Search View Archive

False Starts, Loose Ends

Portrait of Leo Steinberg (1985). Photograph by Lisa Miller.

This talk was delivered at the College Art Association Conference, Philadelphia, February 21, 2002, at the session honoring Leo Steinberg as Distinguished Scholar. The speakers were introduced by David Rosand, Columbia University, followed by Samuel Y. Edgerton, Williams College; Rosalind Krauss, Columbia University; and Alexander Nagel, University of Toronto.

The five annual Distinguished Scholar’s Sessions were sponsored by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. James Ackerman, Harvard University, was the first honoree; Steinberg came second.

Before proceeding to professional matters, I’d like to recall two bits of family lore from my early years in Moscow, where I was born. I was three, sitting alone, humming a Russian children’s song to myself. In translation:

Little finch, little finch, where have you been?
—Down at the market, drinking vodka.

Hearing this performance, a visiting grown-up asked, did I know what vodka was? Now, the Russian for water is Vadá, and Vodka is its diminutive. So, being asked about vodka, I replied, “Eto málinkaya Vadá”—“it’s small water.” I confess to this story, because it signals an early tendency to address the signifier instead of the signified.

One other tale from this Russian phase I do not believe; at least not in the form my father claimed to have recorded in his diary—which has not survived. At age 3 and a half, looking at father’s bookshelves, I’m supposed to have said:

“Books are like people.”
“How so?”

“Well, the covers are their clothes, and the letters are their teeth, and if you don’t read them, they feel hungry.”

I discount this story because you hate to think that your imagination peaked at age three and the rest all downhill.

Soon after, we escaped Soviet Russia, arriving in Berlin on November 2, 1923, three weeks before my younger sister was born.

Here are two incidents from my nearly ten years in Germany.

1930: elementary school in the Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf-West. Our teacher, Herr Säger, was a portly man of short temper. Any boy misbehaving would be struck smartly across the face. It was a daily occurrence—and one day, he hit me. I told mother, whereupon my parents went to see the headmaster to protest. This, after all, was the liberal Weimar Republic, a new age of progressive education, which condemned the physical chastisement of children as barbarous.

Accordingly, the headmaster expressed disbelief. Herr Säger, he said, was one of our most respected teachers, who surely would never lay hands on his boys. So he summoned Herr Säger, who denied having ever done so.

I knew nothing of this—until the next morning, when I was made to stand in front of the class to answer Herr Säger’s questions:

“Did you tell your parents that I hit you?”

“Is it true? Did I hit you?”

“Yes, you did.”

Herr Säger turned to the class and called out:

“Boys, did I ever hit any of you?”

Stunned silence. They didn’t know what to say, since most of them had been struck many times. Herr Säger, raising his voice, repeated in a more menacing tone:

“Did I ever lay hands on any of you?”

Silence again, for a few seconds, until a boy in the front row caught on and said—“No, never!” Herr Säger relaxed, and at once the whole class of forty understood what was expected of them and chimed in: “No, never!”

At this, my tears started. Seventy-two years have passed, and still I remember that spokesman in the front row, looking triumphant, because he had found the right answer. Herr Säger turned back to me:

“Well, did I hit you?”
I nodded: “Yes.”

He pulled out the class record book, and intoned as he wrote these words, trenched in my memory:

Steinberg nimmt es mit der Wahrheit nicht genau—“Steinberg is not particular about the truth.”

Since the suburb of Zehlendorf was spared the Allied bombing of World War II, that document may still exist. There—in Zehlendorf-West, as in many places since—you will find it stated black on white that I am not to be trusted.

Now for my other Berlin recollection.

My parents were Socialists, and one day in December 1932 they took me along to visit a Socialist bookshop, whose owner my father wanted to speak to. While the grown-ups talked, I browsed along the shelves and soon pulled down one of the few books in the shop that had nothing to do with politics: Richard Hamann’s The Early Renaissance of Italian Painting, Jena 1909, in its first printing of 30,000: 50 pages of text, plus notes at the back (none of which interested me); and 200 full-page gray-and-white reproductions of paintings by artists with sonorous names, the like of which I had never heard uttered—Pollaiuolo, Ghirlandaio, Piero di Cosimo.

