Lois Tverberg on the restoration of “the picture of Jesus that the gospel writers first gave us”

In 1977, Pinn Barcilon won the assignment of a lifetime when she was asked to lead the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, one of the most well-known images of all time. But the renowned Italian art conservator could hardly imagine how nerve-wracking the next twenty-three years would be.

The centuries hadn’t been kind to the mural that da Vinci completed on a monastery wall in Milan, Italy, in 1498. Always the experimenter, Leonardo had reformulated his paints in a way that proved to be unstable, so that the paint began flaking off even before his death. And even though his mural was immediately hailed as a masterpiece, it was left unprotected from pollution and humidity. When Barcilon began her restoration, five hundred years of dust, mold, and candle soot had darkened the iconic work almost to the point of invisibility.

The real challenge for her team, however, was to undo the disastrous attempts at restoration that had begun back in the 1700s. Heavy coats of varnish, glue, and wax had been brushed on, each of them hastening the darkening process.  Worst of all, hack amateurs had painted over da Vinci’s work time and again, rendering its images distorted, brushing out details they didn’t understand, and filling in gaps with their own interpretations.

After months of photographing every square centimeter of the painting’s surface and analyzing it using state-of-the-art technology, Barcilon’s team members finally began their work. Then, for over twenty years they hunched over microscopes, painstakingly scraping away five hundred years of grime and overpainting. On a good day, one postage stamp’s  worth of the image would emerge. In 1999, when da Vinci’s brushstrokes were finally revealed, her team’s meticulous, mind-numbing labor found its reward. Barcilon called it a “slow, severe conquest, which, flake after flake, day after day, millimeter after millimeter, fragment after fragment, gave back a reading of the dimensions, of the expressive and chromatic intensity that we thought was lost forever.”

Gloomy shadows banished; a well-lit banquet hall emerged. Peter’s beard and nose were free of the clumsy weight that later retouchings had given them. Matthew sported blond hair, not black. Thomas gained a left hand. Andrew’s expression was transformed—he was no longer sullen, but astonished. And Jesus’ face glowed with new light after the dingy repaintings had been removed.

The essence of the scene remained unchanged. Da Vinci had depicted the fateful scene at the moment Jesus revealed one of his disciples would soon betray him. But after centuries of murky obscurity, restoration had brought to light the original beauty of the artist’s masterful portrayal  of the facial expression and body language of Christ and his disciples.

Just as modern technology enabled Barcilon to reveal da Vinci’s original strokes, in recent decades scholars have gained new tools to restore the picture of Jesus that the gospel writers first gave us. In just the past fifty years, we have seen more advances in biblical archaeology and in the discovery of ancient texts than in all the centuries since the time of Jesus. As dingy accretions of history are cleared away,  vivid details of Jesus’ life and culture are emerging….

….Leonardo da Vinci’s….masterpiece has influenced the Christian imagination of Jesus’ fateful last evening more than any other, yet it is culturally wrong in every detail. In the background are windows looking out on a sunny mid-afternoon scene, whereas the Passover meal always took place at night. And of course the faces of Jesus and the disciples are pale-faced Europeans, not Semitic. Most telling is what is on the table. Lacking are the essential elements of the Passover celebration, including the lamb and unleavened bread. In their place is a puffy loaf of bread, when leavening is strictly forbidden during the week of Passover, and a shockingly unkosher plate of grilled eels garnished with orange slices!

Of course da Vinci’s goal was to portray the disciples’ reactions at that critical moment, and he does so with brilliant technique and emotive depth. But by not including the elements of Passover, a feast that celebrated God’s redemption and brimmed over with messianic expectations, we miss the fact that Jesus was powerfully proclaiming himself as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises. Jesus uses the symbols of Passover to point toward his coming atonement to redeem those who believed in him and to inaugurate a “new covenant” for the forgiveness of sin.

Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life, 15,16,22.

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2 comments on “Lois Tverberg on the restoration of “the picture of Jesus that the gospel writers first gave us”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Ted.

    • You’re welcome, Lois. Thanks much for writing the book. I was thinking today just how it has impacted me in a unique way, which I want to share soon on this blog, along with a review of the book.

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