It takes a good writer. I had never registered the hands, not to mention the tiny detail of the knife. Goethe's observation of the detail in 'The Last Supper' is great.
---an excerpt from a piece written by JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE (from Great Pictures, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, edited by Esther Singleton, pub. Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, 1899) ---
.........The exciting means which the artist employed to agitate the tranquil and holy Supper-Table are the Master's words: "There is one amongst you that betrays me." The words are spoken, and the entire company falls into consternation; but He inclines His head with downcast looks; the whole attitude, the motion of the arms, the hands, and everything repeat with heavenly resignation which the silence itself confirms, "Verily, verily, there is one amongst you that betrays Me."
Before going any farther we must point out a great expedient, by means of which Leonardo principally animated this picture: it is the motion of the hands; only an Italian would have discovered this. With his nation the whole body is expressive, all the limbs take part in describing an emotion, not only passion but also thought. By various gestures he can express: "What do I care?"—"Come here!"—"This is a rascal, beware of him!" "He shall not live long!" "This is a main point. Take heed of this, my hearers!" To such a national trait, Leonardo, who observed every characteristic with the greatest attention, must have turned his searching eye; in this the present picture is unique and one cannot observe it too much. The expression of every face and every gesture is in perfect harmony, and yet a single glance can take in the unity and the contrast of the limbs rendered so admirably.
The figures on both sides of our Lord may be considered in groups of three, and each group may be regarded as a unit, placed in relation and still held in connection with its neighbours. On Christ's immediate right are John, Judas, and Peter.
Peter, the farthest, on hearing the words of our Lord, rises suddenly, in conformity with his vehement character, behind Judas, who, looking up with terrified countenance, leans over the table, tightly clutching the purse with his right hand, whilst with the left he makes an involuntary nervous motion as if to say: "What may this mean? What is to happen?" Peter, meanwhile, with his left hand has seized the right shoulder of John, who is bending towards him, and points to Christ, at the same time urging the beloved disciple to ask: "Who is the traitor?" He accidentally touches Judas's side with the handle of a knife held in his right hand, which occasions the terrified forward movement upsetting the salt-cellar, so happily brought out. This group may be considered as the one first thought of by the artist; it is the most perfect.
While now on the right hand of the Lord a certain degree of emotion seems to threaten immediate revenge, on the left, the liveliest horror and detestation of the treachery manifest themselves. James the Elder starts back in terror, and with outspread arms gazes transfixed with bowed head, like one who imagines that he already beholds with his eyes what his ears have heard. Thomas appears behind his shoulder, and approaching the Saviour raises the forefinger of his right hand to his forehead. Philip, the third of this group, rounds it off in the most pleasing manner; he has risen, he bends forward towards the Master, lays his hands upon his breast, and says with the greatest clearness: "It is not I, Lord, Thou knowest it! Thou knowest my pure heart, it is not I."
And now the three last figures on this side give us new material for reflection. They are discussing the terrible news. Matthew turns his face eagerly to his two companions on the left, hastily stretching out his hands towards the Master, and thus, by an admirable contrivance of the artist, he is made to connect his own group with the preceding one. Thaddæus shows the utmost surprise, doubt, and suspicion; his left hand rests upon the table, while he has raised the right as if he intended to strike his left hand with the back of his right, a very common action with simple people when some unexpected occurrence leads them to say: "Did I not tell you so? Did I not always suspect it?"—Simon sits at the end of the table with great dignity, and we see his whole figure; he is the oldest of all and wears a garment with rich folds, his face and gesture show that he is troubled and thoughtful but not excited, indeed, scarcely moved.
If we now turn our eyes to the opposite end of the table, we see Bartholomew, who rests on his right foot with the left crossed over it, supporting his inclined body by firmly resting his hands upon the table. He is probably trying to hear what John will ask of the Lord: this whole side appears to be inciting the favourite disciple. James the Younger, standing near and behind Bartholomew, lays his left hand on Peter's shoulder, just as Peter lays his on John's shoulder, but James mildly requests the explanation whilst Peter already threatens vengeance.And as Peter behind Judas, so James the Younger stretches out his hand behind Andrew, who, as one of the most prominent figures expresses, with his half-raised arms and his hands stretched out directly in front, the fixed horror that has seized him, an attitude occurring but once in this picture, while in other works of less genius and less reflection, it is too often repeated