How Leonardo Painted Judas

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.”


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4 Responses to How Leonardo Painted Judas

  1. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    Another good story, thanks.
    Thanks, Bill. After the DaVinci Code there was so much about Leonardo and that Last Supper picture but I never saw this story, though it is one of the catchy ones Vasari tells.

  2. iondanu – I am a visual artist of Romanian origin (a draughtsman, painter, photographer and digital artist) living now in Canada.
    ion danu says:

    What Judas did…well, all is not as clear as that… In the Last Temptation of Christ, the book of Kazanzakis and the movie of Scorsese, Judas do what he did at the suggestion and insistence of Christ (Harvey Keitel is playing Judas – he is 1/2 Romanian supposedly…) and in the Passion of Mel Gibson he betrays Christ all right but has violent regrets and, of course, does his thing with the rope… I tend to see neither Judas so entirely bad, neither others so divine and inhumanely beautiful…But that’s just me…

  3. Rags35 says:

    @ ion danu
    From your message above I would infer that you base your opinion on some films which undoubtedly are in turn based on the very scant information available in Scriptures.

    Whereas any author has a right — I’d say a duty — to visualize those characters in tune with his or her philosophy, I find it truly amazing that you seem to offer any such visualization, borrowed as you yourself admit, as your opinion that is “just me”.

  4. Adam 13 says:

    The Truth: Judas handed Christ over by order of the divine. Christ was made to pay for his sins in the temple and he knew this. Being a native outsider within the twelve, Judas was chosen directly to carry out the will of Christ. In the end it was made clear that without the death of Judas the rebirth of the everlasting Christ would not have been possible. When Christ spoke at the last supper of a betrayal by one who sat at the table he spoke not to Judas but to Lucifer directly who was listening in. (Christ Gave the Morsel to Judas not as an indication of guilt but as a sign to follow god with all his strength for all will be saved in time)

    —- Davinci’s potrayal of Judas was guided by what the Masonic Power mongers would allow him to paint. To see the truth would set the world free from the tyranny of old money and power. God will soon come to illuminate the world.

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