I was enchanted, and couldn’t stop looking—from that day to this. And when, after too short an hour, I was told we were leaving, I would not reshelve the book, but showed it to mother and asked timidly (for I knew we had little money)—could we buy it? Mother glanced at the price, shook her head, and looked quickly away; and all those images to vanish forever. And then a miracle happened: the bookseller turned to my father and said, “Look, any day now Hitler will be coming to power [as indeed Hitler did five weeks later, January 30, 1933], and the first thing the Nazis will do is close this shop. So why don't you just take the book for your boy.”

I have the book still, inscribed in pencil in a 12-year-old's hand, “1932, for Chanukah.”

A year later. We had escaped Hitler early and by late May 1933 were settled in London, where people spoke a language I neither knew nor approved. In English classes at school, if we were told to read and report on a Dickens novel, my practice was subtly subversive. I would bicycle to the public library way out in Hendon, borrow a German translation of Oliver Twist, read it, and then do my report.

One day in 1934, I was on my bicycle with half a dozen library books strapped on behind, coasting downhill. You have to remember that in those days cars in suburban London were scarce, streets had maybe one or two cars parked, and little traffic. So, as I came speeding down, I suddenly saw people waving at me from the sidewalk. I stopped, turned around, and froze in horror. The strap had come loose, my books strewn across the roadway, a bus bearing down to ride over them, and me, condemned to stand by at their massacre, for I had a great sense that books, borrowed ones especially, must be treated with tenderness. They’re like people, remember?

But then—another miracle: the juggernaut slowed and made a careful detour around my books. I choked up—knew from this moment that I had passed into a different culture. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that this could not have happened in Germany, where, on May 10, 1933, my Uncle Aron had taken my older sister and me to watch the Nazi burning of books.

And so I made peace with England, where I would spend the next twelve years, trying to learn the local jargon, so I could eventually be published in The Art Bulletin.

By January 1945, I had reached America. The European war was winding down, Japan was still fighting, and within weeks I was summoned to medical examination by the draft board—along with a thousand other young men. The details of that daylong indignity I will spare you, but you might be intrigued by the psychiatric part. We were lined up before an improvised tent, from which, periodically, came the shout “Next!” At my turn to enter, I saw the psychiatrist at his desk, making notes. Never once did he look up as he conducted this interview, which so impressed me that I can repeat it verbatim and unabridged.

“Ever been with a woman?”




Five years later, 1950, going through the naturalization process, I was asked whether I would declare upon oath that I did not intend to assassinate the President of the United States. I promised not to, and have been a law-abiding American ever since.

So much so that when an article on the occasion of my 80th birthday appeared in July 2000 in the Süd-Deutsche Zeitung—written by Willibald Sauerländer—everything in my work was attributed to my deep American roots. Sauerländer quotes from an essay I had published in 1967:

“The disciplined history of art remains to this day coy and chaste. We still breathe the moral climate of the 19th-century esthetes who staked out our field.” 1

Sauerländer alters the last sentence to read:

“We still breathe the moral air of the American esthetes of the 19th century.”

About a later book of mine, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art, Sauerländer remarks that:

“It could only have been written in a country where religion and prudishness are so closely entwined as they are in America.”

And since, as Sauerländer puts it, “scholarship still does not know what to do with [my] thesis,” he tries at least to keep the nuisance at bay by declaring it to be peculiarly American, reflecting, in his words, “the excited American sixties.”

I regard such and similar comments from overseas scholars as my true naturalization papers.

In the 1950s, I entered in the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, to study art history, my first adviser being Harry Bober, who warned me about the megalomaniacs we had on the faculty, telling me stories like the following about the classicist Karl Lehmann and the polymath Richard Krautheimer.

Lehmann and Krautheimer are taking a boating trip. A sudden squall upsets their craft and tosses them into the water, where they puff and struggle and barely make it to shore. Regaining his breath, Lehmann says:

“Richard, you know how hard I have worked to win the respect of my colleagues and students. I’d be grateful if you didn’t advertise that I couldn’t swim.”

