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Only Known 'Last Supper' Painting by a Woman Artist Finally Restored After Centuries of Neglect

Sister Plautilla Nelli, the 16th century nun-artist is often credited with being the first woman artist of the Italian Renaissance.

Rakhi Bose | News18.com@theotherbose

Updated:October 18, 2019, 12:53 PM IST
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Only Known 'Last Supper' Painting by a Woman Artist Finally Restored After Centuries of Neglect
Plautilla Nelli was one the first known women artists of the Italian Renaissance | Image credit: Twitter/@RebeccaRideal

Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello. Any mention of the Italian Renaissance often brings to mind the illustrious names of men who have now come to symbolise the period of refined art and high artistic inquiry that spanned centuries from the 14th to the 17th.

But have you heard of Sister Plautilla Nelli? The 16th century nun-artist is often credited with being the first woman artist of the Renaissance.

For centuries, art had been a male preserve. To be an artist often required social and economic freedom, influence and connections that women in previous centuries simply did not have access to. However, that does not mean no women were painting during the Renaissance. Come 2019, one of Sister Nelli's paintings, "The Last Supper", has just been restored.

This is the only version of the Last Supper, the proverbial last meal Jesus Christ allegedly had with his thirteen disciples before being betrayed by one, Judas, known to have been painted by a woman. The moment was immortalised by countless artists and poets, the best and most popular of them being the polymath Leonardo da Vinci's mural masterpiece made during 1495–1498.

While the world knew about da Vinci's mural, Nelli's version of the 'Last Supper'(1560s) was obscured from public view all these years. Until now.

After four years of restoration work, the 22 feet high and six feet wide 'Last Supper', depicting Jesus and his apostles eating a simple meal, went on display in Florence's Santa Maria Novella. The restoration was funded by Advancing Women Artists, a non-profit organisation that works from restoring and promoting previously unaccredited or unknown women artists.

Though not much has been recorded in history about sister Nelli (1524-1588), her name does appear in the works of Giorgio Vasari, one of the earliest historians of Renaissance in the world. Vasari, in the second edition of his seminal book "The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects" mentioned Nelli and her convent, Santa Caterina di Caffagio in Florence. Vasari recorded that Nelli set up a studio with eight other nuns to sufficiently and independently run her convent. The convent-studio produced works of art with historic or religious themes and these were in turn sold to the rich in the then prosperous city.

Almost all works of art at the time were commissioned by rich merchants, clergy or nobility. The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, two of da Vinci's most popular masterpieces, were made on commission. Nonetheless, the effort to display Nelli's work is part of the larger global push toward popularizing women artists who have so far not found a place in art history books and museum walls. The restoration of Nelli's work could bring about many new such forgotten artworks by women. A study of such artworks could lend valuable insights into the socio-political conditions and the state of women during these times.

An excited Rebecca Rideal, historian, shared images of the restored painting on Twitter.

Here is a full video of the restoration process by Advancing Women Artists, an organisation that was created with the primary objective of searching for Nelli's work.

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