Andrea del Castagno Sant’Apollonia

Sant’Apollonia Cenacolo       Zoom in

Sant’Apollonia Cenacolo  Andrea del Castagno

Cecilia di Pazzino Donati, abbess of the Benedictines, was in the monastery of Sant’ Apollonia when she commissioned Castagno to paint the fresco in the refectory. From June to October 1447, Andrea del Castagno worked on his fresco on the north wall of this refectory. The monastery was closed to outsiders. Vasari doesn’t mention the fresco in his book for that reason. He does mention a different Last Supper by Castagno in the Santa Maria Nuova near the Sant’Apollonia, but it’s no longer there. The refectory was not public until 1891.

What Vasari does write about is Andrea del Castagno’s wicked personality. In the first sentences of his ‘Life of Andrea del Castagno and Domenico Veneziano’, Andrea is typified as a vile and petty man. For instance, he would purposely dig his nails into the work of fellow artists when he saw a mistake in them. Castagno was envious of the beautiful use of colour by his friend Veneziano and killed him for it. Vasari’s story doesn’t add up, because Veneziano actually lived longer than Andrea.

Andrea del Castagno ‘Last Supper and Crucifixion’      Last Supper

Andrea del Castagno 'Last Supper and Crucifixion'   Sant Apollonia

Castagno paints the traditional fresco composition for refectories. What was typical was a crucifixion (sometimes with scenes from the Cistercians) above the Last Supper. Very fitting for a room where monks or nuns have their meals. During the meal, they are reminded of the Last Supper and Christ’s sacrifice to man. Moreover, three years before Castagno started painting, the nuns of Sant ‘Apollonia had received a privilege from Pope Eugenius IV. They were allowed to take communion as often as they wished and keep the wafers in their church. The Last Supper and the Crucifixion are commemorated during the Eucharist and before the wafers are given out.

In the Benedictine order, it was customary that after the death of one of the nuns, the table was laid for the deceased for thirty days. This served to remind the nuns of whom they owed their lives to after death. What is new is that Andrea del Castagno paints the entombment and resurrection to the right and left of the crucifixion. In the oldest Last Supper in Florence, Orcagna in the Santo Spirito and Taddeo Gaddi in the Santa Croce had both only painted a crucifixion above the Last Supper.

Taddeo Gaddi ‘Last Supper’ 1345 1350 refectory in the Santa Croce

Taddeo Gaddi ‘Last Supper’ refectory Santa Croce

Castagno does a fine job adapting his painting to the refectory. He paints a beam that is supported on both ends by two fictitious consoles. Something Taddeo Gaddi also did in the refectory of the Santa Croce. In terms of lighting, too, the artist accounts for the natural light coming into the refectory from the seven windows on the right. In the dining hall with the twelve apostles and Christ, the light is also coming from the right. The roof tiles of the room where the Last Supper takes place are the same as those on the roofs of the monastery complex. Furthermore, the painting shows the floor of the dining room, with an elevation that runs all the way along the four sides while the large central section of the floor is lower. Eleven apostles and Christ sit at equal elevation to the table. The nuns who had three meals a day at long tables, were lower than Christ with his apostles.

The rules of the Benedictine order were rather strict. If one of the nuns sinned against the rules of order, she had to do penance. This could entail having to lie down amidst the other nuns to consume her water and bread off the floor (Hayum, A., ‘A renaissance Audience Considered: The Nuns at S. Apollonia and Castagno’s Last Supper’, The Art Bulletin; vol 88 (2006), afl. 2 (0106) 243, 24p 20060601 252). The other nuns would notice that in the Last Supper, there was just one figure who also sat closest to the floor, on a small stool; one by the name of Judas Iscariot, he who had betrayed Christ. When the nuns entered the refectory, they were face to face with the fresco. Later, the original door on the south wall, across from the Last Supper, was walled off. Nowadays, any Sant’Apollonia museum visitor enters the refectory from a door in the east wall.

Andrea del Castagno ‘Last Supper and Crucifixion’ 1447

Andrea del Castagno 'Last Supper and Crucifixion' Sant Apollonia

The fresco and the story

The story depicted by Castagno at a size of 9.7 x 10 meters, starts at the bottom with the Last Supper. Castagno paints the scene that the evangelist John wrote down as follows:

Andrea del Castagno 'Last Supper detail: Christ, John, Judas

Christ, John and Judas

‘Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.’ His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. “Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, ‘Ask him which one he means.’ Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’  Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.’ John 13: 21-28 (NIV)

Andrea del Castagno ‘Last Supper’

Andrea del Castagno 'Last Supper' Sant Apollonia

Judas, who is sitting in front of the table, holds a piece of bread that he was just given by Jesus. The hand gestures, but also the background invoke emotions. Judas, dressed in dark attire, with a sharp profile, protruding beard and pitch-black hair, seems almost possessed. The marble panel behind Judas is heavily flamed with dark colours, very different from the other five panels. It is as if the dark clouds and lightning in the marble announce the upcoming betrayal.

