As the Gospel of John ends, memories come flooding back of that poignant meal in Jerusalem, the night before Jesus suffered. ‘Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”’ (John 21:20). This climactic scene recalls three characters who, in the hours following the Last Supper, would respond in markedly different ways. Peter would deny him; Judas would betray him; the beloved disciple alone would follow Jesus to the cross. Now, post-Resurrection, just two remain: Peter, newly rehabilitated (21:15-19), and the anonymous beloved disciple, whom tradition would identify as John, son of Zebedee.
Those memories shape the central section of Plautilla Nelli’s Last Supper, where all three disciples appear in a single grouping around Christ. Christ tenderly cradles the head of his beloved disciple with his left hand, while offering the morsel to Judas (John 13:26) with his right. The older figure seated to Jesus’s right, bearded and with grey curls, fits conventional depictions of Peter. But it is the intimacy between Jesus and John, the ‘one who is bearing witness’ (21:24), that dominates.
Suor Plautilla Nelli was a sixteenth-century Dominican nun, and prioress of the convent of Santa Caterina di Cafaggio in Florence. According to Giorgio Vasari, her impressive Last Supper was originally displayed in the convent refectory, visible to Plautilla’s religious sisters as they ate together. Plautilla’s John is conventional: an androgynous figure, the virgin apostle of Christ and type of the contemplative. But this androgyny might have taken on new significance when viewed through the eyes of a female religious, a consecrated virgin ‘Bride of Christ’. For Suor Plautilla and her sisters, this is their story. They recline at Christ’s bosom. And, in their life of contemplation, they bear faithful witness.
Falcone, Linda (ed.). 2019. Visible: Plautilla Nelli and her Last Supper Restored (Prato: B’Gruppo Srl)
Nelson, Jonathan K., (ed.). 2008. Plautilla Nelli (1524 – 1588): The Painter-Prioress of Renaissance Florence (Florence: Syracuse University in Florence)
19(This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”
20 Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” 23The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.
25 But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.