Ahead of her time: Plautilla Nelli and her everlasting ‘Last Supper’

Note from the editor: This post is part of a series showcasing undergraduate student contributions that explore the technical art history of specific pieces of interest. This post was written by Jenny Tran, a ­junior Honors College student at West Chester University majoring in Cell and Molecular Biology.

Plautilla Nelli’s ‘Last Supper’ c. 1560s (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Plautilla Nelli is the only recorded woman during the Renaissance to have painted the Last Supper. The painting illustrates the biblical dinner scene featuring life-size depictions of Jesus Christ and the twelve Apostles. Nelli places her own spin on the scene by adding a more nurturing and feminine feel. Aside from the surface level religious meaning, the artwork possesses high relevance since the creator is a woman. During the Renaissance era, the government and Church banned women from studying the scientific field. Therefore, by studying and painting human anatomy, Nelli set a different standard for women.

Nelli became a nun at age fourteen when she joined the Santa Canterina convent. She was self-taught and eventually her work was so well sought after that she was able to accept private commissions from wealthy families.

Nelli’s status as a nun not only allowed her to pursue art but also inspired her work. Nelli’s Last Supper reflects aspects of her own life as a nun. For example, the food on which Christ and the Apostles dine is reminiscent of what the residents at Santa Caterina enjoyed and includes wine, bread, fava beans, lettuce heads, and a whole roasted lamb.

What differentiates Nelli’s painting the most from her male counterparts is that Christ’s features are quite feminine. Art historians suggest that Nelli painted his features womanly on purpose and that his features were inspired by her very own. This is not the only manner in which Nelli embedded a reference to herself: there is a hidden inscription of Nelli’s own name in the upper left corner of the painting. In addition, Nelli also wrote a phrase in Latin which was “Orate Pro Pictora,” which means “pray for the paintress.” During this time period, artists usually wouldn’t declare authorship of their work. Therefore, by writing her name and the phrase, art historians suggest that Nelli purposely confirmed that she was a female artist and that she knew the significance behind her being a woman.

Nelli’s painting hung in the refectory of Santa Canterina up until the early 19th century. The Santa Maria Novella monastery retrieved the painting and hung it in their refectory until 1865, when it was moved to a different location. A scholar named Giovanna Pierattini stated that in 1911, the painting “was removed from its stretcher, rolled up and moved to a warehouse, where it remained neglected for almost three decades.” The painting was restored in 1939, but then a drastic flood in 1966 led to slight humidity damage. In 1982, after the refectory changed into the Santa Maria Novella Museum, the painting stayed in the friars’ private rooms.

More recently, Advancing Women Artists (AWA) took up a campaign to conserve Nelli’s Last Supper with the aid of a team of conservators, curators, and scientists. AWA raised funds for the campaign through crowdfunding using a program called “Adopt an Apostle.” The recent restoration of the painting in total took four years. The lead conservator was Rosella Lari and in her words upon looking at the painting she said, “it was dark, very dirty, and very difficult to clean.” Lari and her team had the task of removing layers of overpainting from previous restorations. She had to remove a thick layer of yellow varnish and treat flaking paint. The team also found wood worms, and thus had an arduous task of removing the worms. Conservation work also required color consolidation, stucco work, biocide anti-parasite treatment, varnishing and remounting. The team also keeps the Last Supper in a specific location and temperature and take precautions for the previous events such as flooding and humidity to not occur again.

Researchers conducted an analysis of the pigments’ chemical composition, adding to the material understanding of the piece. Furthermore, the researchers utilized diagnostics with infrared reflectography, the team found very little evidence of any underdrawing, suggesting that Nelli painted from the designs in her own mind. Diagnostic analysis also indicated that the piece was a collective work painted with various hands and that Nelli had successfully established an all-female workshop. Plautilla Nelli’s Last Supper paved the path for future female artists.

Through studies in art history, conservation, and scientific analysis, Nelli’s painting proved to be a significant landmark in time. Nelli positioned herself among the ranks of her male counterparts and shows that anybody can become a successful artist in their own right.

For further reading:

Advancing Women Artists. (2018). Inside AWA – Spring 2018. https://issuu.com/awa_foundation/docs/inside_awa_spring_2018.compressed

Elman, L. (2017). Suor Plautilla Nelli: Divine revelation at the Uffizi. Fine Art Connoisseur.

Solly, M. (2019). Renaissance nun’s ‘Last Supper’ painting makes public debut after 450 years in hiding. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/renaissance-nuns-last-supper-scene-goes-view-florence-180973374/

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