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Man finishes 'Last Supper' masterpiece in his home

After 13 years of research and work, Martin Martinez of Modesto is finished with the replica of 'The Last Supper' he painted as a mural on his dining-room. (Debbie Noda / The Modesto Bee)
After 13 years of research and work, Martin Martinez of Modesto is finished with the replica of 'The Last Supper' he painted as a mural on his dining-room. (Debbie Noda / The Modesto Bee)

Love, faith and devotion are difficult to quantify.

Don't try telling that to the family of Martin Martinez, who, after 13 years, succeeded in re-creating Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century master work, "The Last Supper" on a kitchen wall at his Modesto home.

Excuse me?

No. You read that correctly.

For most of the past 13 years,

Martinez, with systematic precision and stubborn perseverance, covered a large portion of the plaster wall behind and above the family's kitchen table with the mural.

What motivated the 46-year-old -- a successful jazz saxophonist and bandleader, music teacher (he just opened his own music store in Tracy) and former U.S. Postal Service worker? "My wife, Silvia, is so special to me," he said. "I wanted the best for my wife. I wanted to give her something no one else could have."

The one-of-a-kind gift also is shared with the couple's three children: Marty, 23, Andrea, 12, and Pedro, 10.

For years, Martinez and his wife had talked about getting a copy of the painting, which depicts the reaction of Christ's disciples when he tells them that one of them is about to betray him.

They planned to hang it in the kitchen.

"Being Mexican and Catholic," Martinez deadpanned as he nodded toward the mural, "we had to have one."

By the way, Martinez enjoys displaying his dry wit when you least expect it.

But don't get the wrong idea. Da Vinci's "last Supper" holds cultural and religious significance for the Martinez family, not to mention tens of thousands of other Roman Catholics. "You will find one in almost every Catholic home," he said. "It's embedded into the Mexican culture. It's an important (symbol) -- an important part of your life as a churchgoer."

Over the years, however, the family's quest for a "Last

Supper" print proved frustrating.

"My mother was going to give us one," said Silvia Martinez, "but he said, 'No, let's go look ourselves.' He didn't like anything. He said they didn't look authentic."

Martinez would routinely dismiss the da Vinci copies, telling his wife, "I can do better than that."

In 1995, Silvia Martinez finally called her husband's bluff.

No problem.

Though not an expert in mural painting, Martinez decided to paint his re-creation directly onto the plaster wall "because it added to the uniqueness" of the effort.

As the years rolled by, Silvia Martinez admits she had doubts about whether her husband ever would finish the painting.

When he finally did, shortly before midnight on Jan. 31, Silvia Martinez said it didn't really register.

"I already was sleeping," she said, "when he came in and woke me up and said, 'Honey, it's done. It's finished, completely.' I said something and went back to sleep."

It wasn't until the next morning that she realized what her husband had accomplished.

"This is a milestone for him," she said. "It's something he really wanted to do, and I love it. I love it. To me, it makes our home more special."

Martinez chose acrylics over the oils used by da Vinci because "they dry faster and I could erase my mistakes easier."

He figured he could finish the job in a few months. His initial calculation, however, proved to be off by more than a decade.

The more Martinez studied the da Vinci painting, the more difficult the task at hand became. "It's not a painting you can just copy," he said. "The original doesn't exist anymore, as far as I'm concerned."

Many art experts agree with Martinez. Da Vinci used a wall in the dining hall at Santa Maria delle Grazie, a church and convent in Milan, Italy, as his canvas. Experts believe it took him three years, from 1495 to 1498, to finish the 15-by-29-foot mural.

By 1517, however, the paint was beginning to flake. By 1556, the deterioration of the painting was extensive.

The first attempted restoration was done in 1726 -- a second was undertaken in 1770.

In 1821, an expert in fresco removal was hired to move the painting to safer location.

There was just one problem. Da Vinci had painted the mural on dry plaster -- not wet. Before anyone realized that and halted the removal, the painting's center section was badly damaged.

During the early years of the 20th century, artists were hired to clean and stabilize the painting. It was restored again between 1978 and 1999.

The latest restoration resulted in significant changes in the color and tonal qualities of the original painting, not to mention facial shapes.

So, Martinez was forced to conduct his own research.

Over the centuries, many of the painting's details had been lost, like the feet of Jesus and the apostles. So Martinez used his own feet, as well as those of his father, son Marty and nephew as models. He researched sandals of the period.

"I looked at pictures of early copies," he said, "which I felt were closer to the original. I wanted to be as true to the original as possible."

He relied upon da Vinci portrait sketches when re-creating the facial expressions of the disciples and Jesus -- making his own alternations in the process. For example, Martinez used a da Vinci self-portrait as the face of the apostle Thaddeus. He considers his mural as much a tribute to da Vinci as it is a re-creation of "The Last Supper."

The face of Jesus was fashioned by Martinez as a sort of composite, relying upon da Vinci sketches and his own artistic sensibilities.

Martinez is not apologetic because it took him 10 years longer than da Vinci needed to produce a mural six times smaller than the original. After all, he was working at the post office, playing music at night, teaching music and raising a family. Much of his work on the mural was confined to late-night and early-morning sessions.

"It's really four types of paintings in one," said Martinez, who would have majored in art had it not been for music. "It's a lesson in perspective; portraits, there are 13; still life and landscape. Usually, a painter specializes in one of those areas. Da Vinci was a master in all four areas."

Before he completed the project, at 11:56 p.m. Jan. 31, he also employed computer modeling -- to correctly position Jesus and each of the 12 apostles at the table -- and geometric calculations to ensure his perspectives and proportional scales were mathematically correct.

The approach Martinez used to create the mural has much in common with the method he uses in his jazz improvisations.

He builds inventive saxophone solos upon basic chord structure, scales and arpeggios, mixing the colors of his musical palette to give his sound texture and nuance.

While you can hear distinctive influences in his playing style, such as the timbre of the late Paul Desmond, the sound belongs to Martinez.

It's the same with the kitchen wall mural -- da Vinci may be the overriding influence, but the finished product is pure Martinez.

That's his vision -- his love, faith and devotion, for his family and friends, his church and his art -- that warms the cozy Martinez family kitchen.

It doesn't matter to Martinez that his mural won't be displayed in an art gallery, at least not anytime soon. To move it, he'd have to take out the entire wall.

So, this work is personal.

Very personal.

"The greatest gifts I have are my family; my wife and three kids," Martinez said. "Anything else is just the gravy."

Bee staff writer Mike Mooney can be reached at mmooney@modbee.com or 578-2384.

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