The Last Supper
The Mysterious Hand and Knife
Everybody agrees that there is a hand holding a knife in the Last Supper. We can see the hand and knife very clearly. We all agree that Leonardo did preparatory studies for the Last Supper including this hand-knife pose. The question we are all debating is why there is a knife in the middle of this painting, and what symbolic meaning was Leonardo trying to convey.
NOTE: If you have your monitor set to a super-low resolution (800x600) you will have to scroll left and right to see the below images. Try upping your resolution to a more typical setting, under Control Panel > Display, to get a better view of the image with its detail.
First, it's important to see the knife. Find the guy in yellow on the far left with his hands up in the air. That is Andrew. He's reacting in shock to Jesus who has just said "someone at this table will kill me soon". Just below Andrew's left hand is a hand holding a knife. The knife is pointing to your left.
Next, here is a zoomed in version of the image. I apologize for the fuzziness of the image. This is the version pre-restoration.
This next picture is the redone image, i.e. the version after the restoration efforts were done on the Last Supper painting. Note how the restoration team, in their attempt to re-do the painting, did some changes to "connect" the hand to the arm more clearly.
Obviously this hand is associated with Peter. Peter is the disciple in purple who is leaning over to talk to "Mary" / John. The reason, historically, that Peter would have had the knife is that in "a later scene", the guards come to take Jesus away. Peter defends Jesus with this knife. In the storyline, Peter has the knife because he knows danger is coming and he is prepared for it. He is trying to warn Mary/John about that danger, and she is listening calmly.
The "redone" version of the painting has the hand even more firmly connected to Peter's arm. Remember, however, when they redid the painting they were trying to recreate an artwork that had mostly fallen apart. The redone image could easily have mistakes based on false assumptions.
Why Have an Issue with Peter's Hand?
Leonardo was brilliant with anatomy. His skill was a main reason that he was so famous. Leonardo was one of the first artists to work with dead bodies and to study muscles, sinews and body structure. A hallmark of his works is his incredibly detailed anatomy. Yes, he couldn't just put a "disembodied hand" floating in the middle of his painting. The people who paid for the Last Supper would have been quite upset and told him to fix the error. Leonardo was trying to make a point so he was doing it subtly. He deliberately made a hand that was positioned at Judas' back. We all know that Judas is the "bad one". He deliberately made that hand point straight right-to-left, coming out of Judas' back. He made Andrew have a very particular reaction - one that all of us recognize as "hands up" that is a response to a direct threat.
If you look at that portion of the scene, there is Judas. There is a knife coming directly out of Judas. There is Andrew with his hands straight up, looking in horror. Looking at a zoomed-in image, Andrew's eyes are very clearly looking at Judas.
Leonardo worked on this painting for four years. This wasn't a quick, fly-by-night project. He put years of effort into its design and execution. He did everything very deliberately, from the lighting to the placement of the people to their individual interactions with each other. This hand was not some random accident. Its placement was not just a random chance.
Leonardo had been jailed by the church for his behavior. He was not exactly in tune with church doctrine, and felt strongly that the people should have more power. Some say this hand-and-knife shows the power the church had at this time in history - especially in Leonardo's native Italy - and their ability to control what was said. People could easily be killed for speaking out against the church.
Here is an image of me in the classic pose:
It hurt a LOT to hold myself in this position and even so I couldn't bend my arm all the way up. This wouldn't be a pose someone just "naturally held" while whispering to a friend.
Can't It Be Peter's Hand?
Yes, certainly as far as the painting goes it is Peter's hand. Leonardo can't just put disembodied body parts floating around his painting. He had to have it associate with someone in the painting. However, if his sole purpose was to have "Peter has a hand" he could easily have shown it in any of a trillion positions that were casual. Instead he chose a very specific position which is relatively unnatural and strange, and put it in a very specific context.
Remember, there are tons of tiny details in this painting. Judas has in his right hand a small bag with 30 pieces of silver in it. Leonardo knows this story very well and has spent 4 years on its work. He is putting in tiny details to help make the story more clear and to add his own commentary on it.
the mysterious hand holding the dagger....this is how i would explain it...say mary is there, then it would leave only 11 visible disciples...maybe the 12 one was drowned out by all the others and all that you could see would be his hand...as though he was seated.than there would be 12 disciples, jesus and mary, making the picture complete.
