Were Women at the Last Supper?
Updated: Jul 18
Back in 2005 the French fashion house Marithé and François Gribaud used a variation on DaVinci's Last Supper in an ad campaign. It was banned in Milan (1). In the same way, the church and state together banned images of women as disciples and women at the last supper when DaVinci first painted his masterpiece.
Leonardo Davinci painted his Last Supper between 1495 and 1498 as a fresco on a wall at a men’s convent at Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. It was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan and DaVinci’s employer for nearly 18 years. Having men in the painting would be suitable to the viewers: the male brethren of the convent. This art and simple décor it shows assisted in the brothers’ meditation and worship.
Today's viewers may be disappointed the painting does not show woman disciples, but at the time of the painting it was heresy for women to be portrayed in art as disciples, and DaVinci did not put Mary Magdalene in his painting (2). If DaVinci painted in a way that was contrary to the church's orthodoxy, he could be arrested. The Inquisition was active in France, Spain, and Italy, killing anyone who disagreed with the church. DaVinci shows the twelve male disciples to comply with the Roman Catholic Church, his employer who commissioned the work, and the brothers who were the intended audience.
The disciple John, at Jesus's right hand, had to be depicted as young with no beard so that viewers of the time would recognize him. James is on Jesus's other side, just as the brothers had requested (Mark 10: 35–45). Peter is whispering to John. Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, is holding a pouch of coins and reaching for a piece of bread, which Jesus gives him just before telling Judas to go and do what he must. Today's viewers may be disappointed that Judas is the only disciple shown with darker skin, but apologists explain he is in a shadow and positioned lower than the others. DaVinci’s work fulfilled its purpose of encouraging the meditations of the male brethren of the convent. However, seeing the Last Supper through other portrayals provides other insights.
In 1521, the theologians of the Sorbonne had formally condemned images of Mary Magdalene as a disciple and said it was heresy to portray her as anyone other than the repentant, sinful woman of Luke 7. DaVinci’s contemporary, Galileo, was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Roman Catholic Church in 1633 for claiming the Earth orbits the Sun. This was heresy since the idea contradicted the orthodox interpretation that Scripture said the Earth was fixed and central. Portraying a woman in DaVinci’s painting of the last supper would risk being accused of heresy for going against church orthodoxy and tradition. It reflects the restrictions of the time.
DaVinci’s painting was part of the Catholic counter-reformation movement to remove all distractions to encourage meditation and devotion to Christ. It shows no women and plain decor. It shows Jesus without a halo, to indicate Jesus and his disciples were simple and mortal. It powerfully captures the emotions and reactions of the evening and uses scientific lines of perspective.
Another painting of the last supper was done in 1560 by Spanish painter Juan de Juanes (3). Its focus seems to be the bowl and pitcher, reminding us that Jesus is an example of serving one another. Judas is identified by holding a money pouch and he is the only one with no halo.
There were very few women artists in the Renaissance era, and women were restricted from studying anatomy or pursuing art. In 1568, Plautilla Nelli, a nun in Florence, painted the Last Supper (4). Nelli’s status as a nun freed her from domestic duties and allowed her to pursue art when women were largely banned from the profession. Her painting of the Last Supper was hung in the dining hall of her women’s convent. It showed food typical of the area, including a whole roasted lamb and elaborate tableware. It shows John resting his head on Jesus's shoulder. Judas is again shown with darker skin tones, no halo, holding a pouch of money and reaching for bread. This art was warehoused from the early 19th century but has recently been restored.
Restrictions on the depiction of women in art, and religious art, in particular, lasted for centuries. In contrast to the simple, meditative portrayal by DaVinci, in 1573, Paolo Veronese painted the Last Supper being enjoyed in the midst of all of life’s distractions, realistically showing the commercial and cross-cultural activity of Venice. The Inquisition accused Veronese of heresy, a capital offence. The artist was acquitted on the condition that he rename it Feast in the House of Levi. A brief video of his painting is here (5)
In Peru, the Spanish art school only permitted paintings related to Christianity or Europe, but many Peruvian artists found ways to slip Incan images into their paintings. Marcos Zapata crossed cultural lines in his portrayal of the last supper in 1753 (6) He shows staples of Incan diets: a guinea pit and the corn maize drink, chicha. The face of Judas the betrayer resembles conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who killed the Inca King (7). While this hidden meaning may criticize the Spanish conquistadors, they did not arrest the artist, possibly because he was very prolific or because his art brought the Incans to the Catholic church.
