One of the most famous paintings in the world—Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—was never finished. Leonardo gave up on it. He could never decide how to paint the face of Christ.
According to Vasari, his first biographer, Leonardo finished all the apostles first. He had decided to illustrate the moment when Jesus announces that one of them will betray Him. “So in their faces,” says Vasari, “one can read the emotions of love, dismay, and anger, or rather sorrow, at their failure to grasp Christ’s meaning”.
Judas was the last apostle Leonardo did. How do you make a face that will show so much obstinacy, hatred, and treachery? He thought and thought about it. He had the “habit of spending half a day at a time contemplating what he had done so far”; and he was so slow that he drove the prior of the monastery that ordered the fresco nuts. “If that man had had his way,” says Vasari, a fellow artist who sympathized with Leonardo, “Leonardo would have toiled like one of the laborers hoeing in the garden and never put his brush down for a moment.”
The prior kept badgering Leonardo, trying to hurry him. He became so obsessed with Leonardo’s pokiness that he complained to the Duke of Milan, saying Leonardo was clearly never going to finish. To appease him the Duke finally sent for Leonardo, though he admired him and understood that an artist needed to take his time.
Leonardo told the duke he was having great trouble with the last two heads: Christ’s and Judas’s. He said for Christ it was going to be next to impossible because he couldn’t use any human model but had to invent a perfect one—one of such beauty and divine grace.
As for the Judas, he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to imagine the features of a man who in spite of all the blessings he had been given would do what Judas did. However, if he didn’t finally manage to invent one, there was always the head of that nagging prior.
That made the duke “roar with laughter,” says Vasari.
“And the unfortunate prior retired in confusion to worry the laborers working in his garden, and left off worrying Leonardo, who skilfully finished the head of Judas and made it seem the very embodiment of treachery and inhumanity.”