“When the hour came, he took his place at the table and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
This painting of the Last Supper is believed to have been painted in 1568 by the Florentine nun Plautilla Nelli. A contemporary of Michelangelo, Nelli was born in January 1524. Like many of the educated girls in the city who were unable to cough up a fat dowry, Nelli was cloistered in a convent, in her case, the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina di Cafaggio. After taking her vows, Sister Plautilla launched an artistic career, wading into uncharted waters, unique for a female in 16th-century Italy.
The Renaissance era was not sympathetic to female artists and the study of anatomy, inevitable for the creation of accurate and natural visual art, was denied them. Italian Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari said of Nelli, “She would have done wonderful things if she had only studied as men do.” Boldly, for her times, from her convent she ran an all-woman painter workshop for other women; a brave enterprise when women were both unable to train as artists, and denied entry into the powerful professional guilds.
This painting of the Last Supper is considered one of her finest works. It features life-sized depictions of Christ and the twelve disciples, across a 21-ft by 6.5-ft canvas.
One reason I love this painting is that it’s by a strong, fearless, faithful woman who deified the limits placed on her by men of that time, and rather defiantly used her God-given skills and talents to create beauty and to express her faith.
Most of all, I love this painting as it shows John, known as the beloved disciple, leaning or reclining against Jesus at the Last Supper. Legend is that as John laid his head on Jesus’ chest he heard the heartbeat of God. To listen to God is to listen with our very souls and our very being. To listen to God is to “place our heads on God’s chest” as John did and feel God’s presence and to hear what God is saying.
As we travel through this Holy Week, I hope you will pause, listen, pay attention to the thumping of God’s heartbeat all around us. And in doing so, find the safety, hope, comfort, and love of the Holy One.