In a stroke of exquisite timing, just before Easter, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has unveiled a major new acquisition. “The Last Supper,” a monumental painting by late 15th-Century Spanish artist Pedro Berruguete, goes on view today in the Renaissance galleries of the Ahmanson Building. The museum acquired the rare work for an undisclosed price with funds provided by the Ahmanson Foundation.
“It’s a marvelous addition to the collection, in terms of its uniqueness as well as its majesty. To find an important Spanish painting is difficult under any circumstances; to acquire a real masterpiece is a significant enhancement to our collection,” museum director Earl A. Powell said.
“This is a great Spanish Renaissance masterpiece. It disputes the argument that there are no masterpieces in the marketplace. There are. It just takes time to find them,” he said.
Berruguete (1440-1504) was the most highly revered painter in Spain at the end of the 15th Century, and most of his works--including his best known altarpieces--remain there. “The Last Supper,” painted around 1495-1500, is one of only two works by the artist in the United States. The other is a small painting at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me.
The new acquisition provides a stunning focal point for the museum’s Renaissance gallery. The 6x10-foot painting hangs high above a wood refectory table, as it probably did in its original home, an unknown Castilian monastery, curator Philip Conisbee said. Such pictures were typically commissioned for monastery dining halls, but many “Last Suppers” have perished with buildings because they were painted directly on walls, as frescoes.
The County Museum of Art’s painting may have survived because Berruguete executed it in tempera on linen. Nothing is known of the painting’s early history, but it eventually traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and turned up in a South American private collection, Conisbee said. Many Spanish monasteries and convents have been closed or destroyed and their artworks removed during the last 300 years as part of a secularization movement, he noted. The County Museum of Art acquired the painting through an Italian dealer.
The subject matter of “The Last Supper” is familiar from the New Testament account of Christ’s meal with his disciples on the night that Judas betrayed him to the Romans. Berruguete’s interpretation of the theme places Christ at the center of a long table with six disciples on one side and six on the other. All the men have gold halos except Judas, who is crowned in black. While the other disciples carry on animated conversations, he sits stiffly at the far right, gripping the bag of silver that he received as payment for his betrayal.
One unusual feature of the picture is that a red-eyed, weeping Mary Magdalene appears crouching on the floor. Wiping Christ’s feet with her long hair before anointing them with oil in a small pot beside her, she enacts a New Testament story thought to have taken place a day or two before the fateful supper. The practice of combining the two stories in one painting is peculiar to Spanish art of this period, Conisbee said.
Berruguete, who worked for the Duke of Urbino in Italy during the 1470s, is known as the first Spanish painter to successfully merge the Hispano-Netherlandish tradition of realistic representation with Renaissance concepts of form and space. Credited with introducing Renaissance ideas to Spanish art, he combined a precise technique with an Italian sense of abundance.
“The Last Supper” is distinctively Spanish in its bold draftsmanship and the gritty intensity of the characters’ facial features and expressions, Conisbee said. But Berruguete also displayed his knowledge of Italian and Netherlandish art in the picture. Columns in the background and perspective on the floor recall Italian paintings. Rich patterns on the cloth may have been influenced by Netherlandish paintings that the artist had seen in Spain.
The painting recently emerged from the museum’s conservation laboratory after a six-month treatment by paintings conservator Joseph Fronek and his colleagues. They were confronted with an unusually large example of a relatively rare technique using glue (not egg) tempera as the binder for pigments applied to linen. This technique, called Tuchlein (fine linen), produces a matte, silvery appearance resembling fresco.
While oil or egg tempera paintings are often sealed with varnish to good effect, Tuchlein paintings should not be varnished because that turns the colors shiny and dark. Fortunately, only the central portion of the Berruguete had been varnished, but that part required a painstaking cleaning with soap that would remove the varnish without attacking the fragile paint. When the soap had decomposed the coating, Fronek removed it by rolling cotton swabs over the surface, taking care not to rub off particles of pigment.
The conservators also patched damaged areas of the fabric with new canvas, then filled them with putty that was imprinted with a texture like that of the original linen. Finally, these areas were painted to match the original colors. In the course of their work, the conservators discovered that Berruguete had originally drawn Mary Magdalene on the right side of the picture, but later positioned her on the left.
Observers who are unfamiliar with the rather dry, matte surface of Tuchlein may think the painting is in poor condition, but that is not true, Conisbee said. “Considering the technique that was used and the age of the painting, it is in remarkable condition.”
“The Last Supper” is making its public debut just before Easter, but the curator had another bit of timing in mind when he snagged the painting. “I was rather keen to acquire a Spanish picture before the 1992 celebration of Columbus’ discovery of America,” he said, noting that his find was executed in Columbus’ lifetime.