The reason is that cenacolo (the plural is cenacoli) derives from the latin coenaculum, which in the ancient Rome was used to denote the dining room, and more generally the attic of a house. Cenare in italian means to have dinner. Later, the term was used to indicate the refectory of the convent, where the artists were often requested to paint a scene of the Last Supper of Jesus among his Apostles. In this way, friars or nuns could have their meal remembering and living again that event, contemplating a central episode for the faith of the Church, in the silence of prayers.
Florence has a strong tradition about the painting of cenacoli: you could say that this is a own florentine tradition. Many cenacoli were realized during the Renaissance, and it’s very likely that Leonardo had the occasion to see (and be influenced by) some of them. So it’s quite logical that he chose to paint a Last Supper, in the refectory of the convent of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, when he was in Milan. Sadly, the painting is very damaged, mainly due to the technique that he used, and a portion of the painting under the table was destroyed in 1652, when the friars decided to make a door to connect the refectory to the kitchen. There are many copies of the painting. The copy by Giampietrino is very important, because it was realized about in 1520, a few years after the completion of Leonardo’s painting and, most important, it’s a full scale painting including the inferior part that is missing in the original (though it misses the superior part). It was used as a reference for the restoration of Leonardo’s painting (1977-1999). It is in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts of London, and it’s conserved in the Chapel of the Magdalene College at Oxford.
In all the cenacoli St. John is always depicted as a very young boy without beard (he’s not a woman, nor Mary Magdalene), St. Peter has always a knife (which he used to cut the ear of Malchus), and the exact moment depicted is taken from the Gospel of St. John, when Jesus says to the apostles “truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me” (John 13:21). Leonardo’s painting makes no exception at this regard.
But in Leonardo’s Last Supper there are some notable differences. He chose to represent Jesus alone in the scene (usually he was represented with St. John on his chest, following the Gospel’s words), with a serene face but yet projected toward his passion, among the incredulous apostles. Judas is among the other apostles, that are reacting with surprise to Jesus’ words, and the scene is very dynamical.
Instead, in the florentine cenacoli Judas is usually depicted on the other side of the table, to simbolize his distance from Jesus, St. John is on Jesus’ chest, and the action is somehow static.
Here’s the list of the cenacoli that you can admire in Florence. It’s worth dedicating a day or more to explore these incredible treasures of the florentine tradition.
7) Cenacolo di Fuligno by Pietro Perugino (1495);