The Last Supper is the final meal that Jesus shared with his apostles in Jerusalem before the crucifixion. This moment is commemorated by Christians especially on Maundy Thursday and it provides the scriptural basis for the Eucharist (‘Holy Communion’). It was a very important subject during the Renaissance, especially in Italy.
According to the cannonic gospels
The earliest mention of the Last Supper appears in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. According to the four canonical gospels the Last Supper took place towards the end of the week, after Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem and that he and the apostles shared meal shortly before the crucifixion. It is during this meal that Jesus predicts his betrayal by one of the apostles, and foretells that before the next morning, Peter will deny to know him.
Some scholars have looked to the Last Supper as the source of early Christian Eucharist traditions, others see the account of the Last Supper as derived from 1st century eucharist practice as described by Paul in the mid-50s.
The Last Supper in Art
The Last supper has been a popular theme in Christian art. Some depictions that can be seen in the Catacombs of Rome date back to early Christianity. Byzantine artists preferred to focus on the apostles receiving the Communion, rather than the reclining figures having a meal. And during the Renaissance it was a favourite subject, especially in Italian art.
There are three major themes in the depictions of the Last Supper:
- 1st – the dramatic and dynamic depiction of Jesus’s prediction of his betrayal.
- 2nd – the moment of the institution of the tradition of the Eucharist, the depictions of this moment are, in general, solemn and mystical.
- 3rd – the farewell of Jesus to his disciples, in which Judas Iscariot is no longer present. This is the major theme and the depictions are generally melancholic as Jesus is preparing the disciples for his departure.
The most famous depiction of this theme is undoubtedly the of Leonardo da Vinci, which is also considered the first work of the High Renaissance art due to its high level of harmony. Other curious depictions of the Last Supper in art are the one by Tintoretto, which includes secondary characters, Salvador Dali’s painting that combines the typical Christian theme with the Surrealist approach.
Plautilla Nelli’s Last Supper
Plautilla Nelli was a self-taught artist and the first known female painter of Florence Renaissance. She was a nun of the Dominican convent of St. Catherine of Siena located in the Piazza San Marco, Florence. Her art was influenced by the work of Fra Bartolomeo who worked in Florence and by the teaching of Dominican preacher Savonarola.
Most of her works were devotional pieces, including large-scale painting, wood lunettes, book illustrations and drawings. Some of her most important paintings are Lamentation with Saints (which was restored in 2006 and is located in the large refectory of San Marco Museum), Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata or Saint Dominic Receives the Rosary.
But her most famous work is her Last Supper because it’s the first time in the history of art that a woman painted this theme, but the painting is also significant because of its size (7 meters long). It was painted in 1560’s and is not open to the public yet, it is under a restoration process that should be completed by October 2019, after the restoration the painting will be exhibited at the Santa Maria Novella Museum in Florence.
The Last Supper was a recurrent theme in Florence, so much so that the city has the richest tradition of paintings of this theme in the world. This work represents a daring creative endeavour for a nun-artist, especially of Renaissance, as most of them were relegated to create miniatures, textiles and small sculptures. By creating and signing this enormous fresco using one of the most beloved spiritual subjects of Florence, she reached to place herself among artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Ghirlandaio and Andrea del Sarto.
Even though not all saints have been identified, museum curators and Dominican monks are still doing this work, some of them have an ‘obvious’ iconography as Saint John who is embraced by Jesus and ‘doubting’ and Saint Thomas with his index finger raised as if about to engage in a debate. According to some scholars she could have emulated the order of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.
The apostles in her painting are life-size, so to paint them she would have needed to construct scaffolding and climb up to paint their upper bodies. As she was a self-taught nun-artist with no training in anatomy (because during Renaissance, for women, and especially nuns, live-model drawing was illegal. It’s thought that Nelli used female models, however she had contact with men as well, as her convent was cloistered only for part of the time she lived there.
Due to the recent restoration of her Lamentation with Saints there has been more investigation into her works. The restoration was developed by The Advancing Women Artists Foundation and The Florence Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.