Lent 46

Andrea Bonaiuti, The Crucifixion, 1365-68. The Spanish Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

As I said on Thursday, the Master of Delft does not take us any further than Good Friday, and so, for the final day of Lent we will leave the Netherlands and head down to Italy, and to Florence, to consider one of the city’s rich array of decorative schemes which doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as it should. One corollary of this is that the available images are not the best, and most of these are pre-restoration – my apologies, but they should still all be legible. Now the paintings are clearer, and brighter, after the removal of layers of dust and soot, and the careful and subtle reintegration of small areas of loss. We are in Santa Maria Novella, the chief Dominican church of the city, or rather, in the monastery of which the church forms a part. If we have arrived by train we won’t have to go far – the station is ‘Firenze SMN’ – taking its name from the church, and directly opposite the ecclesiastical East End. Nowadays, you enter the complex through the side towards the station, as most of the buildings are now part of an extended museum, even though the Dominicans are still, somewhere, in residence. The room we are visiting is called The Spanish Chapel, as it was here that the Spanish community in Florence used to worship in the sixteenth century. They arrived in the retinue of Eleonora da Toledo, daughter of the Viceroy of Naples, who married Cosimo de’ Medici, the second Duke of Florence and later first Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1539. However, originally it was the chapter house of the monastery, where the Friars would meet every day to read a chapter from the Rule of St Dominic. This part of the building was completed in 1355, and the frescoes were painted between 1365 and 1368 by Andrea Bonaiuti – although the ‘chancel’, a chapel dedicated to the Holy Sacrament, was redecorated in the 18th Century, which is when the stone arch that you can see in this detail was made. However, there would have been something similar in the 14th Century, as there are frescoed statues peeking out from behind the later arch.

Bonaiuti had a difficult challenge – to fit his fresco around the arch – and that is why I wanted to talk about this image today: to see how well he succeeded. The whole painting is surrounded by a decorative border, which unifies all of the imagery in this remarkable space (more of that another day). In between the patterns made up of stylised vegetation – recognisable to contemporary tourists from the Florentine ‘handmade’ paper available from shops on almost every street – we see prophets emerging holding scrolls, foretelling the coming of the Messiah and his inevitable suffering and death. At the very top you may just be able to pick out a bird on its nest – the Pelican in her Piety. It was believed that the pelican would peck at its own breast to feed its young with its flesh and blood (presumably a misunderstanding of the act of regurgitation), and the Christological significance is clear: in Christian terms Jesus feeds us with the sacrifice of his own body, and notably, the wound in his chest, from which, like the pelican in this symbolic image, the blood flows.

The fresco on this particular wall is, in essence, another Crucifixion. We see Christ, top centre, on his cross, facing forward, flat against the picture plane in much the same way as the Master of Delft was to paint it later: this is entirely traditional. So too are the two thieves, whose crosses are again angled, although both are turned inwards, so that the arms of the crosses lead our eye into the painting and towards the image of Jesus. They are surrounded by a vast multitude, too many to number or name – but let’s see what we can do! We shall start at the bottom left of the image.

You should recognise this, from the Master of Delft, as the Via Crucis, ‘the Way of the Cross’. It is also known as the Via Dolorosa, or ‘the Sorrowful Way’, or, more prosaically perhaps, the Road to Calvary. We see Jesus, in his red robe, though stripped of his blue cloak, carrying his cross and heading off to our right. He looks over his shoulder towards the only three people the crowd who have halos. Prominent in the foreground is Mary Magdalene, her head uncovered, but with her full-length red cloak covering her hair as it goes over her shoulders. To one side of her we see Mary, the mother of Jesus, in blue, and to the other side, St John the Evangelist. Behind them are some other women, presumably the ‘Daughters of Jerusalem’ Jesus speaks to, or some of the ‘many’ who followed him from Galilee. Next to the Magdalene are two small boys, one wearing white, with curly blonde hair, another, in darker clothes, sadly damaged, wearing a cap. We have seen them before, depicted several times by the Master of Delft, and we will see them again. The crowds have left the city gate, and so are now ‘without a city wall’, and they are turning to their left and walking up the ‘green hill’. Bonaiuti imagines the crucifixion as an important event in the life of the city, and the crenellations of the walls, the towers and loggias of the city, even the lookout from the barbican of the city gate, are crowded with the curious. Public executions would always bring out the crowds.

