Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Last Supper: The Convent of San Marco, Florence

Domenico Ghirlandaio (b. 1449, Firenze, d. 1494, Firenze)
Last Supper c. 1486
Fresco, 400 x 800 cm
San Marco, Florence

Domenico Ghirlandaio (b. 1449, Firenze, d. 1494, Firenze)

Last Supper c. 1486 (detail)

Domenico Ghirlandaio (b. 1449, Firenze, d. 1494, Firenze)

Last Supper c. 1486 (detail)

Domenico Ghirlandaio (b. 1449, Firenze, d. 1494, Firenze)

Last Supper c. 1486 (detail)

Domenico Ghirlandaio painted the scene of the Last Supper on several occasions within the space of a few years.

Three works of his Last Supper still remain: in the abbey of Passignano sul Trasimeno, in the Ognissanti in Florence, and in the San Marco, Florence.

The basic arrangement is the same as that in the fresco by Andrea del Castagno in the Florentine Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia dating from about 1450.

The disciples are sitting at a long table in front of a rear wall that runs parallel to the picture plan. Christ is sitting in the centre, and His favourite disciple John is leaning sadly against Him. To the right of Christ, in the place of honour, is the chief Apostle, Peter. Judas the traitor is the only one to be separated from the others: he is seated in front of the table.

Working within the formula, Ghirlandaio produced an image which transcends the restrictions contained within the formula. Domenico Ghirlandaio was at the height of his popularity. He only prepared the design. The rest of the actual execution was carried out by his brother, David and by his pupil,Sebastiano Mainardi.

Throughout the 14th century, the scene of the Last Supper was included in the grandiose cycles of frescoes which illustrated the Life and the Passion of Christ. During the 15th century, with invention of perspective, the Supper began to be represented independently on an entire wall.

The frescoed representations of the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio in Florence and in the Abbey at Passignano, predate the better known Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan.

Ghirlandaio`s fresco can be characterised in a number of ways: "descriptive realism", and"Decorative charm coupled with Flemish portrait realism":
- the architecture of the room
- the facial expressions: one of the Apostles seems to ask "Is it me ?"
- the impassive Judas, seated in front of Jesus and almost conversing with him.
- the large table with a bright tablecloth, embroidered at the edges
- the crockery, the decanters, the knives, the bread and the cherries, are carefully arranged in front of every guest
- the lunettes with large trees and birds in flight against a bright sky
- light is reflected onto the right-hand wall where an open window frames a perching peacock
- two flower-displays complete the frame
- a cat waits patiently for a hoped-for scrap of meat
- traces of red wine forming a ring around the bottom of his glass
- through one glass carafe, we can see hands resting on the table behind, and through another glass we can see a carafe

The inscription above the heads of the Apostles reads:
"Ego dispono vobis disèposuit mihi pater meus regnum ut edatis et bibatis super mensa meam in regno meo". 
It is the sentence used during the Mass.

Several interpretations of the scene are possible.

The refectory for which the fresco was painted was not for the monks. It was for visitors to the monastery.

In 1874, after the religious houses had their property seized by the new Italian state, Henry James visited San Marco. In Florentine Notes, he describes his visit when he saw the painting and he describes his response:

"I went into the smaller refectory, near by, to refresh my memory of the beautiful Last Supper of Domenico Ghirlandaio. It would be putting things coarsely to say that I adjourned thus from a sermon to a comedy, though Ghirlandaio's theme, as contrasted with the blessed Angelico's, was the dramatic spectacular side of human life.

How keenly he observed it and how richly he rendered it, the world about him of colour and costume, of handsome heads and pictorial groupings! In his admirable school there is no painter one enjoys--pace Ruskin--more sociably and irresponsibly. Lippo Lippi is simpler, quainter, more frankly expressive; but we retain before him a remnant of the sympathetic discomfort provoked by the masters whose conceptions were still a trifle too large for their means.The pictorial vision in their minds seems to stretch and strain their undeveloped skill almost to a sense of pain.

In Ghirlandaio the skill and the imagination are equal, and he gives us a delightful impression of enjoying his own resources. Of all the painters of his time he affects us least as positively not of ours.

He enjoyed a crimson mantle spreading and tumbling in curious folds and embroidered with needlework of gold, just as he enjoyed a handsome well-rounded head, with vigorous dusky locks, profiled in courteous adoration. He enjoyed in short the various reality of things, and had the good fortune to live in an age when reality flowered into a thousand amusing graces--to speak only of those.

He was not especially addicted to giving spiritual hints; and yet how hard and meagre they seem, the professed and finished realists of our own day, with the spiritual bonhomie or candour that makes half Ghirlandaio's richness left out! The Last Supper at San Marco is an excellent example of the natural reverence of an artist of that time with whom reverence was not, as one may say, a specialty.

The main idea with him has been the variety, the material bravery and positively social charm of the scene, which finds expression, with irrepressible generosity, in the accessories of the background. Instinctively he imagines an opulent garden--imagines it with a good faith which quite tides him over the reflection that Christ and his disciples were poor men and unused to sit at meat in palaces. Great full-fruited orange-trees peep over the wall before which the table is spread, strange birds fly through the air, while a peacock perches on the edge of the partition and looks down on the sacred repast. It is striking that, without any at all intense religious purpose, the figures, in their varied naturalness, have a dignity and sweetness of attitude that admits of numberless reverential constructions. I should call all this the happy tact of a robust faith."

Museo di San Marco 
Last Supper in San Marco 
Frescos of Last Suppers in Florence's Renaissance Refectories
The "Last Supper" Florence style
Artwork and Paintings of the Lord's Supper and Last Suppercollected by by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson