Andrea del Sarto ‘The Last Supper’

The Last Supper by Andrea del Sarto in the refectory of the San Salvi monastery

San Salvi Cenacolo       Zoom in

San Salvi Cenacolo  Andrea de Sarto Last Supper
photos: Sailko and Web Gallery of Art

Entrance to the refectory and monastery

Entrance Cenacolo  Supper San Salvi 
 Andrea de Sarto Last
photo: Sp!ros

While Sarto was working in the chiostro dello Scalzo, he also painted outside the city walls in 1511 at the San Salvi monastery of the Vallombrosians. Giorgio Vasari, who worked in Sarto’s studio from 1524 to 1525, writes the following about the dining hall of the monastery:

The Trinity

“[…] the general of the monks of Vallombrosa commissioned him to make frescoes in the San Salvi monastery, outside the Porta alla Croce, namely in the refectory on the vaulted arch, and on the large wall a Last Supper. In that vault, he painted four figures in four tondi: Saints Benedict, John Gualbert, Salvi the bishop, and Bernard degli Uberti of Florence, their fellow brother and cardinal; in the middle, he painted a tondo with three identical faces forming a whole, representing the Trinity: for a fresco work, this was very well done, so that Andrea earned the name he truly deserved in painting.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel II 70

Andrea del Sarti The Trinity cenacolo
photos: Sailko

The wealthy Vallombrosian monk, Don Ilario Panichi, paid for the painting in 1511: the coronation of Mary by the painter Raffaellino del Garbo, for the main altar of the San Salvi. This rich monk received his own altar where, after his death, Mass would be celebrated weekly. Additionally, he was allowed to use a house as his residence. In exchange for this, he financed a significant portion of the monastery’s dining hall. In 1518, Don Ilario commissioned Michele del Tasso to make wooden paneling with a platform and benches along the walls of the refectory. Del Tasso used dark wood. In the 19th century, the benches and paneling disappeared. Because Sarto had coordinated his Last Supper with the dark paneling, the fresco is now less prominent.

Fifteen years after Sarto painted the arch on the wall of the dining room, he begins the Last Supper.  Vasari writes the following about this:

Andrea del Sarto 'Self-portrait on tile'

Andrea del Sarto ‘Self-portrait on tile’

“For years, the monks of the San Salvi monastery had not cared whether anything came of the Last Supper that they had commissioned Andrea to paint when he added the four figures on the arch, but now they had an abbot, a righteous and sensible man, who decided that he should complete the work; Andrea, who had committed to it back then, immediately agreed; moreover, once he had started, he joyfully completed one part after another, and in a few months’ time he brought it to such a conclusion that this work –rightly so– was considered the most fluent he had ever made [over 45 square meters in 66 days], yes, that could ever be made, and the same was true for the liveliness of the color and design; apart from the rest, he had given all the figures an incredible grace, majesty, and grandeur, so much so that I do not know what to say to do this Last Supper justice, for whoever sees it is astonished.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel II 88

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’ c. 1527

Andrea de Sarto 'Last Supper'

Probably a large part of the money for the fresco was already paid in 1522, the year Don Ilario Panichi died. It is likely that a cartoon of the Last Supper was made in that year. It is certain that Sarto completed his fresco for the Vallombrosians in 1527.

Forty-five years earlier, in 1480, Domenico Ghirlandaio had also painted a Last Supper in the dining hall of the Ognissanti in Florence. Through the gestures, glances, and postures of the apostles, Ghirlandaio quickly directs the viewer’s eye to the center of the table. After all, this is where the most important events take place: the announcement of the betrayal and the institution of the Eucharist.

Ghirlandaio ‘Last Supper’ 1480      Zoom in

Ghirlandaio 'Last Supper'  cenacolo

Leonardo was probably influenced by the work of Ghirlandaio. The reactions are intense. Like Domenico, Leonardo also divides the apostles into groups. What is new with Leonardo is that Judas is not depicted in front of the table as usual, but is seated among the other apostles. He is the only one who has no contact with anyone.

Leonardo da Vinci ‘Last Supper’ 1498 Santa Maria delle Grazie Milaan 

Leonardo da Vinci ‘Last Supper’ 1498 Santa Maria delle Grazie Milaan 

Andrea del Sarto knew the work of both artists as well as Raphael’s Last Supper (Marcantonio Raimondi after Rafaël ‘Last Supper’ c. 1517; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; See: The Royal Collection Trust). Sarto used motifs from Dürer’s work in his frescoes, just as he did in the Chiostro dello Scalzo. Sarto places Judas behind the table as Leonardo does, but following Dürer, now directly to the right of Jesus. John, however, is depicted to the left of Jesus as is customary in the Italian tradition. This gives the central part a strong dynamic. Very different from Leonardo and Raphael, where Christ is in complete calm after he had spoken the words: ‘Truly, I tell you, one of you who is eating with me will betray me’ (Mark XIV; 18).

Sarto ‘Last Supper’ detail of Peter, Christ, and John       Zoom out

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’ detail  Peter, Christ, John

With Andrea, there is a ‘psychological symmetry’ in the reactions of the apostles to the announced betrayal to the right and left of Jesus. In Sarto’s Last Supper, Christ hands the bread to Judas while holding the hand of his favorite apostle, John, and looking at him.

Zoom out

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’  detail table end

This dual posture between different figures is repeated among several apostles.

Two passersby on the balcony zoom out

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’  detail: passersby on the balcony

At the balcony, a similar posture can be seen between the two passersby. According to the brochure from the Museo di San Salvi, this refers to Luke 22:10-13: He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.”

The group of apostles is not divided into groups as is customary with the Italian prototypes of Ghirlandaio, Leonardo, and Raphael, but instead forms a unity.

