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The Woman Who Painted The Last Supper


Richard Diedrichs

Copyright 2018

Pulisena Nelli entered a Dominican convent in Florence, Italy in 1548. At age fourteen, she became Sister Plautilla. Dominican friars ran the convent of Saint Catherine of Siena, following the leadership and teachings of Girolamo Savonarola. Friar Savonarola encouraged religious drawing and devotional painting by women. Sister Nelli’s partially cloistered convent became a center for nun-artists. Women in convents had more freedom to pursue art than married women in Florentine society.

Nelli was a self-taught artist. She held workshops to train other women and used nuns as her models. She copied Renaissance painters to learn her craft. The master, Friar Bartolomeo, was her biggest inspiration. Bartolomeo followed Savonarola’s theories for classicism in art. Bartolomeo left five hundred drawings to a pupil, who passed them on to Sister Nelli.

Nelli was the first-known female Renaissance painter of Florence. She is one of a few women artists mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in his 1550 book, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. He called her a virtuosa. Vasari said of Nelli’s work, “And in the houses of gentlemen throughout Florence, there are so many pictures, that it would be tedious to attempt to speak of them all.”

At that time, women artists, such as Nelli, were highly regarded. A painting by a nun was thought to hold special power. Women artists earned nearly as much as men. In their work, women provided detail about Florentine life and society. Women artists painted portraits that were important in marriage negotiations. Over the subsequent years, women’s artistic accomplishments in Florence were forgotten, and their art works were neglected, stored, hidden from view. The Church cloistered the Saint Catherine of Siena convent a few years before Nelli’s death in 1588, which impinged on the artistic tradition that she helped establish.

Nelli’s works are characterized by the deep emotion expressed on the faces of her subjects and the expressiveness of their hands. Her male figures were criticized (by Vasari) for having feminine features, but Sister Nelli was prohibited by her religious vocation from studying the nude male form.

Most of Nelli’s works are large-scale. They depict religious scenes and include Lamentation with Saints, Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata, Saint Dominic Receives the Rosary, Saint Catherine in Prayer, Saint Catherine with a Lily, Grieving Madonna, Crucifixion, The Pentecost (exhibited in Perugia), Annunciation, Saint Catherine of Siena, and The Last Supper. Her works are exhibited in museums around Florence, including the Uffizi Gallery.

Plautilla Nelli’s The Last Supper was the only painting she signed. She was the first woman in history to paint the subject, and her work is considered one of the most important paintings by any woman in the history of art. Florence has the richest tradition in the world of paintings of The Last Supper. Nelli’s fresco-like, oil on canvas, painting is her major work. It is over twenty-three feet long and six feet tall and hung on the dining hall wall of the convent in the fifteen-seventies.

Nelli’s The Last Supper is currently being restored in Florence and will go on exhibit in 2019, the first time it has been shown in four hundred and fifty years.

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