And Krautheimer says:

“Alright, Karl, I promise. So long as you don’t let on that I couldn’t walk on the water.”

Well, I became a Krautheimer student, and remained in his graces until midway through graduate school. The turning point came during an on-site course on Roman Baroque architecture, taken in Rome under Prof. Wolfgang Lotz, summer 1957.

It was during those intensive weeks that I fell in love with Borromini; whereupon I dumped two-years’ worth of dissertation work on a Romanesque topic which Krautheimer had been enthusiastic about, substituting Borromini instead, and an analytical method which Krautheimer thought unhistorical. For this defection he never forgave me. He withdrew his support and let Lotz take over.

Now back to that walking seminar in Rome, 1957. It included, I think, only five students. One of them, dear Richard Pommer, is no longer with us. The rest are still breathing. Lotz himself, who later became director of the Hertziana, died in 1981. I remember him as a marvelous teacher, with one welcome flaw in his nature: a touch of laziness, which made him reluctant to read student papers during a summer jaunt.

To spare himself without forgoing material for the assignment of grades, he devised an ingenious ploy. He led us into a church we had not previously visited—not a Baroque church: Sta. Maria del Popolo, a late Quattrocento structure that housed work by Bramante, Sansovino, Raphael, Pinturicchio, Sebastiano del Piombo, Carracci, Caravaggio, and Bernini. Lotz doled out a portion to each of us, told us to study it for fifteen minutes, then report in three minutes what it was all about.

(Fig.1) Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo (1601). Left wall, Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter; center, Annibale Carracci’s Assumption.

To me fell the Cerasi Chapel of 1601, with the sculptured busts of the Cerasi donors in the antechamber, fading frescoes in the vaults overhead, Carracci’s Assumption over the altar, and two Caravaggios flanking, i.e., The Crucifixion of Peter and The Conversion of Paul (fig. 1). Twelve minutes ticked off, and with only three more to go, I still had nothing to say. Then, in near-desperation, I started firing questions, some of which quickly paid off—like, where does the light in the two Caravaggios come from? Answer: Not from the dim lunette window over the altar, but from the painted Dove of the Holy Ghost on the vault of the antechamber. Question: Do the vault frescoes correlate with the Caravaggio paintings below? They do!

So then the paintings were designed for their present location, deep in the chancel, well past the altar rail where the worshiper stops. Then they were not meant to be seen head-on? No, but from an oblique angle. Caravaggio, then, conceives the spectator—not as an eye placed for privileged viewing, but as a person in a body that is never perfectly placed. And the protagonists in the pictures appear greatly foreshortened, not because they are gross, or the painter irreverent, but because their foreshortened axes are prolongations of our sightlines.

When I had done, Lotz said simply: “That’s for The Art Bulletin.” So I wrote the piece, and, back in New York, showed it to a well-meaning fellow-student, Meg Potter—long dead—who read the first paragraph and exclaimed in dismay: “But Leo, this isn’t written in Art Bulletin style!” Too late. The piece was already in the hands of the then editor of The Art Bulletin, one James Ackerman, bless him, who wrote back on September 7, 1958—“We accept your paper with enthusiasm. It is a fascinating piece, and, thank God, decently written.”

One thing I did not put into the article: a hunch that major stylistic changes in art alter art’s interaction with the beholder. This hunch—I owe it to Caravaggio—seemed confirmed in my experience of contemporary art, which, I thought, constantly questioned what sort of presence the viewer is.

“Is he a man in a hurry? Is he at rest or in motion? Is he one who construes or one who reacts? Is he a man alone—or a crowd? Is he a human being at all—or a function…an instrumentality”—and so on.2

Since the paragraph I’ve just read was published thirty years ago, the course of art—installation, audience participation, etc.—has made what once seemed fresh and worth saying utterly commonplace. But I had seen this coming back in 1962, when I wrote in an essay on Jasper Johns:

“It is in the character of the critic to say no more in his best moments than what everyone in the following season repeats; he is the generator of the cliché.”3

I suspect that, in our profession, diffusion into banality is the better of the two possible fates awaiting a bright idea. Either that or oblivion.

