I was never raised into any sort of religion and never felt compelled to adopt one of my own. But when you study art history, as I did, some degree of familiarity with religious traditions is unavoidable. No matter my attachment to my skepticism of organized religion, I couldn’t, and still can’t, help but find myself in awe of Catholic art. I wasn’t so shocked that I was drawn to the delicious opulence of many Catholic works of art, but I was surprised by how I found myself drawn to the ritual and devotion expressed in many of the works, especially those created by nuns.
At the apex of my outsider curiosity with Catholic art and my love of food and cooking sits the oft-rendered and much-adored Last Supper. It was serendipitous that while I was interning at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the recently unearthed and restored Last Supper painted by Renaissance-era nun Plautilla Nelli would go on view at the Santa Maria Novella Monastery in Florence. As the work was the first of its kind painted by a woman artist (that we know of), I knew I had to make a pilgrimage to see it.
I was drawn to this work of art not just because of the exceptional circumstances of its artist, but because of the way she approached the subject matter. Nelli chose to depict Jesus and his disciples feasting upon foods that would have been typical of a 16th-century Tuscan diet, foods that she and her sisters would have eaten in the refectory of their convent, Santa Caterina, where the painting originally hung: whole roasted lamb, heads of lettuce, and fava beans. The elaborate tableware, atypical for last supper paintings, suggests a reverence for the food as well as for Jesus himself.
Nuns lead a life ruled entirely by rituals. Nelli and her sisters almost certainly ate at the same times each day, prayed before each meal, and looked upon the masterful painting by Nelli as they did so, placing the act of eating within a greater religious context. We may often think of nuns’ devotional lifestyle as dull or deprived, but so much of it must have been sumptuous. As they ate they gazed upon a magnificent work of art, which featured foods they themselves ate, that we know they must have been fond of, as Nelli chose to depict Jesus himself indulging in them at the most important feast in Catholic history. The Bible states that we are made in God’s image, but in Plautilla Nelli’s last supper, God is made in the image of her and her sisters, which she expresses powerfully through food.
Now, I think of Nelli and her sisters whenever I shell fava beans with my partner, a repetitive task that feels like a ritual in itself. And I think of her, too, when I buy lush heads of lettuce from my favorite farm at the market every Wednesday, a ritual of my own. And when I eat, I glance at the painting commissioned by my partner from a friend of ours that depicts the very first meal we made in our house together.
When food and love come together — like the love we feel for those who sit around our table, or the love put into preparing a meal — we often feel compelled to venerate it: a snapshot, an Instagram story, a still life painting. Nelli’s painting shares that same impulse. In her Last Supper, Nelli celebrated the love between Jesus and his Apostles by mirroring the love surely felt by the sisters of Santa Caterina, sharing their monastic life. While many of the Last Supper paintings I’ve seen in museums and churches across Europe have inspired awe, Nelli’s provides a more simple reminder: that food can bring us closer to those we love. Every supper is then, in a way, a Last Supper — knowing that no matter how many times we repeat the ritual, we’ll never eat that exact same food again or feel that exact same love. Maybe that’s why all of us — me and you, Plautilla Nelli, even Jesus himself— have an urge to venerate and remember our most meaningful meals.
Elise's piece was originally published in Issue 5 of Potluck. Get your copy of the issue here: