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DISCOVERING ART… NELLI

THE LAST SUPPER

BY PLAUTILLA NELLI

In our film Easter in Art, alongside Leonardo’s Last Supper we include another painting of the same subject. It’s gorgeous and striking. The bread rolls on the table make you hungry, the red wine in the glasses makes you thirsty. The 13 characters are all portrayed with care and in detail. The storytelling is gripping. And I suspect the artist is someone you have never heard of: for the painting is by the 16th-century female nun Plautilla Nelli. There are precious few female artists from the Renaissance and someone like Nelli certainly demands our attention, though not just for her gender. She was a fine artist.

Polissena de’ Nelli was sent by her parents to a convent at the age of 14 and by adulthood had become Sister Plautilla Nelli. She lived from 1524 to 1588 and, during that time, behind convent walls and largely away from the gaze of men, became a well-established and respected painter. This craft was of course predominantly a male profession but she ignored that and, by the end of her life, had created a small workshop of female artists in her central Florentine location. Her subject matter was, unsurprisingly, sourced from the bible and these works were sold by the convent and were highly prized, arguably because they were painted by the hands of nuns, by their owners. One particular work by Nelli – Last Supper – acquired a special respect.

Giorgio Vasari, the highly influential artist and art historian wrote in his 1568 edition of his book Lives of the Artists that he had seen Nelli’s painting when at the convent.

“She shows that she would have done marvellous things if she had enjoyed, as men do, opportunities for studying, and devoting herself to drawing and representing living and natural objects”

It is a beautiful painting – by a skilled artist. Sometimes it is easy to skim over a work that contains multiple characters and elements. But I urge you, as ever, to take your time and look carefully at how she has depicted each of the disciples with depth and character. Plus there is a little bit of humour too: the last meal may have taken place in Jerusalem but that didn’t stop them eating a local Florentine speciality!

It seems Nelli’s painting was not made for sale but for the dining area of the convent – much like Leonardo’s in Milan. The painting is indeed almost as large as Leonardo’s – which, if you have seen the original or the excellent copy at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, you’ll know is substantial. Therefore the 13 men contained within it are essentially life-size. The dining room for which it was painted must have been cluttered with scaffolding for months. Once finished, the nuns must have been amazed at its verisimilitude – and no doubt much moved too.

At some point in history, the painting disappeared….until an art historian called Jonathan Nelson found it 20 years ago on the wall of the lunchroom of another monastery in Florence. He also identified Nelli’s signature: ‘Orate pro pictura’ it read – ‘Pray for the Painter’. In Florence alone there are eight paintings showing Jesus dining for the last time with his twelve disciples. Six of those paintings are frescoes – painted on to drying plaster. And impossible to move. But Nelli’s was painted onto canvas and transportable. That meant it had been rolled up (probably when Napoleon overran Italy at the start of the 19th century) and stored, all but disappearing for ever until it was found again and placed on the monastery wall. The first-known depiction of the Last Supper by a woman could so easily have rotted away for ever but, in fact, it had survived five centuries and, following Nelson’s re-discovery, a recent restoration was undertaken for which we should be thankful, as it now provides us a real sense of how it once looked – and how well a nun called Plautilla Nelli once painted.

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