Chronology of Last Suppers

 

This month I have attended a meeting with my friends from the Advancing Women Artists Foundation and discovered that there are two or three Disciples in The Last Supper by Plautilla Nelli that they were still uncertain as to who was who.

I share their confusion, because although I have been told by the original guide at the Cenacolo of Ognissanti that they should always be in the same order, as adapted by Ghirlandaio, there seems to be no evidence to support this case when you review some of the others. 

The whole package raises some interesting questions, because even knowing a little about the lives and death of these Saints it is not clear from their depiction who is who, and they rarely carry their symbols as they do in paintings of these Saints after The Last Supper, and after Giotto not even Judas is dressed in his Medieval trademark colour yellow – previously used to identify him as the dangerous member of their group.

So, how can we recognise them these days when most of us would be pushed to even remember their names?

In this Blog I have set up a list of Last Suppers in Chronological order, with the names shown below in the cases where the artists involved have helpfully supplied them. 

One of the earliest in the style you will see below was painted in the Cenacola of the Monastery that used to be attached to Chiesa Santo Spirito sometime between 1343-1355 by  Andrea Orcagna, Unfortunately as this refectory was used for the storage of “trams” at the end of the 19th Century the fresco has been damaged irretrievably, but it is still possible to make out two early Renaissance figures at a table looking dumbfounded and clutching themselves -saying “How could you suggest such a thing?”

Another fresco begun in or around 1340 is in rather better condition – It was completed by Taddeo Gaddi in Santa  Croce. Originally attributed to Giotto, this painting has also been damaged – in this case by the 1966 flood. Tantalisingly for lovers of Dan Brown (which I am not!)  it shows St John sound asleep, not just on the shoulder, but practically in the lap of Jesus – and what beautifully tapered fingers he has! – almost like someone who takes care of their hands with luxury oils?

1445-1450 – Andrea del Castagno – in some ways, I think this looks the most modern of them all – Freud would have enjoyed interpreting the disturbance going on behind the heads of Judas and Jesus!

As they say, you learn something every day and recently I learned from a Nun at another Florentine Church that these painted marbles have always had contemplative significance – the little red spots on the blue marble should raise profound thoughts about the pain Jesus felt on the cross as they represent the blood of Christ, and the cloud of white spots on the porphyry colour between the blue on the left panel and the brimstone above Judas represent the miracle of the mothers milk of the Virgin Mary.

This fresco is to be found in the Cenacolo of the Church of Sant’Apollonia in Florence. It depicts Jesus and the Apostles during the Last Supper, each in a characteristic pose, which would have told latter day churchgoers immediately who was who in the group – not so easy for today’s audience – which. without the benefit of compulsory education on all religions. can on average, only pick out Jesus, Judas and Peter – and perhaps with prompting, Andrew, young John and the doubtful expression of Thomas.

However, according to the legend underneath their feet, they are – in left to right order – St Matthew, St Phillip, St Thomas -looking skyward in wonder, St Jacobus (James the Greater) St Peter, Judas (clutching his money bag, on the opposite side of the table) Jesus, St John (sleeping) St Andrew, St Bartholomew, St Thaddeus, (AKA St Jude, patron saint of lost causes) St Simon and St James minor. 

1480 – Domenico Ghirlandaio a recently renovated masterpiece to be found in the Cenacola of Ognissanti – one of the fascinating things about visiting this version is that as part of the renovation they also removed the sinopia of the original painting which allows us to see how much it has been adapted by renovators over the years – in particular, the face of Jesus which had been considered too rough and ordinary looking in the original Ghirlandaio interpretation. 

1482- 1484 – also by Domenico Ghirlandaio in Chiesa di San Marco – The Monks of Saint Marks liked the one in Ognissanti so much they asked him to paint another similar. A new symbol has arrived on Judas’s side of the table – the treacherous cat – and Peter is looking, even more, threatening with his knife –  in this one, Ghirlandaio has helpfully put everyone’s names on the back of the bench behind them!

They are left to right – James Minor, Philip, James Senior, Andrew (brother of Simon called Peter) Peter, Jesus, John (sleeping) Bartholomew,  Thomas ( looking doubtful!), Matthew, Simon the Zealot, Jude (aka Thaddeus to avoid confusion with Judas). As they look remarkably similar to the original I have also assumed the same table positions for the first version. 

Both versions have many religious symbols on the table in front of them beyond the all important bread and wine.

Some of the more interesting are Lettuce for Penitence, Apricots as a warning of Sin, Walnuts as a symbol of the Trinity, Cherries mark the Blood of Jesus and Citrus Fruits, particularly lemons, are also attributes of the Passion of Christ.

Behind the Disciples are trees:- Cypress as a symbol of mourning and death as well as being the wood used to build Christ’s Cross, Laurels are a symbol of Victory and Eternal Life and St Lawrence one of the Patron Saints of Florence. The selection of birds include Ducks, as symbols of Early Joys are being taken down by Hawks; Goldfinches also remind us of Jesus’s Death when one little bird removed a thorn from his crown and remains forever with the blessing of the blood of Christ around his face; the Peacock reminds us of the promise of Eternal Life because his flesh rots so slowly, and I like to think the pigeon was just for fun to show future Monks that some things never change!

 

1493-1496 – the turn of Perugino whose work has been preserved in the  Convent of Foligno in Florence  Behind the supper he shows the next step when the Disciples sleep in the garden of Gethsemane, whilst Christ thinks about asking for a reprieve. Once again we have Judas on our side of the table with his money bag but he is the only one looking out at us – normally this would mean a self -portrait of the artist but would you want to put yourself in Judas’s place? 

The likeness I do see prompted another debate with a friend – Perugino has also put the names in the panel below everyone’s feet – and shows James the brother of Jesus, in the left corner, as a virtual twin!  My Catholic friends tell me this can’t be, –  because Mary  was thrice blessed, a virgin on conception of Jesus, a virgin whilst giving birth to Jesus and remaining a pure virgin throughout her married life – therefore James the brother of Jesus has to be Joseph’s son by a previous marriage and genetically would bear no physical resemblance to him at all – but okay it is probable that they would use the same tailor!

Last Supper

self portrait of Perugino

1495–1498- Leonardo da Vinci – now we have the one everyone talks about – and many people think is the only one ever painted – until I take them to visit some of these ones in Florence.

This painting began the challenge to catch the disciples in movement – a snapshot taken at the moment of accusation and subsequent denial from all the Disciples – including Judas – that nothing would tempt them to betray their Master!

The key question raising by this painting and asked in the Da Vinci Code was “Is John really Mary Magdalene?  It seems unlikely but this is the most female looking version in a Last Supper and was painted before the Council of Trent (1545 -1563) in which The Virginity Of Mary was sanctified, whilst stories of other women mentioned in the Bible were largely edited out of Christian Belief.

Interestingly the most female “John” in a drawing is in the Ghirlandaio sinopia at Ognissanti painted in 1480, which has a sketch of a young female wearing a low cut top – in this John is equally likely to be a pretty young boy.

In Leonardo’s painting, the experts think that the order was Bartholomew, James Minor, Andrew, Peter – awkwardly grabbing his knife, behind Judas clutching his moneybag, then John surprising leaning away from Jesus in the centre, next James Major, Thomas and Philip standing up behind him, young Matthew, Simon the Zealot and Jude aka Thaddeus. So not entirely dissimilar to Ghirlandaio’s order.  

1512 – 1514 – Franciabigio – at Cenacolo Della Calsa, at the end of Via di Serragli – recently restored and re-opened to the public in the form of a Conference centre. Franciabigio shared a Bottega with Andrea del Sarto and they clearly had some influence on one another. This group has more food, including three plates of sacrificial lamb, but less cutlery – nobody has a knife and St Peter isn’t found to Christ right-hand side or even wearing his signature cloak of yellow ochre – he seems to have already moved to Papal purple!

Looking at these characters it is almost Ghirlandaio’s order in reverse ie reading left to right young Thaddeus, Simon, young Matthew, doubtful Thomas saying “What! Really?” Bartholomew, young sleepy John, Judas on wrong side of the table, angry Peter, brother Andrew alongside as always, James senior looking a bit like Jesus, elder statesman Phillip and another young one in James minor. One might almost suspect that he had hung his “cartoon” up the wrong way round and pounced in his red sinopia into the arriccio layer of plaster – and decided he was committed to putting them up the other way around!  Stranger things have happened? 