The moment in the story that Sarto chooses comes from the Gospel of John 13:21-30:


“After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, ‘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. So Jesus told him, ‘What you are about to do, do quickly.’ But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.” Cited and translated from: New Bible Translation (Dutch).

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’ detail: Christ

According to the art historian Shearman, who wrote a monograph on Andrea del Sarto, the story the artist depicts here is different in content from that seen in his predecessors such as Castagno, Ghirlandaio, Leonardo, and Raphael. Here, the reactions of the apostles to the betrayal are not shown with anger or surprise; instead, Sarto displays opposite emotions that are mutually exclusive, namely faith and doubt.

Where Andrea del Castagno in his Last Supper clearly indicates who the real villain is and Leonardo does this more subtly (the figure with black hair; see above), the Judas painted by Sarto is no different from some of the other apostles. Only by the bread that Christ offers him is it clear that this is Judas. In the Gospel of John, Judas is an instrument in the hands of Christ. His son, Jesus, had to undergo the passion and die on the cross to save humanity after the fall of man. Some apostles do not understand the actions of Jesus. Others realize that they too could have been given the bread, as the suffering of Jesus and the betrayal were predestined. The figure of Christ also deviates from his Italian predecessors. Painters like Raphael and Leonardo idealized Jesus, but Sarto did not. Jesus looks, like the sunburned Peter, more like a contadino (country bumpkin).

St. Peter       Zoom out

Painters like Raphael and Leonardo idealized Jesus, but Sarto did not. Jesus looks, like the sunburned Peter, more like a contadino (country bumpkin).

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’ detail:  St. Peter

The relationship of the figures to the architecture is rather daring and completely unusual. Sarto paints life-sized apostles. With Leonardo, the emphasis is on the figures; they appear monumental, but this comes at the expense of a believable relationship between the figures and the space. In this regard, Sarto opts for more realism than his predecessors. Sarto wants to create the impression that, as a viewer, you are truly present at what is happening at the table, just as he did in the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary in the Chiostro dello Scalzo.

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’ detail: passerby balcony Last Supper

Two passerby on the balcony and the Last Supper

The two passersby on the balcony are not a trivial motif. They are counterparts to the viewers in front of the fresco. Both are at an equal distance from the Last Supper. They make it clear to the monks sitting at the table in the refectory that we are witnessing an important event here. In this way, the viewer becomes a participant in what is unfolding before their eyes. The emotions shown by the apostles are not expressions or outbursts of feelings as in Leonardo’s work. In Sarto’s work, the apostles exhibit a contemplative attitude. They are pondering what exactly is happening at the center of the table.

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’ c. 1527

Andrea del Sarto 'Last Supper' cenacolo

Standing Apostel
Andrea del Sarto ‘Preliminary study’

Sarto not only differentiates himself from his predecessors through different proportions, the non-idealization of Jesus, and choosing a different moment, but he also utilizes elements from his predecessors’ work. For example, the standing apostle on the right who places his hand on the shoulder of the apostle sitting in front of him and taps another apostle on the shoulder with his other arm is a motif taken from Leonardo’s Last Supper.

Study of a Figure Behind the Table Red chalk, 25.6 x 36.3 cm
Florence, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Gallerie degli Uffizi, recto

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’ detail: Standing Apostle

Sarto also incorporated motifs from the work of Raphael. This can be clearly seen in the two figures at the ends of the table, the hand gesture of Judas, the way the feet are arranged under the table, and the motif in the floor. Another visual source is the German artist Dürer. The standing and leaning apostle in green on the far left end of the table was taken by Sarto from “The Large Passion” with the same subject. Likewise, John, who sits to the left of Jesus, also comes from the same series by Dürer.

Andrea del Sarto Apostle at the end of the table right
Andrea del Sarto Apostle at the end of the table right
Preliminary study’ detail         In its entirety
Florence, Gabinetto Disegio e Stampe, Gallerie degli Ufizzi, inv. E, Verso

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’ detail:  Apostle end table right

Andrea del Sarto Apostles behind the table
Andrea del Sarto Preliminary study of Standing and leaning forward apostle

Andrea del Sarto ‘Last Supper’ detail: Apostles behind table
Study: Florence, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Gallerie degli Uffizi, inv. 2898 F

The fresco is in good condition. After the infamous flood of 1966, it was restored. Only the head of the fourth apostle on the right has been heavily restored. The wall surface at the top near the balcony has been repainted. The color differences between the two parts are clearly visible.

That we can still see the current Last Supper is thanks to the excellent quality, according to a contemporary of Andrea del Sarto: Varchi. The historian, Benedetto Varchi, recounts the order given by the city council to the soldiers. They had to demolish the buildings outside the city walls in 1529, as Florence was to be besieged. This chronicler notes the following about the soldiers when they reached the refectory and saw the Last Supper:

Titian ‘Portrait of Benedetto Varchi’

“[…] they immediately stopped and became silent, as if their arms and tongues no longer worked, and in their utmost amazement, they decided to stop destroying [the monastery], and for this reason, you can see in this place – and the greater your knowledge of painting, the greater your awe will be – one of the paintings in the universe.” Antonio Natali ‘Andrea del Sarto’, Abbeville Press Publishers, New York/ London/Paris, 1999 164

The courtyard of San Salvi

 Courtyard  San Salvi
photo; Sailko

Vasari also mentions this event as follows:

“When they had, after demolishing the church and the bell tower of the San Salvi monastery and starting the demolition of the monastery itself, arrived at the refectory where this Last Supper is located, their commander saw this wondrous painting, about which he may have heard: the demolition was stopped, and the commander had nothing else destroyed there, but postponed the matter until the moment it perhaps could no longer be avoided.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 deel II 88

Continuation Florence day 6: Pontormo and the Capponi chapel I