Suor Plautilla Nelli, Pentecost, 1554, San Domenico, Perugia.
Today is Pentecost, fifty days after the Resurrection, and ten days after the Ascension. According to the Acts of the Apostles, 2: 1-4:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Not only did the Spirit give them utterance, but people of all nations could understand them in their own languages – the Apostles had been given everything they needed to go out and preach the Word of God. Jesus had announced this occurrence just prior to his Ascension (Picture Of The Day 64), when he said ‘But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). We have seen a painting of Pentecost already – in the dome above the crossing in Ottobeuren Abbey (POTD 58) – but that was part of an entire decorative scheme. So today I want to focus on this remarkable altarpiece.
You may well be wondering, ‘what is so remarkable about that?’ and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s not the greatest painting I have ever shown you, and not only is it not terribly famous, it is almost completely unknown. As a result I don’t think it has been cleaned or restored for years, although the colours are both rich and intense. There are certainly no good photos of it to be found online – I suspect there aren’t any anywhere, for which I can only apologize.
We see the apostles and Mary gathered in an upper room, seated in a horseshoe, leaving space for our approach. Their hands are held together, crossed in front of their chests, or held up, inflected at the wrists – all standard gestures of prayer at the time. Apparently in silence, they sit in their own private worlds, or look around at each other, or up towards the appearance of the Holy Spirit. The gestures are somewhat awkward – wooden even – which adds to the solemnity of the occasion, and to the sense that each individual is experiencing this event in their own way. We are pulled into the space by the strongly drawn perspective of the tiled floor, a combination of pale jade green and off-white squares, triangles, and rectangles. The architecture is High Renaissance in style, flanked by columns, and leading back between square piers supporting round arches to a distant doorway, which frames Mary’s head. Both this, and the perspective, make her the focus of our attention. There are seventeen people present, and, as with Perugino’s Ascension (POTD 64), I find the number surprising. Just before the descent of the Holy Spirit, in the last verse of Acts Chapter 1, Matthias was chosen to take the place of Judas – so there are now twelve apostles again, and, with the Virgin Mary, this makes thirteen. This is precisely the combination we see in a painting by Botticelli and his workshop from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Painted on a monumental scale – the figures are more or less life size – it is not in a terribly good condition, unfortunately, and has been cut down on all sides. We do not know its original location, although it would have been an altarpiece, and, judging by the size and scale of this remaining element, quite an impressive one. It was painted some time between 1495 and 1505, when Botticelli and his art had come under the influence of the visionary Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who preached the end of the world (due in the year 1500), and the Bonfire of the Vanities. He had it in for the Renaissance, and wanted to destroy all the portraits, the pagan texts and images, the excess jewellery, clothing, and hair extensions… among other things. His followers were known as the piagnoni – or ‘cry babies’. Botticelli’s brother was definitely one of them, and Botticelli was inclined to be – his paintings changed, losing their elegant refinement, and taking on an almost visionary feel – the proportions shift, the figures grow, and the characters become more emotive, charged with an inner energy. All twelve of the apostles – Matthias included – are seated on a circular bench around the Virgin Mary, raised up on her own circular dais. Again, a space has been left so that we have access, and can participate in the event. The room is square, with three panels on each visible wall, implying that there would be another three where the picture surface is – twelve panels in all, one for each apostle. It is a symbolic space. Golden beams come down from the Holy Spirit, who is sadly absent, just one result of the poor condition of the painting.
Botticelli’s golden beams represent the ‘cloven tongues like as of fire’, which ‘sat upon each of them’, an idea captured with both striking clarity and decorative elegance in today’s picture. The Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove with a halo behind it and stylised flames licking out in every direction, although longer below. Scattered downwards are symmetrically arranged ‘cloven tongues’ which seem to sit on the surface of the painting – as if they had been applied in gold leaf. Behind them we see the carefully worked out perspective, but the ‘real world’ seems unconnected to the Spirit’s intervention. This is an other-worldly event we are witnessing, after all.
The tongues of fire really do sit upon each of the people present. And when we get this close, we can see who they are. On the left, hands raised, wearing yellow and blue with short grey hair and short grey beard, is St Peter. And on the right, with no beard, wearing pink and green, is St John the Evangelist, the youngest of the apostles. Indeed, he is the only man without a beard. In between Peter and John – and this is what is remarkable about the painting – there are five women. The Virgin Mary is in the centre, and to the left, with red hair, and wearing a scarlet cloak, is Mary Magdalene. She is carrying the jar of precious ointment with which she washed Christ’s feet in the house of Levi, and with which she was going to anoint his body in the tomb.
The Acts of the Apostles does not specify how many people were present at Pentecost, but earlier, after the Ascension, the eleven apostles had returned to Jerusalem and went to an ‘upper room’ – probably that represented in this picture. Acts 1:14 says, ‘These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren’. Now, I’m not sure that we have the ‘brethren’ in this painting, unless they are counted among the apostles, but we do have ‘the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus’. It’s just that ‘the women’ are not usually represented. Who were they? Apart from the Virgin, and Mary Magdalene, the three others are potentially a third Mary, Joanna and Susanna. The first of these was with Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection (Matthew 28:1), while the other two are mentioned by Luke as people who supported Jesus (Luke 8:3).
Why do artists never include them? Well, my guess would be that none of the other artists were women. Suor Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588) is Florence’s first known woman artist. At the age of 14 she was put into a convent by her parents – hence the title ‘Suor’, meaning ‘Sister’ – standard practice at the time, as most families couldn’t afford dowries for more than one daughter. She entered the Convent of Santa Caterina on Piazza San Marco (it’s not there anymore), just over the square from San Marco itself, where Savonarola had made his mark as Prior. The nuns were overseen by the monks of San Marco, and although Savonarola was long dead (having organised the Bonfire of the Vanities, he was subjected to the same fate in 1498) his teaching lived on. He recommended that nuns should draw to stop them from becoming idle, and Nelli taught herself to paint: she never received any formal training, apparently. She is one of relatively few women mentioned by Vasari in The Lives of the Artists, and he thought that she, ‘would have done marvellous things if, like men, she had been able to study and to devote herself to drawing and copying living and natural things’. She seems to have become the chief artist for the Dominicans in Florence. If so, she was taking over this unofficial role from Fra Bartolomeo, whose work influenced her own in its broad, balanced, classicising forms – incredibly different from the ecstatic energy of late Botticelli, however much both were influenced by Savonarola. She certainly inherited Fra Bartolomeo’s drawings, and possibly a lay figure – an articulated doll used as a model by artists – which was just as well, as, being a nun, she would never have had the opportunity to do life drawing from the nude. She even trained a number of her fellow nuns to work as her assistants, ending up with a sizeable workshop. By the end of the 16th Century, a third of the known women artists in Florence were Dominican nuns. Although she couldn’t sell her work, the convent could – and although she couldn’t leave the convent, her work travelled far afield: this Pentecost made it to Perugia, and is still to be found there, languishing in the Church of San Domenico. I shall finish with a rather sad photograph showing it falling out of what could be the original frame, with a couple of desultory plants sitting beside it. It looks even less remarkable here – until you stop and realise that, not only is the Virgin the focus of the painting (that was entirely traditional), but that there are four other women present, and they push the men to the edges. With five women taking centre stage and touched by the Holy Spirit, thus endowed with the ability to be heard and understood across the world, it is almost as if Suor Plautilla Nelli were advocating the ordination of women to the priesthood.
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