1519-1527 – Andrea del SartoTake a short bus-ride out of the city centre to visit the Cenacola di San Salvi. Andrea del Sarto must have seen the work of Leonardo da Vinci before embarking on his own masterwork on the subject  – here everyone is saying “What ME? How could you possibly think such a thing!”

Cenacolo

In this painting – as in Leonardo’s painting – Judas is not separated from the group by the table – and is not even shown in yellow to differentiate him from the rest of the group – he is actually sitting on Christ’s left looking just as incredulously injured as everyone else, as Jesus offers him bread – the symbol of his body – to show that he knows what he knows.

Another quirk of this painting is the artist’s increasing sense of self-worth – Andrea del Sarto and his wife, Lucrezia are portrayed on the balcony overlooking the whole scene.

Seour Plautilla Nelli began her ambitious 21-foot oil painting of the Last Supper some time in the 1570’s and for some time has not been available for view in Florence because of it’s deteriorating condition. Now, thanks to Advancing Women Artists (AWAF) this amazing painting is being scrupulously restored and will ultimately be on display in the New Museum of Art Works in the famous Gothic Florentine Church of Santa Maria Novella. 

Next in my count is by Alessandro Allori, who painted the Cenacolo in Santa Maria del Carmine in 1582 – so nearly 90 years after Leonardo they were putting Judas back as part of the group – as first suggested by Leonardo – and keeping the group surprised and lively – except perhaps Peter who looks totally perplexed?

Interesting opportunity to play spot the copy of characters taken directly from Andrea del Sarto’s painting of the subject.

So finally we move to oils and this rather curious example also by Alessandro Allori begun in 1584- lively it certainly is – and whoever knows who is who is doing very well amongst this jumble!

A late fresco entry was painted in 1642 by an artist born in Fiesole called Nicodemo Ferruci . It is to be found in the Cenacolo of the Five star Hotel Villa San Michele in Fiesole – it goes back to the traditional format of nearly everyone crowded at the back of the table except Judas who sits at the far left of Jesus on other side of the table accompanied only by his equally treaturous cat!

Hotel Villa San Michele, Florence, Italy

So my next challenge is to find one later than this – or is it the final response to the challenge of Leonardo?

I think Leonardo – as usual – takes the crown – but personally I still love the Ognissanti Ghirlandaio best!

Last but not least – albeit completely different – there is this scene below from 1970 Robert Altman film MASH

The Last Supper sequence in the Suicide is Painless scene – with groupings based on Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan gathered around the despairing army dentist Dr Waldowski (John Schuck) – after he has taken what he believes is his suicide pill.

2013 – we have a late entry – in the form of a photograph of Britain’s finest lovies by Alistair Morrison – this one has a Blog all to itself – click on blue word Blog to check out who is playing who!

The actors shown above echo the images in Leonardo’s painting so I don’t think they will help to confirm the images in Suore Plautilla Nelli’s Last Supper now being restored to its original beauty thanks to the Fundraising Efforts of The Advancing Women Artists Foundation – but Ghirlandaio’s might?

For Ghirlandaio – The disciples are: from left to right – James Minor, Philip, James Major, Andrew, (brother of Simon called Peter) Judas on the wrong side of the table, Peter, Jesus, John, (sleeping) Bartholomew,  Thomas (looking doubtful!), Matthew, (leaping up) , Simon the Zealot, praying, Jude the Patron Saint of Lost Causes (aka Thaddeus to avoid confusion with Judas Iscariot)
For Advancing Women Artists we believe the order to be as follows: –                                                                                                                                St Matthew, St Bartholomew, St Thomas, St James the Elder, Judas Iscariot, (wrong side of table as usual) St Peter, Jesus, St John, St James Minor, St Andrew, St Phillip, Jude (Thaddeus) Simon the Zealot. and without being able to study them for signs and attributes I am not going to argue with the experts.

For more information about the work of Advancing Women Artists Foundation and the work that we have been sponsoring in Florence please click here

If you are interested in sponsoring one of the few remaining Saints in Plautilla Nelli’s masterwork work please click here 

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