Saturday, October 19, 2013


The Refectory room of the cloistered Benedictine nuns of Sant'Apollonia, Florence.
The scene of the Last Supper with Christ and his disciples before the crucifixion is the most commonly found decoration in the refectories (eating rooms) in convents and monasteries from the 1400s onwards. The symbolic meaning is that the members of the religious order eat with Christ, and they are perpetually reminded of Christ’s sacrifice, represented symbolically through the bread and wine, staple features at every meal. Most of the time meals were held in silence with somebody reading from the bible, which is why a pulpit is sometimes still present in these rooms.

The first representation of the last supper decoration in a refectory occurred in the middle of the 1300s in the Franciscan convent in Florence, Santa Croce, frescoed by Taddeo Gaddi. It is not depicted however, as the main wall decoration but underneath the large central tree of life.

The Last Supper and Tree of Life, Taddeo Gaddi, refectory in Santa Croce church,  1360s, Florence.
The first representation where the Last Supper is the central and most important scene on the wall of a refectory, superseding that of the crucifixion, is in the female monastery dedicated to Sant’Apollonia in Florence, on the other side of the city. This was frescoed by the early Renaissance great master, Andrea del Castagno in 1447. Interestingly, it was not mentioned in the chapter dedicated to the painter in the first art history book written by Giorgio Vasari in 1550, because being a cloistered female monastery, Vasari and others had no access to it and did not know of its existence. The convent was suppressed in 1808 and only then was the fresco bought to the attention of academics. Access was limited, however, until 1891 when the refectory and some surrounding rooms were acquired to open a museum celebrating the masterpiece.

The artist, Andrea del Castagno, was Tuscan and his name tells us from where he hailed.  Castagno is a small mountainous village in the province of Florence (his name literally translates as Andrea from Castagno). In a lovely turnabout of importance, however, this town is now called after him, Castagno d’Andrea (Andrea’s Castagno) reflecting his importance in painting in the early renaissance period. Andrea embraces the new style of strong realism in pictorial depiction, regarding both the representation of space, three dimensionality, and the desire to convey emotion and expression in the figures. He is thought of as being a Donatello in painting, with his strong contours and prioritising the portrayal of the human psyche, even at the expense of elegance and detail.

Last Supper, Andrea del Castagno, fresco, convent of Sant'Apollonia, 1447, Florence. 
Andrea’s Last Supper composition is the most typical way to represent the scene, with Judas on the side of the spectator, until Leonardo’s work in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, when he is placed on the side with all the other Apostles and Christ.

Detail of central section of the Last Supper, Andrea del Castagno, refectory of Sant'Apollonia convent,  1447,  Florence.
The precise moment that is being represented is when Christ announces that one of the people present will betray him. John, seated on one side of Christ, is so grieved to hear this statement that he bends over and and puts his head on the table. When asked who it will be, Christ says it is the person to whom he gives the bread dipped in the dish and then he gives it to Judas (the gospel of John). Peter is most often seated on the other side of Christ and sometimes is looking directly to Judas.

Refectory wall with the Last Supper and accompanying scenes above of the resurrection, crucifixion and ascension, Andre del Castagno. 
As shown in the above photo, the Last supper scene in the convent of Sant’Apollonia is accompanied by three smaller scenes above; the resurrection, the crucifixion and the Ascension to heaven.

This refectory is open Tuesday-Saturday 8.15am-1.50pm, free admission, via 27 Aprile 1.


  1. I absolutely love Last Supper compositions. Check this wonderful compilation (mostly pop art style):