I also believe that the hand with the unknown object(or knife) is of Peters. Think of the painting in three dimensional (3D) not 2D. If you try it yourself you will realize that it is anatomically possible. Peter's torso seems to be at about approximately 30 degrees to the table and his arm from the elbow seems to be extended outwards with the unknown object in his hand. I hope my explaination makes sense.
There is a drawing by Leonardo himself ...a preparatory study..of Peter's arm that shows the wrist bending back from the arm as it holds the knife. The drawing is in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle in England, & I hope you will look it up, either on the net or in your local library...it is reproduced in some books about Leonardo. ... It is bending AROUND at Peter's wrist, not coming straight in from behind Judas. --Dave
My Response -
Yes, this is the same issue as with the Mary Magdalene situation. Leonardo couldn't have a "ghost hand" in the middle of his painting that was obviously not belonging to anyone, just as he couldn't have a Mary Magdalene in the painting that was obviously an extra person. The people who commissioned the painting would have said "what is this nonsense??" and made him fix it. So he had to make the hand at least appear, to the casual observer, like a 'normal part' of the painting. But again, Leonardo was a master at anatomy. He could have easily drawn the hand simply holding the knife if that was his intention. Heck, Leonardo is brilliant with hands. He could have put that hand in 100 different positions so it was clearly Peter's hand, clearly holding a knife, clearly at his side or in the air or behind his back or whatever was chosen.
Leonardo DaVinci did not do any of these things. He instead chose to draw that hand at an extremely odd angle, parallel to the table, as if it was coming from behind Judas. Why would he do that. By "accident"? I think not, given the huge amount of time and symbolism that went into this painting! He did it very deliberately. He was trying to send a message. Sure, we could say "Oh it's just a hand that HAPPENS to hold a knife and HAPPENS to be at an impossible angle and HAPPENS to seem to come from behind Judas ..." But the point of this painting is to look at it with a critical eye.
It seems to me that the hand with the knife is Peter's. In particular, it appears that while he is leaning towards Mary with his left shoulder, he is concealing the knife behind his back with his right hand. If you put your right hand behind your back in a hammerlock-type position, you will see that the thumb is up and the fingers are down, and would hold an object exactly as the knife is being held in the painting. The fact that Peter is concealing a knife behind his back (which could easily be Leonardo's way of suggesting that he was threatening Mary, as suggested by Dan Brown) could also explain why James has his hands in the air, as though he is surrendering, objecting or protecting himself from the knife. Certainly the people on the left side of the painting look far more interested in what is going on between Peter and Mary than what is going on with Jesus. It is also interesting to note that Peter is brandishing a knife while Jesus's head is turned away from that side of the table, which is the opportunity which someone would take to make a threat against a rival - particularly a rival who shares the same mentor.
My Response -
Yes yes, the knife in the painting seems to belong to Peter. Actually that's Andrew with his hands in the air. Andrew is supposedly shocked at the just-announced proclamation by Jesus that someone at the table will betray him. The painting is supposed to portray that moment when the announcement has just been made. I really don't see Peter being threatening, more like he's talking to Mary. But that is always another interpretation possibility.
Well I read the book the Da Vinci code and that's how I got a hold to your page ... I was wondering ... wouldn't it be (in the case that John was Mary) that the missing apostole is in fact the one extra hand coming out of nowhere holding the dagger/ knife???
My Response -
A number of people seem to be fond of the apostle-hiding-beneath-the-table theory but really, I think you would see him there in the painting if that was the case. Or at least his feet. I think just as Mary was "in plain view but a symbol", so was the knife. It is *apparently* held by Peter. But it is a symbol of something far more meaningful.
I was wondering if anyone had thought to use the feet beneath the table to see if that helps with identifying the hand. It seems if it is the 12th apostle (since many identify the person next to Jesus as Mary M. (which I agree with))and the person is "washed out" because of the crowd, then there may be another set of feet underneath the table.
My Response -
I don't see any extra feet at all. I really don't think Leonardo would have painted someone hiding underneath the table. His style was to put something right out in the open and to give it special meaning. If he showed people hiding under tables it would sort of lessen the impact of his message.