Six years after my 1959 debut in The Art Bulletin, I vexed its pages again in a near-suicidal stunt—a 37-column review of a book whose perceived dishonesty had put me into a rage. Irving Lavin cautioned me not to publish the piece, and how right he was. I became the notorious author of that “nasty review,” and paid the price: twenty years in the doghouse.

On the other hand, my career as an art historian has not been without its positive moments. Once—in the 1980s—I even got asked to edit an issue of The Art Journal. A preceding CAA conference had included a session on Scatology, and it had been decided to publish the papers. Since it was then CAA practice to assign each theme-issue of the Journal to a guest editor, the syndics of the CAA delegated a young scholar to approach me about it by phone.

“Why me?” I asked. And he said, “Well, you know….”—and that’s all he would say, as if the answer were obvious. Apparently, since I had just published a book with the word “Sexuality” in the title,4 it seemed fair to assume that anything below the belt would be my province.

I declined, but the incident inspired a jingle in the verse form known as a double-dactyl. It goes:

Renaissance man Leo-
Nardo da Vinci was
Asked by his Duke to
Design a latrine.

Thanks to a promise of
Strictly enforced, it
Remains to be seen.

This is the full extent of my contribution to scatology as a sub-discipline of Kunstgeschichte.

As for sex, my latest book, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper (2001), admits only one mention of it. You will find it on p. 102, where a certain posture is said to be originally associated with mature, masculine dignity, but, by Hellenistic times, commonplace and—I quote—“applicable to every age and condition, irrespective of sex.” There is no other sex reference in the book, which perhaps explains its modest appeal.

In 1987, Sam Edgerton and I published in tandem a two-part paper on a Filippo Lippi problem. I’d like to tell you how this collaboration came about.

(Fig.2) Filippo Lippi, Annunciation, 1450s (detail). London, National Gallery.

London, National Gallery, August 1984, facing Lippi’s Annunciation. A round-topped panel, 60 inches across, dense as all Lippis are and lovely to look at. Suddenly, I noticed something I knew I’d not seen before: the Dove of the Holy Ghost down from its usual altitude to level with Mary’s belly, and so near, it seemed half-caught in the bend of her acquiescence (fig. 2). Closing in on the panel, I saw what was happening: a spray of tiny gold particles proceeding from the dove’s head and beak toward the Virgin’s womb, from which, through a slit in her dress, issued a responsive burst of golden dots. What on earth was the painter thinking?

Enter a helpful association—something recalled from a book I had read about ancient theories of visual perception. Was Lippi analogizing the incarnational moment to the eye’s apprehension of light? As I remembered it, one theory held that vision occurred in the eye’s passive reception of light (intromission); the other explained it as an outgoing ray spent by the eye (extramission). And I recalled that Roger Bacon, a 13th-century Franciscan at Oxford, had proposed synthesizing the two, so that visual perception would result from reciprocal sorties—the perceived object emitting a light which the eye-beam goes forth to receive.

Could it be that in Lippi’s Annunciation, the instant of Mary’s conceiving was being likened to the interaction of sight with light—analogous to Bacon’s reciprocity theory? At this hunch, I stopped short, for the 200-year-leap from my Carmelite friar in mid-Quattrocento Florence back to that clairvoyant Oxonian seemed too wide. In retrospect, I feel shamed by my ignorance on this point, but it was quickly cured by Sam Edgerton.

In a Boston Museum colloquium held on the Ides of March, 1985, I recounted my hunch along with my quandary. Following the formal session, Edgerton cornered me and, with his usual ebullience, demanded to know, had I been reading St. Antoninus lately? “No, not lately,” I said. But Edgerton had been assiduous in studying this sainted archbishop of mid-15th-century Florence—confessor to the same Medici who commissioned Lippi’s Annunciation—and he assured me that St. Antoninus’ copious Summa was replete with references to Baconian optics. In his irrepressible way, Sam sputtered on about the metaphorical exploitation of science by Renaissance theologians. Fascinating; I heard him with joy.

