Art at the table

The Cenacolo of Ognissanti

The episode of the Last Supper was one that enjoyed great popularity in Florence from as far back as the mid fourteenth century. The "Cenacolo" by Taddeo Gaddi in the refectory of the convent of Santa Croce dates to 1340, and is considered the prototype for all the later Florentine Last Suppers.

The subject proved to be extremely congenial for the refectories of the numerous convent complexes in the city, offering the monks and nuns gathered around the table for their daily communal meals the opportunity to reflect on one of the most important episodes in the life of Christ, associating the nourishment of the body with that of the soul.

In 1480 Domenico Ghirlandaio frescoed a large Last Supper in the refectory that used to be part of the convent complex of Ognissanti, in which he combined the serene and restrained Renaissance perspective with the taste for detail characteristic of his style.

The artist constructs the space in which the sacred episode takes place, using trompe l’oeil to extend the hall of the refectory by another bay, with the wall stretching back from the corbels of the arches, allowing us to glimpse beyond a luxuriant garden populated with birds.

The gestures and expressions of Christ and the Apostles are marked by a great naturalness, evocative of domestic reality, as they chat in pairs, with two of them eating from the same plate or trencher, as was the custom at the time.

The artist’s taste for narrative drives him to enliven the scene with numerous details depicted with naturalistic precision. On the table, spread with a splendid “Perugian” style tablecloth of white linen decorated with blue hippogriffs in “Assisi stitch”, we can see glasses and bottles made of the finest transparent glass, long knives with sharp blades and wooden handles, plates bearing the remains of food: extraordinary touches of still life through the symbolism of which the Death and Resurrection of the Messiah are announced.

In addition to the bread and wine – the body and blood of Christ – we also have apricots, which are the symbol of sin, the lettuce, symbol of penitence, cherries with their red colour evoking the Passion and the oranges that allude to Paradise.

Nature too plays its part in the Eucharistic mystery: the palm trees and cypresses symbolise martyrdom while the pomegranates again allude to the blood of Christ. In the sky the sparrowhawk, symbol of evil, attacks the duck that is an emblem of celestial joy. Gazing on from the window on the left is a goldfinch, symbol of the Passion, while perched on the right windowsill is a peacock, emblem of the immortality of the soul which, purified from Original Sin through the sacrifice of Christ, can hope in the salvation of eternal life.

Art at the table