The Disembodied Hand in Da Vinci's "The Last Supper"

Is there an extra hand with a dagger and whose is it?

Readers of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" will find an art history question posed about Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." Is there an extra hand there that is not attached to anyone and is holding a dagger? If so, what could that mean?

On page 248 of the novel, the spare hand is described as "disembodied. Anonymous." The character notes, "if you count the arms, you'll see that this hand belongs to...no one at all." The supposedly spare hand is located between the third disciple from the left end of the table and the next seated disciple, in front of the body of the standing disciple.

Counting the Arms in "The Last Supper"

If you check a print of "The Last Supper" and count the arms of the disciples staged at the left end of the table, there are 12 arms which match the number of people. These are, from left to right, Bartholomew, James the Minor, Andrew (with his hands thrown up in a "stop" gesture), Judas (seated, face turned away), Peter (standing and angry), and John, whose feminine appearance is the subject of another set of questions. One of Peter's hands is on John's shoulder while the other is likely to be the one called the disembodied hand, directly below his hip with the blade pointed to the left.

Perhaps the confusion lies in the fact that Peter's arm appears to be twisted. His right shoulder and elbow seem to be at odds with the angle of the hand "wielding a dagger." This could be a hidden message from Leonardo or it could be that he was covering a mistake in the fresco with a clever use of drapery.

It's not unheard of to make a mistake and they're a little more difficult to gloss over if a painter is working in plaster.

Peter's Dagger or Knife

Using the word dagger for the knife conjures up sinister images on the part of Brown in "The Da Vinci Code." Calling it a knife doesn't carry the same suspenseful weight as dagger.

Leonardo da Vinci referred to this implement as a knife in his notebooks in conjunction with this particular wielder in this particular painting.

In keeping with New Testament accounts of the actual Last Supper and events afterward, Peter's holding a knife (at table) is thought to symbolize his attack, several hours later, on a slave in the party that arrested Christ. When the contingent of Pharisees, priests, and soldiers caught up with Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane, Peter—reportedly never a cool head to begin with—lost his temper:

"Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's slave and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus." John 18:10.

The Bottom Line

Studying this master artwork is fascinating in all of the different reactions of the disciples and the many small details. How you may interpret this is up to you. Whether you believe in "The Da Vinci Code" is a personal prerogative.