The Florentine Cenacoli
In 1482 a young Florentine painter, Leonardo da Vinci, left Florence for Milan and offered his services to an ambitious Italian Duke, Ludovico Sforza, called il Moro. At that time Ludovico, who wanted to make of the Milanese court one of the most illustrious courts of Italy, aimed at the reinforcement his Duchy and of the position of the Sforza family, by a skillful use of art and architecture. At the centre of Ludovico’s project was the Milanese monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, rebuilt in 1492 by Bramante and later turned into Sforza’s mausoleum. Ludovico commissioned the Florentine painter, Leonardo, to embellish the wall of the monastery’s refectory with the scene representing the Last Supper. Leonardo painted the fresco between 1494 and 1498 and not long after his work was praised by the art lovers and copied by other painters. Today Leonardo’s Last Supper is one of the most widely known masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance art. Did you know, however, that while painting his Last Supper Leonardo carried on an well-rooted Florentine tradition of Last Supper frescoes.
The most ancient Cenacolo with the Last Supper was painted in Florence in 1355 by Taddeo Gaddi, one of Giotto’s pupils, in the refectory of the Franciscan Santa Croce. Since then the walls of the Florentine refectories, the rooms where the monks and the nuns used to meet for a common meals, were decorated with the images of Christ sharing his last supper before the Passion with the apostles. During the centuries varied Florentine artists before Leonardo, Taddeo Gaddi, Domenico Ghirlandaio or Andrea del Castagno, left in the city their visions of this holy event. While working in Milan, Leonardo must have keep them in mind.
Let me take you on a tour through my favourite Florentine Cenacoli!
Taddeo Gaddi’s Last Supper in Santa Croce
Taddeo Gaddi’s Last Supper in Santa Croce, painted around 1355 is the earliest example of a Last Supper scene decorating the wall of a refectory in a Florentine convent. An image of the last meal that Christ shared with his apostles seemed appropriate for the environment of a refectory where the monks used to meet for their common meals. In Santa Croce the theological program of the decoration was completed by the scenes from the life of the saints and the Lignum Vitae.
The images of Lignum Vitae, representing Christ’s cross in a form of a three with the branches growing on its sides, were very popular in the late Middle Ages. This iconography was inspired by Saint Bonaventure’s treaty of the same title and during the Middle Ages it functioned also as a powerful and useful tool for monks’ mnemonic exercises. On each side of the cross, along the branches growing out of it, the monks would imagine little medallions with various texts. In Taddeo Gaddi’s version in Santa Croce we can see the images of prophets with their prophecies about Christ’s Passion displayed around the Cross. The monks would use these images, to order pieces of texts they wanted to memorize. They would exercise their memory by recalling and rearranging the medallions, their order and their content.
This exercises were crucial in the medieval monasteries, where the monks used to learn prayers, texts of the Bible and sermons by heart. Good memory allowed the monks to improve their oratory skills, and the different mnemonic tricks passed to the monastic culture from the antiquity. The most important treaty on this subject, Rhetorica ad Herennium, dating back to 90 AD, was well known and vastly copied in the Medieval monasteries and convents. Thanks to these classical treaties, the Western monks learned various mnemonic techniques, such as the idea of associating the things they wanted to remember with places and symbolical objects. The visual representation of mnemonic schemes was yet another useful tool and Saint Bonaventure’s Lignum Vitae perfectly fulfilled these functions.
As a common meal in a Franciscan convent is an occasion for a common prayer and meditation over Christ’s Passion, also here Lignum Vitae displays the theological basis for the meditation over Christ’s sacrifice.
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Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia by Andrea del Castagno
Almost 100 years later, in 1445, another Florentine artist, Andrea di Bartolo di Bargilla, called Andrea del Castagno, was commissioned a fresco decoration in the refectory of a feminine monastery of Saint Apollonia. Also here, just like in Santa Croce, the iconographic program included the scene of the Last Supper with the images referring to Christ’s Passion: Crucifixion, Deposition and Resurrection, which offered a wider theological context to the scene of the Last Supper itself.
In 100 years, however, many things have changed. At the beginnings of the fifteenth century Filippo Brunelleschi elaborated the scheme of linear perspective, which allowed the artists to represent in an illusory manner the depth and the third dimension on their paintings. This invention was then described by a humanist, writer and architect Leon Battista Alberti in his artistic treaty entitled Della Pittura. Alberti’s description made of the linear perspective an artistic novelty, and very soon the Italian painters learned the tricks of perspective and illusion.