Two days later, March 17, 1985—an excited letter from Sam included the following:

St. Antoninus was remarkably up-to-date on current science, particularly that of optics as it was being studied by intellectuals and artists [such as Ghiberti] in Florence. He was clearly aware of Bacon’s theory which models the grace of God on the nature of light….As you mentioned, this theory was a compromise between the old classical notions of intro- and extramission….Incidentally, the Summa is a compilation of the sermons delivered by St. A. in the Duomo of Florence between 1440 and 1450, some of which Fra Lippo Lippi undoubtedly heard. It must have been obvious to the painter, after listening to St. A., that the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb could be likened to the action of optical species [i.e., rays] and thus he diagrammed it as you pointed out….”

Responding to Sam’s enthusiasm, I proposed that we collaborate on a two-part study of Lippi’s picture and what it involved. This we did, and published it in Artibus et Historiae (1987). Thereafter, Sam did more work on the subject, summarizing his further findings in a chapter on “The Geometrization of the Supernatural” in his book The Heritage of Giotto’s Geometry, 1991.

And now the matter is safely en route to the commonplace. The latest Lippi monograph disposes of it in 6 lines, as follows:

“In another of Lippi’s Annunciation scenes,…the painter graphically depicted the miraculous penetration of the Virgin’s sacred body and the ensuing fecundity of the body implicit in the Annunciation. The dove of the Holy Spirit is shown in serial images, progressing down toward the Virgin’s swollen belly where there is a small opening in her dress emitting gold rays."5

Doesn’t sound all that interesting, does it?

(Fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Three Women, 1908. St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum.

Now let me cite an observation of the kind that heads not for banality, but for oblivion. In 1978, I published a long piece, called “Resisting Cézanne,” about Picasso’s Three Women of 1908 (fig. 3).6 It dealt with Picasso’s ambivalent relation to the dead master—Cézanne’s series of bathers especially; and with the onset of Cubism; and with what I perceived as this painting’s true subject.

Some of the writing is a bit purple, but I was young. Here are a few sentences from it:

“Where Cézanne’s Arcadians sport under open skies in agreeable weather, Picasso finds sleepers toiling in sunless heat…Is it permissible to inquire into their sex?….
They are probably incorrectly labeled ‘Three Women.’
‘Two or Three Women’ would be more to the point.”

Of the one at the left I wrote:

“It makes little difference whether we read this figure as wholly male or as mannish woman. What counts is the drift toward a masculine pole, the emphatic differentiation from the round-bodied woman at right.…However we might have sexed the figure in isolation, apposed to its all-woman counterpart, this uneasy She-He strives for a complementary nature. The event represented becomes a process of bifurcation, a moment of self-definition—the sexes straining apart to position themselves as confronted halves….Picasso’s picture emerges as a kind of creation myth….The whole story is given. It begins in the subhuman clod posted at center—primitive and inert, barely evolved from the bedrock behind….An anterior condition personified in a preconscious hominid, the reserved matrix whence humanity sunders forth, the He and the She of it.”

Well, rereading this essay the other day, I found my suggestion quite interesting—but the picture continues to be called, as it always has been, Three Women. My revisionist observations rest in peace.

Whether the observations offered in my most recent book will sink into oblivion or make it into banality is too early to say. Meanwhile, I’d like to reflect on what I do that is so divisive—so irritating to some, welcome to others.

Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper makes complex what had always seemed plain and straightforward. The subject of the representation, for instance: it should be no problem, for an engraving of about 1500, when the mural was two years old, includes a cartello affixed to the tablecloth, spelling out what at this moment Jesus is saying: “Verily, I say unto you, one of you shall betray me.”

A period document! A text to interpret Leonardo’s Cenacolo. It gives us the words of Christ and explains the consternation of the Apostles. So Charles Hope, director of the Warburg Institute, in a recent article in The New York Review of Books, spurns all complexification by citing the evidence of this print, whose worded message is confirmed by Vasari, and then by Goethe, and thereafter by almost everyone who has written about the picture.

