Two images – was Ghirlandaio playing “spot the difference” or is there a message in his changes?

So clever is the use of perspective and a central vanishing point one really feels when entering the Ognissanti refectory as if there is an additional room at the end  -albeit filled with some rather strangely dressed people.

The painting has been restored between 1998 -2000 and the face of Christ is distinctly of a different hand to those of the Disciples, but the overall style of the rest of the painting is distinctly Ghirlandaio – full of character, animation and lots of little details.

In this painting most of the details are symbolic – on the table together with the traditional bread and wine there are apricots- symbols of sin, cherries – the blood of Christ, walnuts symbol of the Trinity, lettuce for penitence, and citrus fruits as symbols of eternal life  – specifically oranges symbolising Paradise.

In the background there are cypress trees as symbols of redemption and lots of birds including a sparrow hawk attacking a duck – wicked as ducks represent earthly joys. Quails and starlings are symbols of self sacrifice and in the right hand window a  peacock – whose meat was reputed never to go off – represents resurrection, supported by the immortal lark.


Interestingly this beautiful Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio is the first of two very similar paintings done by the artist. The one above was painted in 1480 for the Franciscan church of Ognissanti in Florence- and the second one filling a very similar space in a refectory was done in 1482 for the Dominican Church of St Mark – just a little further north in Florence’s Piazza San Marco.


The most obvious change is the appearance of the cat sitting behind Judas – a symbol of deceit and treachery he seems to have replaced the bag of money Judas is clutching in the original.

There is slightly less food and no lettuce for penitence on the second painting and the subtle halos of the disciples have all been replaced by gold ones. St John (Mary M?) is even more deeply asleep on the table and the expression on Peter’s face has deepened from quizzical to open dislike – and the knife he is later going to use on the ear of one of the arresting Roman soldiers looks primed and ready for use on Judas Iscariot! The table cloth has changed too – due to latest fashion or the taste of the Dominicans?

Ghirlandaio was clearly attracted to the theme – the artist had already completed a different type of  Last Supper in 1476 – perhaps the first putting Judas across the table and facing Jesus and Paul?


So, given that nothing in this painting was put there by chance – or without a deliberate message to their audience – the fact that the face of St John sleeping on Christ’s shoulder is distinctly feminine is worthy of question.

Even more worth noting if you are interested in the Knights Templar and the suspicion that Mary Magdalene could have been the wife of Jesus is the indistinct sinopia of this painting – now separated from the restored painting and also put up on the walls of the Cenacolo.

St John sleeping on the shoulder of Christ in the sinopia of the last Supper by Ghirlandaio

St John sleeping on the shoulder of Christ in the sinopia of the last Supper by Ghirlandaio

I confess it is hard to see on this photo – but look hard – or , better still, visit the Ognissanti Monastery Monday, Tuesday or Saturday between the hours of 10-12 and see whether you think this is a painting of a woman?

Leonardo is reputed to have studied this painting and used some of Ghirlandaio’s ideas for his own painting of the Last Supper in Milan- including the knife that Peter holds in his hand (rather uncomfortably in Leonardo’s version) – certainly the face of John is also very feminine – but then this might have been more to the artist’s personal taste ?

John or Mary?

For those who, like me, who might not recognise all the disciples in either version, my thanks to www.jaydax.co.uk  for the explanatory version below – although even they dispute whether James the younger was Jesus’ cousin or his younger brother they have produced a very thorough post on the subject.

Scalable image showing who is who