In this changed artistic situation, Andrea del Castagno designed his Last Supper imagining the cenacle as a free-standing room attached to a brick wall. The table and the benches around it occupy the entire room. Jesus with his disciples sit all around the table. We can easily recognizes Judas, as he is the only one sitting on a little stool on the other side of the table. He is wearing a violet dress, the colour of betrayal and suspicion. His black hair, dark beard and slim body communicate his evil character.
Look at the apostles hands! Jesus’ disciples express their emotions with their gestures: astonishment, fear, preoccupation and grief. They discuss and argue about the words they have just heard “One of you will betray me” (John 13:21).
Leonardo must have known this fresco by del Castagno when he was designing his Last Supper in Milan! Undoubtedly the idea of emotional reaction expressed by the gestures came to his mind thanks to this composition.
Yet, in del Castagno’s fresco there is one more element that strikes all the viewers. Have you noticed that the wall behind Jesus and the Apostles is decorated with the big plates of painted marble. The marbles are colourful and display fascinating patterns. Particularly colourful is the plate behind Jesus’ head. Could there be any meaning of this curious detail?
It seems that these marbles represent God’s presence and symbolize that Judas’ betrayal, Christ’s Passion and his death are the necessary elements of God’s plan for the salvation of the human kind. God’s presence is symbolized by the image of colourful marble, stone characterized by a natural pattern or image trapped in it. According to the medieval beliefs, God’s creative power and his presence were impressed in the colours of marble. Marble was considered a sacred stone that carried inside the holiness of God’s presence and in early Renaissance painting it often represented the mystery of God’s plan and the inevitability of the Providence’s choices.
Therefore, here, just like in Santa Croce, the representation of the Last Supper is a part of a more complex theological message. The nuns were invited to reflect daily during their meals about the mystery of Salvation, inevitability of Christ’s suffering on the cross, the mystery of his death and resurrection.
The fresco by Andrea del Castagno, thanks to a truly excellent perspective construction of the space, powerful colours and shading as well as an efficient communication of the protagonists’ emotions expressed by their gestures, sends a strong message about the deep sense of Christ passion.
Still today we can admire Andrea’s skill and the expressive force of his art, on the walls of Sant’Apollonia.
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Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper at San Marco
During the fifteenth century fresco decorations representing the Last Suppers became a real fashion in the refectories of the Florentine convents. Not by chance the most busy Florentine workshop specialized in fresco painting engaged in the production of these images. I am talking about Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop, the same one that decorated the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella.
Around 1480 Ghirlandaio decorated the walls of the refectory in San Marco’s guesthouse with a scene representing the Last Supper. Using the width of the entire wall of the refectory, Ghirlandaio imagined the cenacle located in a vaulted room, partially open to a garden. Also here, just like in del Castagno’s vision in Sant’Apollonia, the painter wanted to represent the emotional reactions of the Apostles to Jesus’ words. John faints, Peter clenches his fist with anger. We read astonishment, fear and suspicion on the faces of the disciples. Judas sits on the other side of the table. Behind him stands a cat, a symbol of Judas’ diabolic nature.
Above the apostles’ heads runs an inscription with two verses from the Gospel of Saint Luke (Luke 22: 29-30) “and I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom”. This inscription underlines the connection between the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. The Last Suppers in Santa Croce and Sant’Apollonia put emphasis on the mystery of salvation and on the deep sense of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. In San Marco, instead, the same scene is discussed in relation to the mystery of Eucharist. This is why Ghirlandaio took particular care in a detailed representation of the food on the table. Ghirlandaio painted beautiful glass bottles with wine and water, loafs of bread, cherries and other red fruits. Wine, water and bread refer to the Eucharist as there were necessary elements of every Holy Mass. Red fruits and cherries most probably remind of Christ’s blood and his Passion on the Cross.
Also the garden painted behind the cenacle displays numerous symbols and allegories. The peacock sitting on the window, above the apostles’ heads, symbolizes immortality and, just like the painted marble in del Castagno, represents God, his omnipresence and providence. Similarly, the rapacious birds flying in the sky refer to the spiritual dimension of our human existence.
Ghirlandaio, just like Taddeo Gaddi and Andrea del Castagno, exposed in painting complex theological ideas and managed to find efficient pictorial tools to express these manifold meanings.
Before departing for Milan in 1482 Leonardo da Vinci had a chance to admire the compositions of his colleagues which were so much talked about in the city. With these images in mind he started his service at the court of Ludovico il Moro and few years later he was asked to paint his Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie. When we tour the Florentine cenacles we follow Leonardo’s footsteps, we follow his glance, his thoughts, his considerations about the works of his colleagues. Isn’t it a fascinating?
Do you want to visit the Florentine cenacles? Contact me! I will be happy to organize your private tour!