But when you look close at the gesturing of the Christ figure, you ought to wonder. When I was teaching, I would have urged my students—it would be impolite to urge it on colleagues—to do more than look: Act it out! Is Christ’s action—one hand prone, the other supine, both reaching across the table to address respectively wine and bread—is such gesturing consonant with that imputed speech? These hands are doing something else—or doing more, beyond miming the “One of you.” Now I see the image judging the text, and characterizing the text as simplistic. The gesture of Leonardo’s Christ makes me suspect that Leonardo’s mind may be subtler and richer than this engraver’s, or Vasari’s, or even Goethe’s in his role as art critic.

In fact, by 1625, a new observation entered the field. Cardinal Federigo Borromeo had taken the trouble to look leftward from Christ’s right hand, and noticed how that hand and the recoiling left hand of Judas jointly flank a dish, like a parenthesis. He concluded that Christ at this moment must be answering the disciples’ question about the identity of the betrayer: “He that dips his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me.”

How was this suggestion received? It was ignored because it conflicted with the received textual interpretation—and because it disturbed the temporal unity of the depicted moment. Consider the sequence: the initial pronouncement “One of you shall betray me”; the reaction of the disciples, each asking, “Lord, is it I?”; followed by Christ’s response, “He that dips….” Surely, Christ could not make his initial announcement and, within this one moment, answer the question which his announcement provoked. Accordingly, in 1907, the outstanding monograph on the Last Supper dismissed that conjunction of hands flanking a dish as “a chance optical constellation.”

Not until 1904 did a scholar consider both of Christ’s hands together—we have no record of any earlier scholar being that bold. But Johann Boloz Antoniewicz looked and discovered—at Christ’s fingertips—a roll of bread and a wineglass. Ergo, Institution of the Eucharist! Antoniewicz found his hunch confirmed by the alignment of Christ’s forward arms with the beams of the ceiling (and, I would add, with the probable floor lines). So, then, the elements of the Eucharist become points of transmission. And the human drama coordinates with the surface geometry: Antoniewicz cited the outflung arms of St. James, in line with the diagonal formed by the perspectival recession of the tapestries on the left. The wingspread of James’ arms rides that diagonal like a chute.

(Fig. 4) Leonargo, Last Supper, 1498, with diagonal aimed at Judas’ elbow.

Which made me wonder about the corresponding diagonal descending from upper right (fig. 4). Look close: it leads straight-edge to Judas’ elbow. Judas, then, has one hand at the treason dish, while his other arm inadvertently elbows a bread roll out of the way. Is this another “chance optical constellation?” Not to my eye. Surface geometry here participates in the narrative; it characterizes, predestines, and furthers the plot.

But can Christ’s right hand be addressing the wine, and at the same time the dish? Are we seeing the Betrayal Announcement, or the Institution? Could it be both? What would such duplexity mean in this particular case? It cannot be both if you respect Leonardo’s own writing. Gesture, he insists, must be the legible sign of an inward thought or emotion. He demands that “the motions and attitudes of figures should display the true mental state of the figure, in so true a way that they cannot signify anything else.”

Well, then, what is Christ’s “mental state” at this moment? Is he bethinking his imminent martyrdom, or is he now, in his divine nature, founding his Church in a timeless rite, wherein mere bread and wine transubstantiate into his body and blood? More simply put: Is his right hand aimed at the treason dish or the wine? Which is it?

I am reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon that showed poor Charles Dickens dressed down by his editor. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, you remember, begins “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” The cartoon has the editor saying, “I wish you’d make up your mind, Mr. Dickens.” One could imagine an ancient skeptic putting a similar question to, say, St. Paul: “Now this Jesus of Nazareth, I wish you’d make up your mind, was he human or not?” Or have a modern positivist ask Leonardo: “Does that diagonal recede into depth or cleave to the surface?” And “is that right hand of Christ addressing the Judas dish or the wineglass?” In other words, does it express the submission of the man’s mortal nature, or his godhood, instituting the rite of the Mass? The question is reasonable.

