteenth century they saw no harm in cutting a door through the lower part of the painting, about the disastrous restoration efforts in the centuries to follow, and the near futile effort to preserve and restore it today. Leonardo no doubt knew of the early Florentine Cenacolos, and not surprisingly, seems to have been most heavily influenced by Ghirlandaio's work. In a very real sense, Leonardo was responsible for exporting what seems to have been a locally favoured style and subject to Milan and eventually to other parts of Italy as his work influenced that of Veronese's controversial version in Venice dating from 1573, and Tintoretto's radical, Mannerist composition of 1593. They, in turn, influenced Rembrandt's Supper at Emmaus (technically not a "last supper") and of course Dali's unforgettable, mystical masterpiece (1956).
It's not surprising that last suppers have become one of the most important subjects in religious art. Despite their "dining hall decoration" history, next to the crucifixion and resurrection, they depict probably the most critical point in Christ's life, and the centrepiece of all Christian worship. Unfortunately, what we've come to know visually of this subject in art and worship derives from poor copies of dubious distinction, made hundreds of years after the fact, of a good, but by no means outstanding, Leonardo version painted as but one in a long series of earlier and later Florentine efforts. Of course some are better than others but, with all due respect to Leonardo, all deserve a more equal share of the religious and historic limelight.