She was sufficiently known to be mentioned in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters. He observed that she ‘would have done marvellous things if, like men, she had been able to study and to devote herself to drawing and copying living and natural things’. As it stands, her limitations may have preserved her work, for she was not permitted by virtue of her gender to study the creation of frescoes, the more usual medium for works on this scale. Had her Last Supper been a fresco it would probably have been destroyed with the suppression of religious orders by Napoleon. Instead, despite terrible damage by the flood of 1966, the canvas was rolled up and survived to be lovingly restored by a band of female artists and restorers between 2014 and 2019 and is now on display in the refectory of the Santa Maria Novella museum close to the original convent.
In so far as Nelli’s work was radical for its time, I think it points us to radical aspects of the biblical narrative of the Last Supper that invite our attention this Maundy Thursday. For her work and the Biblical story itself, are about emancipation, embodiment and equity.
The story of the Last Supper reads like a piece of protest theatre, riffing off the emancipatory story of the Passover meal, itself re-enacting the liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. As many artists and specifically more recent liberation theologians have done, Nelli adopts and contextualises the original story to her situation – she sets the scene in Tuscany, with fine china platters, turquoise ceramic bowls and food typical of her local cuisine. The figures of the disciples are notable for their somewhat feminine features, especially those of the beloved disciple John, whose head rests on Jesus’ shoulder. While this can be attributed to the fact that women were forbidden from studying the male nude, it has the effect of liberating the figures from their gender specificity and inviting liberative questions about who was actually present at the last Supper. It is likely that in fact women, children, dogs and persons of all genders and sexualities were present – and not silent either. At the very least, when the twelve disappear in their various ways into the night, someone was left with the washing up!
Nelli’s work is also notable for two kinds of embodiment. The first is in the bodily energy required for the wide, broad brushwork observed by the restorers. Female artists of the time tended to be confined to small works and the painting of miniatures. This work is of a different kind, and there is energy and forcefulness in its creation, which must have asked for physical commitment from the artist. However, there is more. There is a high level of embodiment in the detailed rendering of the tendons of the hands, the placing of feet, the precision of veins and fingernails. This is the work of someone who paid close attention and was concerned to incarnate her subjects as closely as possible. These were real bodies with real bread – so when we hear those much honed words ‘this is my body, given for you’ Nelli invites us to perceive Christ in the tendons and veins and fingernails of those we see around us in our time as she did in her own.
For finally there is a greater equity and sense of community in this Last Supper than those of its contemporaries, for all its traditional composition. Most renderings of the time focus on the figure of Christ to the diminishment of the other people at the table. In a bold and original move, Nelli places the figure of Judas, money bag in hand, on the viewer’s side of the table, receiving the dipped morsel from Jesus. The effect is to place us alongside Judas, and to democratise the whole scene. Suddenly this is not about the great hero in the centre. It is about the whole gathered community, the good, the bad and the ugly or which we are a part. Suddenly we are joining in the feast and not mere spectators – an effect accentuated by the two figures at the end of the table who are also partly on ‘our’ side of the table, embracing and inviting us in.
Nelli thus invites us to find anew in the story of the Last supper a narrative that can free us from suppositions of gender, time and place; a story that encourages us to embody our faith and live it out in flesh and blood and food and wine; and not least a tale that we continue – for we are the community gathered around the table; and as we re-member the Christ, we are the body; we are the blood. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Maundy Thursday, 6 April 2023