In regard to the knife in The Last Supper: Whereas most people find it an impossibility for it being attached to Peter, in fact, it is very possible and is his right hand. Think about putting your hands on your hips - you can easily twist the wrist back where the thumb is skyward (as in the picture. Most people want to beieve they are seeing the back of someone's hand when we are actually seeing the closed fingers around the handle with the thumb skyward. Try it yourself-mimick his pose and you will see it is possible. We can all agree that Peter was very disapproving of Mary being there and the attention she took away from the apostles. This would show his possible intention with the knife? Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this.
My Response -
I think I've said that the position is *possible* if you twist yourself and then paint it poorly. But Leonardo carved up cadavers routinely and was praised around the known world for his amazing anatomical detail. Again, he had to have the hand attach to someone in order to get it into the painting, otherwise the people who paid him for it would have complained. He deliberately did it in a very unusual way and made the knife point sideways as if coming out of Judas' back. I really don't think that just "happened randomly". The reason Peter would have had the knife in the "story progression" is to defend Jesus later on, it's a defense weapon, not an attack on anyone there at the table. So the real question is why Leonardo included it in the way he did, being hidden behind his back, pointing sideways, coming from Judas, etc.
I'm not sure how anachronistic it would be, but what if Leonardo was symbolizing the idea that Judas "stabbed Jesus in the back." Perhaps I'm a bit naive, but it would seem fitting, assuming that this could be considered an idea that was available at the time. And, yes, I do realize that it's not Judas holding the knife but Peter, but the fact that it seems to be 'growing' from Judas's back is interesting...
My Response -
Backstabbing has been around for thousands of years - if anything it is us modern folks who are silly to use that phrase nowadays, because most of us don't walk around with daggers any more. In the olden days it was actually a fairly common thing (as far as these things go), to be accosted by bandits while walking from town to town, or late at night. We have it amazingly safe in comparison. In any case I do think that the knife being near Judas has meaning. Leonardo arranged the people in his painting to be where they were on purpose ...
Visitor Opinion -
After closely inspecting the 18th century painting of The Last Supper, it appears that it would be impossible for Peter's hand to contort to accomodate the knife in this fashion. If you follow the line of Peter's wrist as it exits his robe, you'll see that the wrist extends past the butt of the knife handle to the right and extends almost into Judas' robe (from the viewer's perspective). At the same time, the thumb and fingers of the hand holding the knife are well to the left of the butt, and the meat of the hand (the thumb muscle) is far enough away from the butt of the knife/dagger to make the hand positioning impossible given Leonardo's anatomical expertise. There is a "line" connecting Peter's wrist to the hand holding the knife, but assuming this equates to the edge of the hand along the "pinky", the width and length of the hand then appear to be more gorilla-like than human.
Re-examining the high-definition photo of the actual restored The Last Supper (on the milano.arounder site), you can see that the hand is *supposed* to appear to be Peter's but there is still an oddly shaped, skin-colored, bulge to the right of the wrist, making the hand appear quite odd and mishapened. In both paintings, Peter's elbow does seem pointed out, such that it would accomodate the positioning of the top of the wrist to be facing Peter's hip, or resting on it. And, it would not seem unusual to see someone resting their wrist on their hip in this manner (it looks to me more like Peter has just placed his hand on Mary/John's shoulder to get their ear to quietly consult with them, while the hand on the hip seems to indicate some discontent or indignation from his bodylanguage/position). But there does appear to be some inconsistencies with the line the wrist takes and the hand holding the knife. It would have been quite easy for Leonardo to have used a mirror to mimic the hand position and get the proper alignment and perspective.
This would lead me to believe one of three possibilities; one, that the 18th century painting was inaccurate (which would be unlikely given the artist's probably desire to recreate the painting exactly), two, Leonardo "forced" the hand positioning to accomodate his desire to show the knife coming from Judas' back (unlikely because of Leonardo's anatomical expertise and his ability to paint the hand where and how he wished), or that the restoration of the original modified Leonardo's painting to accomodate the idea that the hand is indeed Peter's.
To me, I would like to think that the hand belongs to Peter, but my eyes aren't fooled by my desire for consistancy.
