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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

Were Women at the Last Supper?

Updated: 2 days ago

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. 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.

To have any women in the painting would have offended DaVinci’s employer and the Roman Catholic Pope. 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. Each of the twelve is identifiable in DaVinci's painting. 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. Peter is whispering to John. Judas, 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. While I was bothered that his skin appears darker than any of the others, apologists explain he is in a shadow and positioned lower than the others. James the Great is sitting on Jesus's left hand, so the brothers got their request to sit at his right and left in this picture. But to the heart of the matter: if DaVinci painted in a way that was contrary to the church orthodoxy, he could be arrested. The Inquisition was active in France, Spain, and Italy, killing anyone who disagreed with the church.

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’s indicated the Earth was fixed and central. Portraying a woman in DaVinci’s painting would have risked being accused of heresy for going against church orthodoxy and tradition by including women at the last supper.

Davinci’s painting does counter orthodoxy by painting Jesus without a halo, indicating that Jesus and his disciples were simple and mortal. DaVinci’s painting was part of the Catholic counter-reformation movement to remove all distractions, including women, designing the painting to encourage meditation and devotion to Christ. It powerfully captures the emotions and reactions of the evening and uses scientific lines of perspective but is a product of the restrictions of the time.

Another painting of the last supper was done in 1560 by Spanish painter Juan de Juanes and it shows Jesus and the disciples with halos as was typical of the era. He added the bowl and pitcher to remind us of the washing of the feet.

There were very few women artists in the Renaissance era, and the women artists were also restricted to portray church orthodoxy. In 1568, Plautilla Nelli, a nun in Florence, painted the Last Supper. Her painting depicts Jesus and twelve men but is unique because women were banned from studying anatomy or science. 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 hung in the dining hall of her women’s convent until the early 19th century then warehoused until 1939 when it was 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, showing real life and the commercial and cross-cultural activity of Venice at the time. The Inquisition accused Veronese of heresy, a capital offence. The artist was acquitted on the condition that he re-name it Feast in the House of Levi. A brief video of his painting is here.

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. A painting in Cusco, Peru, crosses cultural lines in its portrayal of the last supper. Marcos Zapata painted it in 1753 and portrays Jesus and the twelve disciples gathered to dine on a guinea pig, a staple of Incan diets. The artist also used the corn maize drink chicha instead of wine. The face of Judas the betrayer resembles conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who killed the Inca King. 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.

Painting, Cuzco Cathedral, photo courtesy of Flickr creative commons:

The church of the Santa Maria la Mayor in Ronda, Spain features all women in blue at the Last Supper. 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.

It depicts woman apostles participating in both theology discussions and food preparation, being both Mary and Martha.

While acknowledging DaVinci’s work as a masterpiece fulfilling its purpose of encouraging the male brethren of the convent to meditate and to see Jesus and his disciples as human, Polish artist Bohdan Piasecki wanted to address some of the historical inaccuracies in DaVinci’s work. In his 1998 painting, Bohdan Piasecki portrays the last supper as a family event, because Passover is a family celebration, teaching children about their history, and inviting guests. His painti