The Last Supper by Taddeo Gaddi
This kind of theme theme is very suitable for a monastery’s cenacolo or refectory. It became particularly popular in Florence. The Last Supper with the crucifixion by Gaddi is the first example in Florence. In the refectory of the Santo Spirito (now Fondazione Romano) around 1365, Orcagna’s studio also painted a crucifixion with a Last Supper. In the quattrocento (fifteenth century) Andrea del Castagno, Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino and Andrea del Sarto painted the same theme in refectories of monasteries such as the Apollonia, San Marco, S. Onofrio, Ognissanti and di San Salvi.
Taddeo Gaddi painted the ‘Last Supper, with the ‘Lignum Vitae’ (tree of life) and four other scenes around 1360, after the chapel of Baroncelli. The work is a commission from the Manfredi’s. The coat of arms of this family, a lion on a red background, can be seen four times in the two vertical frames next to the crucifixion. The small and kneeling nun is probably a Manfredi and she commissioned this fresco. Saint Clara, the founder of the female branch of the Franciscans, is also depicted on the left in the decorative band under the crucifixion.
The Last Supper had a special meaning for the Franciscans. The Franciscans had owned a church on the mountain of Zion in Jerusalem since the thirteenth century. It was here that Jesus had taken the Last Supper with his twelve apostles. That is why some thirty years later, the Last Supper was painted by Taddeo in this cenacolo. Thirteen figures are clearly in front of the back wall with the other five scenes. Due to the shortening of the table and the fact that the figures overlap the decorative bands, it seems as if there is a fresco in a fresco.
Andrea del Castagno achieved such an effect a century later by placing the table with the apostles in a separate room.
Painting requires extensive and detailed preliminary studies. Does this also explain why there was no sinopia under the paint after the great flood in 1966? (Wikipedia) Only the right half of the Last Supper has a signature. This drawing, however, turned out to be very different from what was painted. For example, the figure of Bartolemy was painted in the sinopia, in the fresco on the other side (left) of the table. Given the good quality, Gaddi must have painted this part himself. Taddeo Gaddi could easily deviate from the signature.
The quality of the paintwork in the Last Supper is much better than the rest of the fresco. Christ is placed in the middle behind the table so that he forms a vertical line with the cross above it. Judas is of course separate without halo and is located in front of the table. Much like Castagno and Ghirlandaio would later do. Assistants including maybe his son, Giovanni, painted the rest. At the top, where the open wooden roof chair touches the back wall, Taddeo painted consoles. This makes it look as if the beams are actually supported. He had already done this on the outside in front of and above the entrance of the Baroncelli chapel.
In the middle above the Last Supper stands ‘the Lignum Vitae’ or the tree of life. The fresco is an illustration of a text by the Franciscan theologian Bonaventura. Above the branches of the tree in the middle is a plaque containing the following text from Revelation (22: 2): ‘In the middle of paradise there is a Tree of Life that bore fruit’. The complicated diagram with many texts must have been devised with the help of theologians.
In his book, ‘Lignum Vitae,’ de Bonaventura explains the symbolic meaning of the tree of life. Each branch bears a fruit that symbolizes a virtue of Christ. In a poem by this Franciscan theologian, the monk even talks about the cross as a ‘tree of beauty’ and offers the following poem:
‘The Lignum Vitae’
‘The Cross is beneficial to souls,
The True Light and High Exalted,
a refreshment for the heart.
The Cross is life for the dead,
treasure trove for pious souls,
filled of beauty and joy.
The Cross is a mirror of virtue,
that points the way to happines
hope for the faithful.
The Cross is a jewel and a consolation,
for the people who are redeemed,
they always yearn for it.
The Cross is the tree of beauty,
once consecrated by Christ’s blood,
and overloaded with fruits
They’re food for souls,
who taste this exalted food
Quoted and translated from: Jan van Laarhoven, ‘De beeldtaal van de Christelijke kunst Geschiedenis van de iconografie’, Sun, Nijmegen 1993, p. 179.
Crucifixion plays a central role in Christianity. Man had committed sin in the beginning and was driven out of Paradise. Mankind was doomed and burdened with original sin. God now helped man by sending his son to earth. Through his crucifixion he sacrificed himself and saved mankind. After the crucifixion it was possible for each individual to return to heaven if he or she lived a devout life. For example, a sentence in the poem like ‘The Cross is life for the dead’ means that the dead person was able to return to heaven for an eternal life through the crucifixion of Christ. The pelican depicted in the crucifixion opens his chest to feed her young with his blood, just as God sacrificed his son to save man.
Saint Francis embraces the cross while Bonaventura sits next to him. The latter has already written the following: ‘O cross, O tree of our salvation, refreshed by a living spring, Your blossom smells so sweet, Your fruit is worth its desire.’
A little further from Bonaventura are Antony of Padua, Dominic and Louis of Toulouse. On the other side of the cross we see Mary, Mary Magdelena and John.
A few years earlier, the painter Pacino di Bonaguida (Wikipedia) painted a tree of life for the nuns of Monticelli (located today in the Accademia in Florence). The tree of life in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Croce is much more complicated than that of Bonaguida. The monks were well educated and trained in their studium (study centre). For example, there are no tondos depicting the life of Christ as with Bonaguida, but paper rolls with Latin inscriptions, most of them from Bonaventura’s ‘Lignum Vitae’.
The four scenes next to the tree of life at the top are: on the left the stigmata of Saint Francis and on the right Saint Benedict who is saved from starvation in his cave by an angel. The bottom left depicts Saint Louis of Toulouse, who serves up food for the poor. Finally, on the right, Mary Magdalene washes the feet of Christ in the house of the Pharisees.
The stigmata is the perfect fit for the central theme: the tree of life. Here you can see that Taddeo builds on what he had already achieved in the Baroncelli Chapel in the Adoration of the Shepherds. Here, too, we see a miraculous, unearthly light. Like Giotto in the Santa Croce, the seraphim is depicted on a cross. It is after all another church dedicated to the Holy Cross. It seems as if the seraphim came directly from the adjoining space that has the cross of Christ.
The scene below the stigmata recalls the visit of Saint Louis of Toulouse to the Santa Croce. I should mention in passing that in the current museum, in the same room, the refectory, a niche on the left shows Louis of Toulouse by Donatello. During his visit, Louis aided the poor in Florence. At the top right, an angel saves Saint Benedict. Below, Mary Magdalene can be seen washing the feet of the Lord. Francis, Louis of Toulouse and Mary Magdalene appear twice in the fresco: three by the cross. Humility also plays an important role here. Like Francis, Mary Magdalene had become a cult figure.
She was seen as a wonderful example of a human sinner who had freed herself from sin. In three of the smaller scenes, food plays an important role. This is a clear reference to the Last Supper that is painted entirely at the bottom of the picture plane. A very appropriate scene in a room where the Franciscan monks ate.
In 1966, when the Arno flooded, the fresco had to be removed from the wall. The wall was not only soaked with water from the Arno, but to make matters worse, salt crystals were rapidly forming on the wall. Salt is disastrous for frescoes. The salt appeared to be coming from the space underneath. It was here where the monks were buried and, when their bodies decomposed, the salt that had been drawn into the walls was released.71 Because of the flooding, the salt crystals began to do their destructive work. It was therefore important to act quickly. The frescoes had to be removed from the wall before the salt would destroy the pigments. This happened ‘a strappo’ which means that only the paint layer is removed. The intonaco- and arriccio-layer remained in place. In 1968, after the wall had been adequately treated, the fresco was put back on the back wall.
Read more about Donatello’s Louis of Toulouse here).