I gave it none of my time or attention when I had the opportunity to consider it face-to-face, but now I can’t stop thinking about it.
On the wall opposite Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is an immense fresco depicting the crucifixion of Jesus between the two thieves. Mary Magdalene clings to the foot of the cross. On one side of Jesus, Mary the mother is attended by the other grieving women who followed Jesus; on the other side, stands a bereft John.
The colors of the painting are vivid and the artist has portrayed a large throng of soldiers and saints against a busy Jerusalem in the background. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the Last Supper, and in the fifteen minutes one is given to be in the room that once was the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, it seems like squandering time not to spend every moment gazing at the painting regarded as a masterpiece of Renaissance art.
But there it is, at the other end of the room, the Crucifixion, by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano.
Giovanni Donato’s father and grandfather were also painters and worked on the Duomo in Milan. Giovanni was probably taught by his father to paint. He began work on his painting a couple of month’s before Leonardo started working on his masterpiece on the other end of the room.
Donato’s painting is a traditional fresco and the colors are still vibrant all these 500+ years later. Leonardo was experimenting with a new technique, using a mix of oil and tempera, and the painting started to deteriorate within his own lifetime. I feel fortunate to have been able to seen Leonardo’s painting, especially since it will continue to deteriorate over time. Donato’s painting will hold up for much, much longer, but most visitors will have only their backs to this monumental work of art, that in a different context would get more attention.
Here’s why I’m thinking about it. I don’t know, and can’t find, much information about Giovanni Donato, so here’s what I wonder:
Did Donato know he was in the company of a genius? Did he turn around every once in a while and think, Wow! Leonardo is amazing ? Did he put down his paintbrush every now and again and sigh in amazement, This changes everything ? Some people report that Leonardo may have lent a hand and painted the duke and some members of his family in Donato’s fresco. Was that at Donato’s invitation? Or did Leonardo come over and say, Here, let me help you with that? You haven’t got the Sforza noses quite right.
The room graced by both paintings was where the religious ate their meals. Unlike today’s tourists, they had regular, repeated time between both paintings to reflect on both scenes: the Last Supper, painted with perspective and lighting that made it seem like they themselves were present with the Lord and the disciples for that meal that defines and shapes all others if we let it; and the crucifixion, where grace and mercy are also poured forth. Both scenes invite a decision: how do you respond?
Donato did his job. I hope he did it with passion and gave it all that he had, even if his painting now is little-noticed. I hope he did have the opportunity to wonder and marvel at being in the company of greatness. I hope he knows that his work has gotten to be the long-standing sentinel of Leonardo’s fading masterpiece. I hope that he doesn’t care that few people turn around for more than a moment and look at his work, because he was doing his work for God and for the good of servants of God, and not for the appreciation of onlookers and ticket holders.
I will never be a genius whose work is recognized the world over. My work will never even be anywhere near the quality of Donato’s and the only things about my life that will last as long will be anything that participates in God’s eternity. But if Donato did his job to the best of his ability, to give glory to God and to the service of the Church, then I can be like Donato. And maybe we both get the shared experience of appreciating the work of the guy at the other end of the room.