Sister Plautilla Nelli, The Nun Who Formed An All-Women Art Collective During the Renaissance
Who comes to mind when you think about the Renaissance? Is it Michaelangelo, Raphael? Da Vinci, Caravaggio? These individuals are indeed revolutionary talents, and they were true pioneers of art’s most enlightened era yet. But where were the women during such a period? Was art so inaccessible to them that they were wholly left to the margins?
As time would tell: not quite. There were great women artists who belonged in the rich tapestry of the Renaissance. One such artist was Sister Plautilla Nelli — Dominican nun, self-taught painter, and the founder of an all-women artist group that dominated 16th century Florence. Her name would just be tucked away in history for quite some time.
In 2005, the American philanthropist Jane Fortune had come across a book in Italy about Sister Plautilla, the nun-painter who created her version of The Last Supper — the first known rendition of The Last Supper made by a woman.
To rediscover a Renaissance masterpiece by a woman seemed like an incredibly rare feat, but perhaps rarity wasn’t merely the case. There were many exemplary women in the field of art and beyond — there just hadn’t been enough spaces to discuss their names in history books and institutions.
But thanks to cultural changes and the dedication of people like Fortune, the world is starting to recognize more women lost to the vestiges of art history. Sister Plautilla Nelli was one of them.
Forming an All-Women Art Group in 16th Century Florence
Before entering nunhood, Sister Plautilla was born Pulisena Margherita Nelli in 1524, hailing from a prominent family in San Felice, Florence. At fourteen, she was sent to the convent of Santa Caterina di Cafaggio, where she became known as Plautilla. She and her fellow sisters had been supervised by Dominican friars, who encouraged them to learn and create religious art.
This would turn out to be a vital point in Sister Plautilla’s life — her visionary skill had been born out of natural talent and discipline. And while there were limitations in her education, Plautilla did not stop persevering. By studying and imitating the works of High Renaissance masters like Fra Bartolomeo and Andrea del Sarto, she would later create her own unique renditions of Christian art.
Sister Plautilla would eventually form an exclusive art workshop with her sisters in the convent (of which she’ll become prioress later on). They produced a variety of artworks from illumination to glass and ceramic painting. However, oil-on-canvas was Plautilla’s preferred medium.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been far-fetched for her to try learning other techniques, such as frescoes, which had been one of the most definitive arts of the Renaissance. But fresco painting was considered physically taxing — and thus only reserved for men. Women’s education, while present, was incredibly limited.
Nevertheless, the religious work of Sister Plautilla and her fellow nuns would eventually catch the attention of the high Florentine society. This rising recognition brought about an influx of requests and commissions — and Sister Plautilla found herself creating art for the nobles of the area. With her as the lead, the sisters built a name, reputation, and a sense of financial security for themselves.
Sister Plautilla’s Magnum Opus: The Last Supper
Most of Sister Plautilla’s known artworks consisted of the small-scale paintings she created for the wealthy Florentine commissioners. But Plautilla’s creativity would not be curtailed: in 1568, she produced her most renowned masterpiece — an exceptionally intricate rendition of The Last Supper in a wide 7x2 meter canvas.
The iconic painting would become her claim to fame not only because of its excellence, but also because Plautilla was the first known woman artist to have rendered the biblical event. It would be the only piece that would ever have her signature, an inscription that reads Orate pro pictora — “Pray for the paintress.”
The painting would be hidden away for four centuries, and in some of those years, it remained hung in the private refectory of the Santa Maria Novella monastery — unknown and unnoticed.
Only in 2017 — almost 450 years since the painting was created — would Plautilla’s The Last Supper undergo restoration, thanks to the campaigns that Jane Fortune and her organization, Advancing Women Artists (AWA), had relentlessly fought for. The restoration process would require donation-based funding and four painstaking years to complete. (The group would continue to dedicate their waking years to uncover the names of neglected women artists until its closure set this year.)
“Nelli probably worked with as many as eight artists in her studio,” said Linda Falcone, Director of the AWA. “But what’s interesting is, five centuries later, we worked with hundreds of people to make this restoration possible.”
Today, Sister Plautilla Nelli’s magnum opus is proudly displayed in the Santa Maria Novella Museum in Florence, her hometown. “This is a huge work whose life-sized figures populate the canvas, as if on a stage,” said Silvia Colucci, Curator of Santa Maria Novella. “She features some very striking details, like the saint’s feet under the food-laden table, and their hand gestures convey their moods and reflect their facial expressions.”
Honoring the Forgotten Names of Women in Art History
The rediscovery of Plautilla’s artistic legacy serves as a wake-up call in the world of art history. The Dominican nun was indeed an extraordinary talent — but how many other talents have been left behind?
The lack of known women in art is the consequence of many things: unequal opportunities for art education, prejudiced cultural practices, and forgotten names of women. Plautilla is a part of this long list, alongside others like Artemisia Gentileschi and Hilma af Klint.
But we continue to know the names of these women, and we are also becoming more aware of the multifaceted factors that make it an issue in the first place. And by standing in solidarity with them — fighting for their recognition and celebrating their legacy — we discourage it from happening even further.
“I have to say, in all the paintings we’ve restored, I wanted to give [Plautilla Nelli] a voice,” Jane Fortune had said. “And the irony in the whole situation… what happened was, I got my voice.”