1. What is the yellow bundle between Peter's arm and body?
2. If Peter isn't holding the knife, where IS his hand? Perhaps his hand is grasping the hand holding the knife?
3. Why does Thomas' index finger (pointing upwards) appear to be so long (abnormally so)?
4. Any significance to the fruit (perhaps a fig?) lying on the right side of the table (in front of Matthew and Philip)?
5. Any significance to the "stressed", angular hands of Jesus and Judas? They both appear to be about to grasp something. Jesus' left hand seems relaxed (excepting of his fate?) while Jesus' right hand is very tense (rejecting his fate?). Maybe Jesus is trying to quiet the left in order to address a question from the right and the right hand has just been held up to quiet the left...
My Response -
I agree that the "casual glance" is that the hand is resting on the hip. But more deliberate examination shows that it is a strange contortion and was done on purpose. We're trying to figure out why it was done that way.
The only question I can really answer there is that Judas definitely has a bag in his hand, holding the 30 pieces of silver. It is his mark of being a traitor. Usually scenes of the Last Supper have Judas "on the other side of the table" being the obvious one singled out. In this version though, Judas is with the others, and Leonardo chose to single him out in a more subtle manner.
Visitor Opinion -
I'm starting my quest, having just finished the book, but I'm obviously captivated and very interested in the discussions and what I've learned from them on your site. I couldn't resist making this observation about the Last Supper painting - and probably your hottest topic - the Knife.
Knowing Leonardo's exhaustive familiarity wtih anatomy, and his desire for subtlety - his message had to speak through that language of anatomy.
- The hand holding the knife is being itself held by another hand.
- The hand being held cannot be identified by clothing, but the trace of blue along the wrist on Mary's shoulder makes it apparent that these two most likely belong to the same person.
- The angle of the visible arm makes it impossible for it to be Peter's.
- The hand at the neck of Mary/John also cannot be Peter's - it is impossible to bend your hand at that angle when you are that close to someone with your hand on their shoulder, and with your body dipped at the obvious angle he is at. Try it - you can't bring your hand that close to your shoulder while bending your hand at almost 90 degrees, especially with your shoulder so obviously dipped.
No, I feel Peter is attempting to use the knife and was being restrained, even tackled by the invisible defender, whose one hand is holding Peter's knife hand and whose other is attempting to shield Mary or push her away...and both are garbed in Blue. It's uncertain if Peter is garbed in blue - although I concede this is most likely - but his left shoulder appears bare - its possible the blue we see is of the defender - not Peter.
- Andrew's reaction of obvious suprise emphasizes this, and as another writer here noted, the attention of all those at the left end of the table are focused there - in fact the second apostle from the left has his eyes focused BEHIND Peter and downward- and appears to be reaching around Andrew to render assistance or act in some way.
- Peter's unnatural position is obvious to me - he is being forced to his left - he is not leaning over to speak (he perhaps was initially to gain Mary's attention..?) but he is being restrained. Mary's defender is concealed - perhaps partially by Judas' beard - as Peter's neck appears unnatural - the curve of his throat and jaw are obscured.
I wish I could make sense of the bundle under the arm - this seems an obvious clue - but its meaning eludes me.
Well I won't belabor this further, there is much to learn here, and I look forward to it. There was just so much that compelled me to comment...am I the only one this seems obvious to? Can't be...
I really appreciate your site, your research and obvious talents. Thanks!
My Response -
You make very interesting points. This is part of why the whole fresco / not fresco issue is so important. If this painting was done in a way that preserved over the centuries (i.e. a fresco) we wouldn't be having many of these discussions. We would be able to clearly see what Leonardo had painted. But as it is, most of the painting has disintegrated over the years. So we're left with fuzzy images that are hard to make out clearly. Also Leonardo worked on this painting for many years and changed bits as he went. So it very well could be that he had put in someone else, got yelled at, and went back and changed it slightly. We may never know what all the meanings are in this work of art ...
This is a very complex topic and we are continuing to discuss it in full in our Hand Knife Forum Discussion
All content copyright © 2014 Minerva WebWorks LLC. All rights reserved.
You MUST GET WRITTEN PERMISSION to reprint or republish any of this material.
Lisa Shea's Ethics of Reviews | About Lisa Shea