If you have been to Florence, Italy, you will have undoubtedly seen some of the most amazing Renaissance art one can consume. Much of that art was originally designed for churches, since the Florentine elite would try to curry favor with God, the people, and the pope by commissioning works. Not all religious art was meant for public consumption though. Artists frescoed religious areas of convents and monasteries both public and private. Dining halls often were painted with an important event in Christianity—one that provides the religious basis for communion—the Last Supper. This was the final meal Jesus Christ shared with his apostles before his crucifixion.
In Christian art, the Last Supper has been depicted in some form since the early days of the religion. In the Catacombs of Callixtus in Rome, there are paintings of the Eucharist on the walls. Byzantine art, too, focused on the communion aspect of the story. But Italian Renaissance artists took the picture a step further, rendering the full scene of the meal—complete with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, vessels for the Eucharist, and apostles surrounding Christ, generally at a long table—on the walls of rooms where the devout would dine.
The most famous depiction in Renaissance art of the Last Supper is that by Leonardo da Vinci on the wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Leonardo’s work is truly a masterpiece, but it is certainly not the only wall-size depiction of the dinner. In Florence, there are numerous portrayals of the meal before Christ’s crucifixion. My favorite is by another Renaissance great, Domenico Ghirlandaio, who painted a study of the Last Supper in the refectory of Ognissanti Church.
Ghirlandaio was born in Florence in 1448. His work graces the walls of the churches of Santa Trinita and Santa Maria Novella (Florence), the Sistine Chapel (Vatican), and Florence’s city hall—Palazzo Vecchio. Domenico was of the same artistic generation as Botticelli and Perugino, dying in 1494 as the era of the High Renaissance was being ushered in.
Near the Arno River is one of the most fabulous churches in all of Florence—Ognissanti. Originally a 13th century design, the church’s main interior was remodeled with gorgeous Renaissance paintings by both Ghirlandaio (Madonna della Misericordia and Lamentation) and Botticelli (Saint Augustine). The famed painter of Primavera and Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli is buried there. His tomb seems quite underwhelming for such a noted artist though.
For years, I had visited Ognissanti trying to find Ghirlandaio’s amazing rendering of the Last Supper, but over and over again I had been denied its beauty. The refectory/cenacolo (dining hall) is only open for four hours (9-1) on Mondays and Saturdays—so one can see how I missed it. In 2019, I was determined to gain entry. I consulted numerous websites to get the visiting times correct. I read everything I could about the space where the cenacolo is located and learned I would need to pass the church and enter on the side.
I came through a vaulted entryway into the complex. A garden was in the center of a square surrounded by frescoed walls. A sign indicated entry to the hallowed room. I entered reverently not knowing what to expect. I looked up and it felt like angels were singing as a vivid, breathtaking, portrayal of Jesus and his apostles appeared before me.
Ghirlandaio painted Jesus and the apostles dining in a loggia around a long table. There are orange and cedar trees in the background and birds flying around. John is asleep at the right hand of Jesus. Peter holds a knife…maybe because he knows danger is coming. Judas is separated from the group and sits on a stool holding the bag of coins he has received to betray his friend. There are remnants of a meal and wine on the table. A peacock perches above the group. The scene draws the viewer in and commands their attention.
The masterpiece allows one plenty of food for thought and I can imagine generations of devout monks contemplating it day after day. I myself got lost in it for quite some time. My reverie was interrupted by a young couple who stumbled upon it while looking around the complex (oh to have been that lucky!). I left looking at some of the reliquaries (one from St. Francis) on the way out. The visit had been well worth the wait; now I plan to see Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper every time I visit Florence.
There are several other fine paintings of the Last Supper around Florence. Since there were many wealthy Florentine families trying to show off during the Renaissance, you will find works rivaling those in the Uffizi Gallery in the city’s churches—even the small ones. They are filled with beauty and history and well worth your time. I hope you take the time to see some of them.
Related blog: Best Churches in Florence, Italy
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