But addressed to this action, this painting, the question is as wrong-headed as it would be to ask whether a given point in a perspectival construction lies squat on the plane or somewhere in depth of space. The question is sterile because a perspectival projection defines an interrelation. Any point in the system is part of the surface pattern and of the spatial illusion. Every point in it is a coincidence.

And Christ’s right hand is exactly such a coincidence. Read on a transversal parallel with the picture plane, that hand, astream with the table, relates to the dish, to Judas, to the betrayal announcement, to Christ’s human nature. Read three-dimensionally as the outpost of an arm that projects hitherward from the centric point of the perspective, that hand targets the wine. And that’s why the fingers are splayed for the widest grasp, like a pianist’s striking an octave.

Leonardo’s protagonist is two-natured, and this dual nature is reflected in the two main events of this night—the announcement of the Betrayal which initiates his human death, and the institution of the Eucharist which proceeds from his divinity. Insofar as the mural confirms its wall, Christ’s hands, along with those of St. John and Judas, read sequentially on the picture plane, and the action signals the onset of the Passion. Insofar as the picture opens on 3-D space, Christ’s right hand, like his left, advances half-way across the board, founding the central sacrament of the Church.

What Leonardo has done is to make the twofold event of this night—which reflects the dual nature of the Incarnation—coincident with the given duplexity of perspective. Perspective becomes revelation; the right hand of Christ, the profoundest pun in all art. It’s so simple, so obvious, that it took me only thirty-five years to see what I was seeing.

Meanwhile, scholars have agonized over the riddle they have made of that hand. Herbert von Einem gave up on it, describing Christ’s right-handed action as “a gesture that must remain incomprehensible and which has caused interpreters to crack their brains” (1961). A huge recent monograph on the Last Supper (1998) reiterates: “Art-historical investigation to this day has vainly cracked its head over the original sense of this gesture.”

I know why they are baffled: because they treat the characters in the picture as persons only—instead of seeing these persons within the pictorial structure. They try to track the psychological source of a gesture, rather than seeing the picture at work.

It works overtime. As Christ opens his arms, watch his six nearest neighbors. They roll back, make way, and fall into responsive diagonals, dilating the angle formed by these open arms, and transmitting their forward momentum to the tapestried walls, which now fan out toward us in remote agreement with the charge of Christ’s hands. An initiating motion, proceeding from the Prime Mover, responded to by the inner groups of Apostles, and imparted by apostolic transmission to the walls. Now even the depicted chamber ambiguates. True to the given perspective, it recedes into depth; and it expands hitherward in obedience to the initiating action at center. The room’s perspective is, like the Protagonist, double-natured.

(Fig. 5) Last Supper with Christ alone. Computer manipulation by Don Quaintance.

Think of the picture as consistently two in one. On the one hand, a climactic dramatic moment: twelve men reacting to an utterance from the Master. What they see of him is his profile, the right or the left. But to the viewer this side of the mural, more is apparent. The frontality blatant to us shows us Christ’s upper body as an equilateral triangle, sign of the Trinity; shows that sign backed by triune fenestration, like a church apse; shows the segment gable over the central light forming an incipient halo. And only the viewer outside the picture sees the Protagonist irradiating his ambience and bestowing the elements of the Eucharist in one forwarding gesture. (See fig. 5, Don Quaintance’s startling epitome.) This is the other theme of the picture—its aspect on the longitudinal axis. It intersects with the dramatic, which unfolds laterally on the picture plane. As Leonardo enacts the events of this Supper in unison, they coincide, inhere in each other.

To this reading of the Last Supper I foresee at least four objections.

First: It threatens to narrow the picture’s meaning from the universally human down to the Christian. Consider this: since the mid-19th century, Leonardo has been one of the great culture heroes of the West—artist, proto-scientist, exemplar of the modern secular mind. Would not such a man in his greatest work suppress the sacramental aspect of his biblical subject? Leonardo came to be seen as the precursor of Shakespeare, a creator of pure psycho-drama. Hence the resistance from liberal scholars, with whom I would gladly side, but for the evidence of this picture.

So one German scholar spurns any sacramental reading of the Last Supper because, he says, we don’t want Leonardo’s art “returned to the framework of Christian iconography.” He, and many of his persuasion, fear that a specifically Christian content imputed to the Last Supper will rob the work of its universality, shrink its human appeal. Good reason to scorn the argument of my book.

Second: My take on this picture runs counter to certain passages in Leonardo’s so-called Treatise on Painting, the Trattato. These passages—routinely cited by commentators and held to be especially relevant to the Last Supper—suggest that the master’s idea of narrative painting was fairly straightforward, with never a hint of dogmatic theology, multiple function, ambiguity, and so forth. None of that, but rather the simple imperative to make bodily motions reveal emotional states. Leonardo, following Alberti, writes: “Make figures with such action as may be sufficient to show what the figure has in mind….” Again: “A representation of human figures ought to be done in such a way that the spectator may easily recognize, by means of their attitudes, the intent in their minds.”

Texts such as these put any multiple reading of, say, Christ’s right-handed gesture at odds with the artist’s declared intention. Since the precepts set forth what Leonardo wants depicted figures to show, the conviction that the Cenacolo characters will show just that much and no more becomes an article of faith and stiffens resistance to readings which no period text seems to support.

To which I reply that the picture judges the texts, puts them in place within Leonardo’s pedagogics. Reducing Leonardo’s pictorial imagination to those elementary precepts is the folly of academics who prefer reading to looking.

A third line of resistance argues ad hominem: Steinberg likes to complicate what we know to be simple. The ambiguities he goes on about are his personal hang-up; pay no attention. Critics who react this way to my work operate as I did in my early definition of vodka: they target the signifier (that’s me) instead of the signified.

And then this last objection: As we all know, Leonardo’s Last Supper feeds a brisk industry of imitations and adaptations—the work of artists, filmmakers, parodists and cartoonists, hucksters, and stagers of tableaux vivants. The thirteen-figure arrangement has been used to advertise jeans and whatnot. Suppose it were known that Leonardo’s familiar drama of betrayal and loyalty represents, in equal measure, the Institution of the Eucharist: the picture might become harder to joke about, or to exploit for profit. Thus lots of breadwinners would be put out of work, and this is no time to promote unemployment.

Before signing off, I’d like to unload a few thanks: to the present generation of CAA leadership for going along with this session; to Emmanuel Lemakis for getting it staged. He even hopes to see my Leonardo book reviewed in The Art Bulletin, which God forbid; I had hoped to see The Art Bulletin maintain its spotless thirty-year record of keeping aloof from my books.7 My warm thanks to you, Mr. Lemakis.

And so to David Rosand, who wrote the kind of review an author might hope to read in an afterlife. And to the panelists, Sam Edgerton, Rosalind Krauss, and Alex Nagel, who gave lavishly of their time and goodwill. And to all my former students who have sat through this session. And I thank everyone here who came out of friendship, or merely to see what a real, live, still-smoking octogenarian looks like.

You may be amused to learn that more writing is planned, for which I already have some adequate titles, such as Flotsam & Then Some. My favorite is a stage direction taken from an obscure Elizabethan play: Exit Clown, Speaking Anything.


1. “Objectivity and the Shrinking Self,” reprinted in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, 1972, p. 315.

2. “Other Criteria,” Other Criteria, p. 81.

3. “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art” (1962), reprinted in Other Criteria, p. 23.

4. The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, New York, 1983; 2nd, enlarged edition, Chicago, 1996.

5. Megan Holmes, Fra Filippo Lippi, 1999, p. 232.

6. “Resisting Cézanne: Picasso’s Three Women of 1908,” Art in America, November-December 1978, p. 114-33.

7. Subsequent to this talk, Leonardo’s Incessant Last Supper (New York, 2001) was reviewed by Joseph Leo Koerner in The Art Bulletin, December 2004. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

© 2006 Leo Steinberg.


Leo Steinberg


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2006

All Issues