The Nuns of S. Apollonia and Castagno’s Last Supper!

The Nuns of S. Apollonia and that Virile Castagno!

Camille will be our leader for this article on audience reception, the role of gender in patronage in the Quattrocento, and how style intersects with these two issues in the Last Supper fresco in the fresco of the Refectory of S. Apollonia in Florence. Naturally, I have some questions!

1. Do you agree with the author in assigning the choice of the artist of this fresco to the abbess of A. Apollonia? Is the evidence compelling in your opinion?
2. What were the other functions of the refectory and how did the iconography of the frescoes intersect with the uses of this space?
3. The profusion of females in the Passion scenes above the Last Supper is singled out as having special relevance for the nuns in the convent. Do you think this is true?
4. What is the relationship between women, food, the Eucharist, and Castagno’s rendering of the Last Supper?
5. Do you agree that Castagno’s hard-edged, “virile” style is in a sense a fulfillment of the patron’s wishes for this refectory Last Supper? Why or why not?
6. Why was virility a virtue, as it were, for the nuns of S. Apollonia?
7. In what way did the tenor of Castagno’s fresco correspond to the punishments sometimes endured by the nuns who failed to follow the Benedictine rules?
8. In what way is Mary “present” in the Last Supper according to the author?
9. Do you agree with the author’s reading of the marble panels in the fresco of the Last Supper?
10. Have women always sought a “place setting” at the Last Supper in both art and life? Discuss!

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4 responses

  1. I found the section of the article pertaining to question 4 especially fascinating. I would love to discuss more about the ways in which food relates to women’s religious experience.
    Here are my thoughts about question 4:
    The article states that women use food as a way to experience and express religion. The nuns of S. Apollonia were given permission by the Pope to take Communion as frequently as they desired (250). This emphasis on the Eucharist is evident in Castagno’s rendering of the Last Supper because the items most easily visible on the table are bread and wine (250). Thus, Castagno connects the figures at the Last Supper to the nuns by depicting a shared activity that has significant religious symbolism.

  2. Response: I agree with Hannah, the idea relating food with women’s piety is amazing. I have never thought about that. The Eucharistic features of Castagno’s Last Supper could effectively convey the virtue of fasting to the nuns S. Apollonia. (At least, I don’t want to have a feast in front of that painting.)

    I want to talk more about Question #5 and #6. Virility is a virtue for the nuns of S. Apollonia, because it fits the prototypical “virile Christian Heroine” resulted from the politics of church hierarchy and it aims to guard the state of virginity of the nuns. Thus, Virility is highly valued among the abbess and the nuns. So in this sense, it is possible that the “virile” style is a fulfillment of the patron’s wishes. However, I don’t know how much the nuns are aware of the fact that the style of a painting could affect the viewer’s emotions. (I remembered this is culminated by Poussin’s mode theory.) They might have done it based on intuition….

  3. Addressing questions #2 and #10, I will start by saying yes, women have always been seeking a “place at the table” and will continue to do so as long as “the table” remains set for men. The refectory where the frescoe was painted was also used as a meal space and community space for the nuns of the convent. The article mentioned how the nuns would have been surrounded by Castagno’s piece at every meal of the day — in that sense, the women were, metaphorically of course, dining with Christ and the Disciples at the Last Supper. The article also mentioned that the Benedictine nuns were also punished before this work, perhaps a jarring reminder that the men depicted would always be above the nuns and as reminders of the nuns’ failure to be as virile and pure as the disciples (exception, Judas). Regarding question #10 specifically, women sought and continue to seek a place at the table in life and in art because, jokingly, the men were seated at the table first! Male artists were first revered, male scholars, male politicians, male leaders. Men have been allowed to blaze trails blatantly while women have had a more difficult time fighting against male dominated cultures (worldwide!) for a chance to assert their “worthiness” as comparable or equal. A “place at the table” is a place in the world, a place in Christ’s kingdom of salvation, a place…. Women look for a place because the place they’re allowed, the place within a man’s world, does not allow them to fully engage with every freedom a man has. In the world of art, female artists have always created but were not taken as seriously as painters and crafts(wo)men because different cultures decided that art was for men. Luckily, thanks to our artmothers, we are working (and are succeeding!) at creating a female narrative for artwork and analysis that I’m pretty confident the nuns of Apollonia (strict Benedictines or not) would approve of.

  4. I think definitely think that Castagno was an interesting choice for this piece (although, obviously, he pulled it off). It seems like he wouldn’t have had a lot going for him though. He was an alleged murderer who was known for painting assertive, male figures. Why would those things be desired in a convent? However, he was also known for his narrative cycles and some altarpieces he had painted featuring women.

    To answer the question about how Mary is embodied in this painting:
    One way was through John, on the viewer’s right of Jesus. He embodies youth and feminine purity and virginity, which are all virtues associated with the Virgin Mary.

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