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Trip Report Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper' – in Belgium

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For anyone visiting Antwerp or Ghent, Belgium, or passing through on the road between Paris and Amsterdam, a side trip to the delightful Abbey of Tongerlo is highly recommended.

Among the treasures of Tongerlo is a very faithful and very old copy, just about life-sized, of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. The copy, executed in oil on canvas, is so good that you'll see details that are no longer visible on the original at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. You can even see the feet of Jesus, which long ago disappeared from the original!

The story is that Leonardo's workshop made the copy at about the same time the master was creating the original, or shortly afterward (within a few years). There's even a claim that Leonardo himself painted two of the 13 faces on the figures in the copy. More on that later.

Tongerlo, which is a working Premonstratensian abbey, is located about 50 km (45 minutes) east of Antwerp, via the A15 expressway. You'll need a good map or a GPS to find it easily (it's near the larger town of Westerlo), but we had no trouble.

I visited Tongerlo on Sept. 16, 2011, with two friends, Alba and Bettie. Bettie had seen mention of the copy in a guidebook and was especially keen to visit.

From the abbey website, www.tongerlo.org/da_vinci/davinci_home, we learned that the museum that holds the Last Supper copy is only open from 2-5 p.m. from May to September, so we timed our arrival for 2 p.m. (There are also hours during Easter vacation and on Sundays. Check the website.)

The abbey itself is pretty but not remarkable, although we did enjoy the quiet grounds. Once arrived, we followed signs for the Da Vinci Museum and soon found ourselves at what appeared to be a purpose-built building. A monk sitting inside took our admission fee (2 euros per person) and told us a bit about the painting, which was hanging, nicely lit and exhibited, at the end of the room. He said it was created in the early part of the 16th century, just a few years after the original (1495-1498). Around 1545 it was purchased by a wealthy Flemish merchant and brought to Tongerlo, a venerable abbey dating from 1130, and installed there.

The monk directed us to be seated in an auditorium-like area, facing the painting. He started a recorded narration (in English – we were the only people there) that talked about the original in Milan and why it has become so dim and damaged over the years. The narrator noted that at one point, officials at Santa Maria delle Grazie cut a door in the wall immediately under the middle of the Last Supper, thereby destroying the feet of Jesus.

After a few minutes, the narration ended and we focused our attention on the painting. It was quite impressive – colorful and detailed. We were able to get close enough to see how lovely it is.

The monk had mentioned speculation that Leonardo himself painted the faces on the figures of Jesus and of John, and those faces certainly looked beautiful. The entire painting was magnificently executed. We sat and drank in its beauty. We especially appreciated seeing the sandal-clad feet of Jesus, and knowing that we were seeing something that the millions (presumably) who have visited the original have not seen.

The monk said it was all right to photograph the painting, so I did. (He did note that the quality of my photo would not be as good as the souvenir cards and booklets that he sold, and he was right. However, I wanted to record the experience, not only the image.)

We left Tongerlo around 2:45, feeling we had had a rare travel privilege.

See Tongerlo and the Last Supper: www.intimatefrance.com/tongerlo.html

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