Archdiocese Local Parishes Religious education

Faith on display

‘Last Supper’ looms larger than life for Church of Nativity middle schoolers

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven

LEAWOOD — When Church of the Nativity parishioners came to Mass on Palm Sunday here, many of them did a double take. Upon entering the church, they glimpsed an amazing scene: a life-size reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”

“You kind of startle as you turn the corner because they do have that sort of human presence,” said Church of the Nativity School art teacher Todd Peterson. “You have to stop and take another look.”

The sculpture is a source of pride for Peterson’s middle school students, who have had a very personal walk with Jesus this year as they re-created, in exacting detail, his last meal on earth.

The inspiration

The idea for the project came from principal Maureen Huppe.

“When I was principal at another school years ago, I had an art teacher that did this,” she explained. “And it was such a neat thing.

“So I asked [Todd] about it, and this is the project he chose to do with our seventh- and eighth-graders.”

The inspiration for the model came from Peterson’s own viewing of Leonardo da Vinci’s original artwork.

“I went to Milan a couple of years ago and I saw the actual painting,” he said. “I thought it would be great to do a Last Supper and it might as well be based on da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper.’”

Peterson has taught a Renaissance unit to middle school students for several years now. He usually incorporates several different projects into the unit, teaching the kids to do everything from paint in fresco, to use egg tempera, and sculpt clay.

“So I thought it would be great to just kind of encapsulate it all in one project,” he said.

In the “Last Supper,” da Vinci captures the moment after Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him before sunrise.

As they created their sculpture, students studied the original painting, the artist and period in which he worked.

“We learned a lot about the painting, where it is, who is in it. And what happened,” said seventh-grader Charlie Weiler.

“And so it’s kind of a sneaky way of learning about [the Renaissance],” said Peterson. “Instead of opening a book and reading about it, they actually get to see the painting and study more about it.”

The challenge

The goal of the project was to take the moment depicted in the “Last Supper” and bring it to life — not an easy task, considering the deteriorating condition of the original painting.

Da Vinci tried using new materials to create the “Last Supper.” Instead of using tempera on wet plaster, the traditional method of fresco painting, for example, he painted on a dry, sealed surface.

The technique allowed him to paint in greater detail, but it wasn’t durable. The painted plaster began to flake off the wall almost immediately.

“So the problem was, the painting we were working from was sort of flaking off the wall,” explained Peterson. “So it’s kind of hard to get good references.”

That’s where the students brought their detective skills to bear, figuring out what the artist meant each of the disciples to look like.

“I thought it was exciting because we got to know what the disciples were like in the picture,” said seventh-grader Alex Blake.

“The painting was, like, crumbling,” he added. “So we were trying to make it so everybody else can see what it really is.”

Peterson began the process with a cardboard-base cutout of each figure. He roughed in the faces and then turned the cutouts over to the students, who were divided into groups of four or five. Each group concentrated on a particular character.

Students built the figures into three dimensions, using papier-mâché.

“It was messy,” commented Alex.

Messy indeed, but students enjoyed the process

“It was something new, something different, something they hadn’t done a lot of before,” said Peterson. “So they were pretty keen on it.

“And they got to work in a group. They enjoy working in groups.”

“I thought it was good to work with people because when you’re older, you’re going to have to do it,” said seventh-grader Caroline Embree. “And I thought all the people in my group were good.”

“It was really fun to paint and draw them,” said seventh-grader Abigail Seitz. “I did James the Major, and I did all his features.”

“I thought it was fun because you got to learn what the disciples looked like and what they were doing during the supper,” added seventh-grader Sam Wilkerson.

The finish

The young artists were remarkably successful in capturing the look of the original. The finished sculptures were painted with acrylic, some water tempera and a gloss seal.

When Huppe saw the completed work, she was amazed.

“The way [Todd] actually had them look at that art piece and try to get them to get everything right — the way the heads are tilted, the way their arms are placed,” she said, “he got them to know exactly how to replicate what they saw.

“I don’t know how he did it, but he did it and it looks really great.”

Seventh-grader Abigail Seitz agreed.

“I had no idea what it was going to look like,” she said. “I just tried to go on his direction and see how it turned out.

“And it actually turned out pretty good.”

Peterson gave all the credit to his students.

“They’ve done a fantastic job!” he said.

The finished sculptures were positioned at a table exactly as they are seated in the painting. The artwork was first displayed in school and then moved to the church for Palm Sunday and Easter.

“When you see it all put together it’s, like, ‘Wow, this is really big and really cool!’” said Huppe.

The goal at Church of the Nativity School is to incorporate Catholic faith into every part of the curriculum.

“Because that’s what separates us,” said Huppe. “That’s what makes us different.”

She’s pleased that Peterson has been so successful in combining art lessons with lessons in faith.

“Art is so richly a part of out faith,” she said. “And to start getting these kids learning art thorough the Catholic faith — that’s what we should be doing.”

Peterson concurred.

“I hope they’ve learned something about the Last Supper. And not just the painting itself, but the whole event and the importance of that to their faith,” said Peterson.

Students hope the lesson will transfer to everyone who sees their artwork.

“It will not just strengthen my faith,” said Sam, “but it will strengthen others because they’ll learn when they walk by it.

“It will make the Last Supper more real to them.”

“I think our work paid off because they looked really good,” said Abigail. “And I’m excited for everyone to see them.”

Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” was commissioned by Duke Lodovico Sforza, da Vinci’s patron, for the refectory (dining hall) of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, Italy.

He began working on it in 1495 and finished in 1498.

The 15-by-29-ft. masterpiece is considered the greatest example of one-point perspective ever created. The lines of perspective in the painting meet in Christ’s face, emphasizing him as the central figure.

Because of the new techniques da Vinci used to paint the “Last Supper,” the artwork began to deteriorate almost immediately.

Between 1978 and 1999, an effort was made to reverse the damage caused by time, dirt, pollution and previous restoration attempts and to permanently stabilize the painting.

The results of the restoration were unveiled on May 28, 1999.

The painting today is open for viewing by the general public.

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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