The church of the Santa Maria la Mayor in Ronda, Spain features all women in blue at the Last Supper. The woman disciples are participating in both theology discussions and food preparation.The building dates to 1485, being converted from a mosque by the Catholic monarchs, but the five wall murals in it were painted in the 1900s by Raymonde Pagegie (8)
In his 1998 painting, Polish artist Bohdan Piasecki portrays the last supper as a family event (9) because Passover is a family celebration, teaching children about their history, and inviting guests. His painting adds seven women and two children to the commonly depicted gathering of twelve, dressing all 22 figures in Palestinian clothing. Piasecki wanted to address some of the historical inaccuracies in DaVinci's work:
- DaVinci shows all Italian males dressed in Renaissance attire in a Florentine palace, rather than a Jewish celebration of Passover in Palestine
- Davinci shows figures seated at the table on benches eating fish and leavened bread, not Jesus and disciples reclining on couches eating lamb and unleavened bread
- Davinci shows daylight, while the event occurred at night
- Davinci shows only 12 disciples, while Passover Meals include the whole family, even travellers and guests; Passover tradition requires the youngest present to ask questions; it was a family celebration
Prints of Bohdan Piasecki's painting are available here (10).
Just as DaVinci’s painting encouraged the monks at their convent to meditate on Christ, other portrayals are needed to encourage women and minorities to meditate on Christ and the new life he brings to all people.
In her 1988 painting entitled ‘the First Supper', Australian artist Susan Dorothea White shows aboriginals and women at the last supper (11). She painted it to challenge the acceptance of all men with similar features and instead presents women and foods from different parts of the world.
A female last supper was done recently showing twelve women with Jesus (12) advocating gender equality and social change relating to women and women’s rights
A 2015 painting entitled The Ladies Supper (13) was done by James Cochran, aka Jimmy C, for the Bird in Hand winery in Adelaide, Australia. It shows thirteen figures, all women, and a collection of friends and family from the winery. The painting explores women's roles with images of love, spirituality, and creation.
Millie Samuelson has authored Women of the Last Supper: We Were There Too (14) She suggests those who were at the last supper included Jesus’s mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Peter’s wife, Salome the mother of James and John, the patrons Joanna and Susannah (Luke 8:3), Mary the mother of John Mark, her servant Rhoda, and the woman healed of the the hemorrhage. Interestingly, she forgets Mary of Clopas, the main character in my novel, Forgotten Followers.
Were Women Present at the Last Supper?
While the Bible does not explicitly say women were present at the last supper, it does refer to women both before and after the last supper. The Bible also does not explicitly say how many attended the last supper (15). It names women present throughout Jesus’s ministry, as patrons, as caring for his needs during his ministry, at his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. It specifically shows Jesus healing and teaching people regardless of gender or race. Why might we believe women were also present at the Last Supper?
Jesus healed both women and men, girls and boys: Matthew 4:24-25 Matthew 15:30 Mark 1:30-34 Mark 7:24-30 Luke 4:40 Matthew 9:21 Luke 8:40-56 Luke 13:10-17
Jesus taught in fields and meadows where women and children could study: Matthew 14:14 Luke 9:11 Luke 18 John 6:2
At the temple, Jesus taught in the Women’s Court, where women could study and learn from him: John 8
Jesus commended women for their faith: Luke 7
Jesus accepted ‘many women’ in the capacity of disciples supporting him financially: Luke 8:2-3
Jesus said Mary of Bethany made the right choice to take the posture of a disciple and learn from him: Luke 10:42
Encouraged women to be honoured more for hearing God’s word and following it than for being mothers: Luke 11:27-28
Permitted Mary of Bethany to take the role of a prophet and anoint him as king: John 12:1-11
‘Many women’ came from Galilee to Jerusalem to care for his needs Matthew 27:55-56 Mark 15:40-41 Luke 23:49 John 19:25
Women watched him buried Matthew 27:61
Women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:9-20 Luke 24:1-10 John 20:1-18
Women were among those given the great commission to teach his word (Matthew 28:29-20)
These women who were healed and became patrons, supporters, disciples and apostles faithfully followed Jesus and were also at his last supper. My novel, Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold depicts women at the last supper. As Jesus washes their feet, he explains to them that unless he washes them, they cannot be one of his people (John 13:8). Jesus encouraged women and men to follow him, to be his people.
I hope this post shows how tradition and art have influenced our interpretation and perception of the last supper as a male-only event. Just as we no longer believe the Bible says the sun revolves around the earth, many of us no longer believe the Bible says that only men were called as disciples. If we re-examine which beliefs come from tradition and images and which are biblical we may be surprised to find that Jesus calls people of all genders to hear his word and follow it, to teach and preach it, making disciples of all nations.
Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include: