The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci
Dated: 1495-1498; housed at: Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.
This painting is one of Da Vinci’s most famous and one of the most recognisable works in the world of Western art.
The Last Supper depicts the scene in which Jesus Christ announced that one of his Twelve Disciples would betray him, during a meal to celebrate Passover, a Jewish holiday which commemorates their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt.
They ate what Jews eat nowadays during the holiday: bitter herbs, unleavened flatbread, charoset (a paste made of fruit, used to recall the mortar the Israelites used when they were enslaved in Ancient Egypt, and sprinkled with cinnamon, to symbolise the straw that was mixed with the mortar), roast lamb, and red wine diluted with water.
A recent study of the painting further identified an eel dressed with orange or lemon segments, a widespread dish during the Renaissance.
The Beaneater by Annibale Carracci
Dated: 1584-1585; housed at: Palazzo Colonna, Rome.
This painting depicts a farmer seated at a table, intent on eating a dish based on beans (one of the staples of that period, especially among the poorer communities), onions, mushrooms and bread.
The dish is accompanied by a jug of wine.
The painting is set in a tavern, made evident by the absence of typical household ornaments.
With this piece, the artist’s aim was to reproduce a scene from everyday life, in what we would now call a “snapshot”.
The man is clearly hungry and is concentrated on the dish before him.
His mouth is wide open and his spoon lifted.
He looks as though he’s been caught off-guard.
The subject is still wearing a hat as though he’s in a rush to get back to work.
Therefore, it’s a hearty yet quick feed.
Dating back more than 400 years, the scene appears to be very contemporary.
In general, this painting reflects the customs and traditions of the time.
The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh
Dated: 1885; housed at: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Van Gogh realised this painting during the Verismo movement in Italy and similar artistic movements across Europe.
During this period, the goal was to sacrifice beauty in favour of the often ugly truth.
Europe was faced with the moral duty to denounce the bestial conditions in which workers, peasants and those of the lower classes were forced to live.
Van Gogh wanted to expose the distressing hardships faced by peasants in Nuenen, demonstrating one of the most important and intimate scenes of all: dinner.
This painting depicts peasants eating dinner, sharing a single plate of potatoes while one of them pours coffee.
A small oil lamp illuminates the scene, allowing viewers to appreciate the details and the subjects’ harsh features.
Each person has a sad expression on their face, and their features reflect a life of hard work in the fields.
However, Van Gogh didn’t limit himself to representing them as just tired; he made their expressions even grimmer, almost to the point of grotesque.
He depicted this scene using the colours of the earth – brown, black, yellow and similar tones – giving the piece a rustic, sombre and austere look.
The only exception is the blue top worn by the man on the left, which stands out against the brown clothing of the other family members, especially as it’s illuminated by the oil lamp hanging from the ceiling.
The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer
Dated: 1659; housed at: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
‘The Milkmaid’ is certainly one of Vermeer’s most renowned paintings.
It depicts a housemaid in the act of pouring milk from a jug into an earthenware bowl.
The basic setting is illuminated by natural light.
The detail of a crack in the window, through which a ray of light shines, gives the sensation of a breath of air entering the room.
Together with the milk, the loaf of bread on the table has strong allegorical significance related to the values represented by simple and basic products.
Vermeer’s painting symbolises the sacred value of work, even the most humble and everyday type.