“I have no favourites”

Here’s an interesting image I came across yesterday. It represents John the Evangelist, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 20:2), resting close to Christ at the Last Supper.

Leonardo da Vinci portrayed as John the Evangelist in the Badia Passignano version of The Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The detail is from the first of three Last Supper frescoes painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio and is located in the Badia Passignano, near Florence.

The fresco was brought to life again in 2015 after restoration.

I doubt if anyone realised at the time that the face of John the disciple is in fact Leonardo da Vinci.

The fresco was said to have been painted in 1476. If so, that would be the same year Leonardo was anonymously reported for sodomy along with four other men. However, Ghirlandaio’s fresco could only have been painted after Leonardo had completed The Annunciation, because he has referenced some of its features. The reason for this is that both works have embedded cryptic clues that refer to the anonymous accusation against Leonardo.

In The Annunciation, Leonardo reveals both Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli as those responsible for the charge against him. In The Last Supper painting Ghirlaindo portrays himself as the Christ figure, who John claimed he was loved by – the Domenico who may have been the one Leonardo mentioned when he wrote: ‘Fioravante di Domenico… in Florence is my most cherished companion, as though he were my…’

The Badia Passing version of The Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Could the Badia Passignano version of The Last Supper confirm what was once a close relationship between Domenico and Leonardo? And who did Ghirlandaio place in the guise of Judas his betrayer, but Sandro Botticelli.

Ghirlandaio, Leonardo and Botticelli, in the guise of Christ, John the Evangelist and Judas

Seemingly, the fall-out between the three men was to last even beyond the death of Ghirlandaio in January 1494, because Leonardo continued with the spat by responding to Ghirlandaio’s buck-passing accusation when he portrayed Ghirlandaio as Jesus in his more famous version of The Last Supper.

Detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s version of The Last Supper

In 1480 Ghirlandaio painted another version of The Last Supper, this time in the refectory of the Convent of the Ognissanti in Florence. Here the roles are reversed. Botticelli is portrayed as Christ, Ghirlandaio as John, and Leonardo as Judas. To the right of Judas is a figure depicted as a Man of Sorrows wringing his hands – a symbol of repentance. It’s another version of Domenico, and probably represents James the Great, the brother of John. This version of a Man of Sorrows can be identified with Ghirlandaio’s role in the self portrait he made some ten years later, and in it referenced his part in Leonardo’s The Annunciation many years earlier.

Domenico Ghirlandaio portrayed as Men of Sorrows

The Man of Sorrows shows two marble columns in the background. They represent numeral 2 and 11 and refer to the short sentence in Romans 2:11 when St Paul said: “God has no favourites”. In other words, as much as Leonardo had considered Ghirlandaio favoured him above others, Ghirlandaio, for whatever reason, thought otherwise. Perhaps Leonardo suspected Ghirlandaio was jealous of his superior talent as a painter and concerned he would lose commissions and favour from patrons to the younger man.

So when we see the young Leonardo in Ghirlandaio’s first Last Supper fresco resting his head against Jesus in the guise of Domenico (“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” John 14:9) and the close physical connection of the disciple John (portrayed as the young Leonardo), and also take into account the reference “I have no favourites”, then a reason for the gap between the two men in Leonardo’s Last Supper becomes apparent.

Detail from The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

The gap is a triangular V-shape. The shape of Jesus with his outstretched arms is also triangular, but inverted. The two shapes placed side by side form a parallelogram. In other words, Leonardo is drawing a parallel to Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper frescoes and probably intended as a final response to the banter between the three artists that continued for a period of twenty years.

Notice also the two columns that frame Jesus – a reference to the two columns in Ghirlandaio’s Man of Sorrows pointing to St Paul’s words from Romans 2:11, “God has no favourites”, and Leonardo’s confirmation of the separation of himself from Ghirlandaio portrayed as Christ. This scenario may also represent Leonardo pointing to his own choice of keeping his distance from Church, but reconciling later in life. It’s why he is seen leaning in the direction of Peter, chosen by Christ to be the rock of faith on which he would build his church.

For sure, both Leonardo and Ghirlandaio felt a deep betrayal in their lives, hence Leonardo choosing to portray the time at the Last Supper when Jesus announced that someone at the table, someone close to him, would betray him.

Botticelli continued to stoke the fires of dispute with various references to Leonardo in his own paintings. The most notable to the sodomy accusation is parodied in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Ghirlandaio referred to the incident in his painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds.

Adoration of the Shepherds by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Santa Trinita, Florence

But as I understand, the origins of the dispute can be clearly recognised in Verrocchio’s version of the Baptism of Christ in which Leonardo clearly had a hand in painting. Botticelli is depicted gazing lovingly at Leonardo who only has eyes for the Baptist portrayed by Ghirlandaio. His gaze is firmly focused on the crown of Jesus.

The Baptism of Christ by Andreadel Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence.

Perhaps Andrea del Verrocchio understood the nature of his apprentices better than themselves when he set out to paint the Baptism of Christ

Not surprising, the work also has a strong link to Leonardo’s The Annunciation, and suggests he contributed more to the painting than has been understood in the past.