Ah….I promised I would be back with the interior of Orvieto’s Duomo, because the church’s fame is not just limited to its gorgeous facade. (Note: I hope you admire my restraint at NOT posting the Duomo‘s photo AGAIN.) The fresco series in the San Brizio Chapel to the right of the altar is by Luca Signorelli, and is as admired and revered as the outside. Like the 4th bas-relief panel on the front of the church, this series also tells the Last Judgment story, but it is done in an entirely different mode. The word is that Michelangelo dropped by on his way to Rome and ended up gaining inspiration for his own Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
The first time I saw the San Brizio Chapel was in 1994, and it was a large room filled with scaffolding. You couldn’t see even 1 inch of the walls. The town seemed to be very proud of its art treasure, but visitors had to just take their word that there was indeed a treasure to be proud of hidden behind the metal tubes. And it had been hidden for 8 years at that point. I thought perhaps it was one of those Italian pranks where at the end, they’d unveil it and there would be nothing but blank walls, or maybe some graffiti. But 2 years later, I heard it had finally reopened to great praise for the beautiful restoration work. Then, about a month after the unveiling was the horrible Umbrian earthquake that did so much damage to the St. Francis basilica in Assisi. My first thought was that Orvieto had gone to all that trouble, only to be left with freshly cleaned plaster pieces on the floor. Fortunately, the town escaped damage, and when I first saw it shortly thereafter, I had to agree that all the whoop-la was deserved. If you’re into frescos, this series is a knockout.
The ceiling of the chapel was started by Fra Angelico, but then “a higher authority” — namely Pope Nicholas V – called him to Rome to do a little painting in his own personal chapel. And Angelico, being a good monk, couldn’t exactly say: “Later”.
(ASIDE: For those of you who did not read my last blog, which gave away the whereabouts of St. Catherine of Siena’s body – minus head and thumb — the answer was under the altar in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. And there to the side of St. C. I found the burial site for Fra Angelico, who has now been upgraded to “Beato” Angelico – beatification being one of the steps to sainthood. He just happens to be my favorite Renaissance artist, and I have to tell you that it was a big day when I found both St. C AND Fra Angelico in what turned out to be THE most gorgeous church I’d ever seen. Talk about a hat trick! (Below is a stock photo of the beautiful interior of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The 90% of St. C. that’s in Rome is at the far end of the aisle, under the candles.)
But back to Orvieto…. One of the restrictions they gave Signorelli when he took on the job of completing the chapel was that he had to finish the ceiling in the same style that Angelico had started. Yes, you can see the difference in the colors and the softness of Angelico’s faces, but the result is a most harmonious blending of the 2 artists’ work. To publicly pay tribute to Fra Angelico, Signorelli painted both of them standing together as onlookers in the foreground of the panel on the left wall, which is called “Preaching of the Antichrist”. (Below is a stock photo of the section showing them in the midst of mayhem. I do not consider it an act of unwarranted upstaging that Signorelli gave himself 85% of the space, since he painted at least 85% of the ceiling — and ALL of the walls. He is, of course, the blond with the hat at a rakish angle.)
And speaking of the Antichrist – this particular painting gave me one of those “well…THAT finally makes sense” moments. The Antichrist looks a lot like a normal Christ-like figure, though he does have a devilish-looking being standing behind him, whispering instructions in his ear. That’s when it hit me that OF COURSE the devil wouldn’t be seen in the guise we usually think of as evil – horns, red eyes, bad breath, etc. Bad breath never tempted any followers. No – real evil has to come in a pleasant, peppermint-breathed form that you’ll follow along willingly until you begin noticing that under his influence, you’ve started hating everyone around you and wishing you’d picked up that machine gun when you had the chance so you could wipe out all of those people you used to call “friends”. THAT’s evil.
Signorelli is naturally lauded for his great artistry, and he was obviously fascinated by the human body — particularly the backsides of men. I’m betting this was because their clothing was more form-fitting than women’s at this time, thereby allowing him to better demonstrate the body’s incredible range of positions. Today he’d be concentrating on athletic, long-legged women in slim-fit jeans rather than young men in their baggy pants. However, even more impressive than his technique was his great originality in setting up the visual narrative of the Last Judgment stories: The End of the World, The Damned, The Resurrection of the Flesh — all great themes, imaginatively laid out.
Two last stories: The sad one is that the Christ figure in the Pieta’ on the right hand wall was a tribute to Signorelli’s son who died during his Orvieto stay.
The other story is that his mistress left him while he was working on this chapel, so he painted her being taken off to hell on the back of one of the devil’s flying henchmen. While it might have been momentarily embarrassing for her to be publicly damned to hell, it did assure that she’d be famous for as long as the frescos are around. If she’d been loyal and loving, we’d never have even known she’d existed. Hmmmm…..does that make this a moral-less story?