Climbing up a six-foot ladder into a roof access hatch and catching the first glimpse of a fading mural of the Last Supper, that may be close to 100 years old, is a humbling experience.
Catching a glimpse of the fading mural, which is thought to be San Quentin’s oldest, in person is something that many people have rarely been able to do.
Tucked behind the historic South Block is the building that used to be commonly referred to as “Bay View” when it housed San Quentin’s women’s prison population.
Built in 1927, the building was transformed into the prison’s hospital in 1933 by Dr. Leo Stanley, and renamed the Neumiller building, after Charles Neumiller, an influential member of the Board of Prison Terms.
The Neumiller Building housed women prisoners up to its conversion in 1933. After this point, all 28 of the women prisoners at San Quentin were transferred to their new home in the southern Sierras, at Tehachapi.
Today, the building sits empty, a shell of its former self, waiting for either the wrecking ball or a major facelift.
Either way, the mural that is hidden inside a tiny three-foot-by-three-foot roof access hatch will more than likely be completely destroyed one day.
Inside the hidden chamber is a roof space that has long since been covered by retrofitted construction. The chamber measures approximately 30 by 50 feet in size and is rarely accessed. Maintenance workers only go up in the hidden chamber about every six months to maintain the heating.
The mural has deteriorated because of leaks in the original roof that sits above. When the leaks were repaired at one point the walls were scraped and most of the mural was destroyed.
The chamber the mural is hidden in is continually plunged in darkness and full of stale air.
Boards are laid across metal joists to allow access to the ventilation equipment housed in the chamber. The boards laid across the skinny three inch wide joists are the only path to safely cross the chamber, otherwise there is a real danger of falling through the roof.
The wall where the mural is painted used to be the wall of the prison chapel the women prisoners utilized during their stay at San Quentin.
The mural’s subject matter indicates that it was painted during the building’s use as a prison chapel, dating the mural to sometime before the 1933 departure of the women prisoners.
It is also more than likely that the mural was painted by a woman since men were not allowed near the women during their stay at San Quentin.
When viewed in this context the hidden mural becomes an even greater treasure of San Quentin’s history.
At first glance, an eerie feeling arises from the fact that Jesus and the Disciples to his immediate left seem to have glowing orbs in the dim light where their eyes should be.
Under closer inspection it seems the paint has simply flaked away, revealing the white under painting.
Prison maintenance worker Ian Brown said, “When I first saw Jesus with missing eyes I was a little bit creeped out.” But after sitting with the mural for a while Brown’s attitude has changed. He says he respects the beauty and history that the mural encompasses. “I feel privileged to be one of the few living people to ever see the mural that may not last out my lifetime,” says Brown.
The mural is in poor condition today, and lit by a flood light from over 20 feet away, it is hard to make out individual brush strokes. But there is a beauty and softness to the figure’s faces.
The artist chose to re-produce Leonardo da Vinci’s version of the Last Supper.
It is barely visible, but Jesus is framed by the light of a doorway, which has the effect of making Him the central figure of the mural.
The Apostles are all looking inward toward Him, reinforcing His position at the center of the table.
Painted in 1495, Leonardo’s version was unique because of his composition and the experimental techniques he used. He changed earlier interpretations by hiding the projecting ends of the table, inserting Judas within the row of his fellow Apostles, and taking St. John from his traditional spot of sleeping at Jesus’ breast.
The changes bring symmetry to the mural by dividing the Disciples numbers in half.
The movement and gestures of the Apostles lead the viewer’s eyes to the focal point of Christ.
The experimental techniques Leonardo used caused the Last Supper to tragically deteriorate in his lifetime.
The same has happened in the faded copy of Leonardo’s mural at San Quentin.
But even in the mural’s deteriorated state it is easy to see the artist’s talent at capturing Leonardo’s vision of the Last Supper is superb.
The figures dominate the mural because of Leonardo’s lack of emphasis on an ornate background that older versions of the Last Supper focused on.
What colors remain on the wall are vibrant and full of pigment, which is another hint the mural was painted pre-Warden Duffy era of the late 1930’s through early 1950’s. Warden Duffy only allowed Alfredo Santos, the creator of the South Dining Hall murals, to use one color in his work. Duffy’s reasoning for this lack of color has been attributed to his unwillingness to allow paint to be used for escape paraphernalia.
Scrolled at the bottom of the mural is the remaining letters U-P-P-E-R in an almost cryptic fashion.
The message has the effect of leaving the viewer pondering if there is some higher message they should take away from the word upper while viewing this work of art.
San Quentin is full of history and this happens to be one of the walls that are actually talking, it would be a real shame to loose it.