Judas in front of the table and behind f.l.t.r  Peter, Christ and John

Andrea del Castagno Last Supper detail: Judas, Christ, John Sant Apollonia
Andrea del Castagno Last Supper detail: Matthew and Philip

Matthew and Philip hands are talking

Hands that talk: the blessing hands of Christ, the crossed hands of Peter and the hand of the traitor with the piece of bread, who is the only one without a halo. None of the twelve apostles are looking at Jesus. They sit calmly, but their hands do the talking. The posture of the arms and hands of both apostles, Jacob on the right and Matthew on the left at both ends of the table, reflect each other. Matthew taps the table with his left hand to reinforce his words in the discussion with Philip, who is sitting next to him. Each figure looks different and is life-sized.


With sun-tanned faces, unkempt hair, protruding cheekbones and chiselled features, the apostles look very much like farmers from Castagno, where Andrea del Castagno was born. James is holding his glass as if it were a chalice used during the Eucharist. Simon holds his right hand to his head as a sign of deep sorrow and despair. Castagno painted a Mary with the same pose in a crucifixion.

Andrea del Castagno Last Supper detail: Simon

Andrew and  Bartholomew       Thomas between Philip and James

Andrea del Castagno Last Supper detail: Andrew,  Bartholomew

Even though the artist used a central perspective in the Last Supper, there is only limited depth. Castagno achieved this by having the table run parallel to the picture plane, like the two marble panels at the benches with the sphinxes. Castagno didn’t want the observer’s view to get lost in the depth, but have it stay focused on the event unfolding at the table. If you stand at some fifteen metres distance from the work, right in the middle, the perspective works at its best. The vanishing point is in the middle. The top is sharply delineated by the roof and the two walls that form a boundary between the upper and lower parts.

Zoom in

Sant Apollonia Last Supper  Crucifixion

The crucifixion, entombment and resurrection

The top side of the wall shows three stories from the passion: ‘The crucifixion’ in the middle, separated by panels, to the right ‘The entombment’, to the left ‘The resurrection’.  The three stories are unified by the background with the landscape, the blue sky and the angels. The eye is free to wander into the deep here.

Crucifixion, Entombment and Resurrection       In situ

Unfortunately, this part is in poor condition. Before the major restoration (1977-1979) there was even doubt as to whether the top had really been painted by Castagno. The central theme is of course Christ’s crucifixion. This Crucifixion was strongly influenced by the Trecento, especially by painters such as Giotto (Scrovegni chapel) and Taddeo Gaddi. The group of people grieving below the Cross on the left is based on the fresco by Taddeo Gaddi in the refectory of Santa Croce. This is particularly evident in the limp arm of Mary that is about to collapse. The woman on Mary’s right wants to support her. Castagno, unlike Taddeo Gaddi, divides the mourning women into two groups of three and places them on an equal footing. The usual depiction of John the Baptist is not seen here. Could this be due to the fact that we are dealing with a convent of nuns rather than monks? A fourth woman is sitting on the ground with her hands on her head, pressing her fingertips to her eyelids. She is completely isolated from the other women and is completely absorbed in her own sorrow.

Crucifixion       Zoom in      Sinopia

photo szoom and sinopia: Sailko

After the Crucifixion, Christ is laid in his tomb as we can see to the right of centre. John is holding Christ around his neck, with their faces close together. A dorsal figure is clasping Christ’s knees in order to lay him in the tomb. Mary is alone and does not touch her son. Mary Magdalene is screaming, her hands pulling her hair in exactly the way mourning women were depicted on Greek vases. Castagno based this on Pietro Lorenzetti with the latter’s Mary Magdalene at the Entombment.

On the other side, to the left, we see the Resurrection, three days after the Entombment. Christ is standing from his grave as a young, powerful, beardless God. Very different from Donatello’s depiction in the pulpit of the San Lorenzo.  The soldiers at the grave are clueless, still asleep.

Sinopia Crucifixion Resurrection Entombment

The preparatory drawings came to light in 1953. The sinopias were mounted on the south wall straight across from the fresco. These fill in the gaps that can no longer be seen on the top due to the poor condition of the fresco. The most accurate drawings are those of angels in the sky. This is where the painter first started. The angels look very accurate and thorough. The angel above the Resurrection has many detailed lines within its contours. The same cannot be said for the sinopia of the Resurrection.

Andrea del Castago Angel Sant Apollonia

Flying Angel      Sinopia

Upon closer inspection, something peculiar is going on with the angels, because they are reminiscent of the image of Mary in the Adoration by Arnolfo di Cambio at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. For his Mary, Cambio combined a prone and a standing woman, which was definitely taboo for a Renaissance artist: the image was expected to be realistic.  That is why Andrea del Castagno does not resort to a strange combination in one figure. What he does is rotate a standing angel, but that does not convincingly create the effect of flight. One glance to the folds of the gown and the position of the feet make the flying look, Christ’s left hand and face are missing and only the outline of the robe is drawn. For the Resurrection, a paperboard was used and the spolveri are still clearly visible.

This Last Supper is also an evolution in painting. Here, I repeat, the benchmark for assessment is naturalism. A glance at the Last Supper that Giotto painted around 1305 in the Scrovegni Chapel or at the work of Taddeo Gaddi (around 1360) in the refectory of Santa Croce, makes any explanation unnecessary.

Giotto ‘Last Supper’ c. 1305

Giotto 'Last Supper' Scrovegni chapel

Continuation Florence day 5: Angelico, Fra and the San Marco I