If we follow them up the road, we arrive first at the good thief’s cross. He faces inwards, and up. A small group of five angels, just above his left hand, accompany a sixth person in white, who is praying. The angel on our right gestures upwards, and looks back at the central, praying figure. This is the soul of the good thief, being accompanied to heaven. Below the cross we see the ‘Good’. On the right Mary Magdalene reaches up to Jesus on the cross. Next to her, St John the Evangelist looks back to the Virgin, supported by Mary Zebedee and Mary Salome, and they are accompanied by more of the female followers of Christ. The boys are nowhere to be seen. Amongst this mass of soldiers, many on horseback, the women, and John, look vulnerable, and indeed, a man on a lively brown horse, perched on the edge of the chancel arch, looks down at them as if they are a threat. Just to the right of the horse’s head is a man poorly clad in a pinkish-brown, with a pot in his left hand and a long pole in his right: he has offered the sponge soaked in vinegar to the thirsty Christ. A white horse looks over his shoulder. This steed bears a soldier in dark grey armour, looking up to the cross, hands raised in prayer. He has a halo, and a spear. This is the centurion who declared ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’ (Mark 15:39), here identified as St Longinus, the soldier who pierced Christ’s side with a spear.

When we turn our attention to the centre of the image, we can see that Longinus and the sponge-bearer are at the foot of the cross. This is topped by the titulus, and surrounded by mourning angels. To the right, one of the shields bears an inscription which should read ‘S.P.Q.R.’, although whichever member of the workshop painted this detail, they couldn’t fit it all in, leaving out the ‘Q’. Mind you, this is a good choice for the omission, as it only stands for ‘and’.  The initials are short for Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome,’ referring to the ancient Roman Republic, although its use continued throughout the Empire until the reign of Constantine I. However, it was revived, and is still in use today. It can be found, among other places, on the drain covers of roman streets and pavements. Nowadays, however, Italians from other regions have realised that it actually stands for Sono Pazzi Questi Romani – ‘These Romans are bonkers’. At the foot of the cross stand two boys, one wearing white, with curly blonde hair, another, in red, wearing a cap. They have pushed their way to the front, as boys will. These children, present at the crucifixion, appear more and more from the 13th Century onwards, apparently, and, from imagery elsewhere in the Spanish Chapel, have been identified as the Jews and Moslems who would be converted to Christianity – even if Islam did not exist at the time of the crucifixion.

There is only threat and violence on the side of the bad thief. A soldier on horseback wields his club towards a group of onlookers who are fleeing towards the chancel arch. To the left of the bad thief’s legs another soldier, on a brown horse, also wields a club. The thief’s shins are bloodied, following the text in John 19:31-34. It is a result of crucifixion on the eve of the sabbath, and the need to get the bodies down before sunset:

The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

At the bottom right some of the men have taken hold of Jesus’s red robe, and stretch it out between them. The one on the left holds out a dice to his companion. Like the breaking of the thieves’ legs, this episode is not represented by the Master of Delft, but is recounted earlier, in John 19:23-24,

Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.

The ‘scripture’ here is Psalm 22:18, ‘They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.’

If the good thief has angels to carry his soul away, the bad thief is tormented by devils. One sits astride the cross, threatening him with a barbed spear, while three more bring a large bowl, presumably containing something else with which to torture him, or simply to carry him away – down – to hell. Which is where we shall go next – down to hell.

The Apostles’ Creed states quite clearly that Christ, ‘was crucified, dead and buried, he descended into hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead.’ So what was he doing in hell? The painting does make it quite clear, but, as I talked about this at length last year on the equivalent day (though not the same date – Easter is a moveable feast), I am just going to direct you towards Day 24 – The Devils, while also pointing to the painted statue on the chancel arch which looks down from the top left of this post-restoration detail.

What I love about this fresco is the way that Bonaiuti uses the space available to him. Christ leaves Jerusalem at the bottom left, and follows the procession up the wall, and up the hill of Calvary, where his is crucified at its summit, just visible on either side of the 18th Century keystone. Way below his left hand is hell, as it will be at the Last Judgement, and this is where he now descends. It is a remarkably good use of the awkward format, and entirely appropriate, placing his body on the cross directly above the altar, where mass would take place, and the bread would become the body of Christ, as if lowered down from the cross. Good Friday was the first day, today, Easter Saturday is the second, so tomorrow is the third day, and ‘On the third day he rose again from the dead’. But what space has Bonaiuti left for the resurrection? Maybe we will find out tomorrow.

Looking forward, beyond Lent, and beyond Easter, things will get a little less godly (I’m afraid/I’m glad to say/neither of the above/delete as appropriate). On Easter Monday I will be talking about Michelangelo in love, and the fruits of his infatuation: some of his most beautiful drawings and poems. If you are interested, there is still time to book for Michelangelo Matters 3: Getting Carried Away at both 2pm and 6pm. The following series of talks, Three Women in the 18th Century, is also on sale, and you can find more details, together with links to Tixoom to book, on the diary page. Thank you, as ever, for all of your support. Until tomorrow, have a peaceful day.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

8 thoughts on “Lent 46

  1. I really enjoyed the Spanish Chapel – some years back now. I remember a rather suspicious custodian who wasn’t too keen on us talking photos, though we did manage a few I remember.
    Thank you so much for all these blogs and recent lectures. They help to bring out so much that artists, patrons etc have seen in the stories over the centuries.


  2. It’s a pleasure, Valerie – and yes, the ability – having the permission – to take photos, and my thoughts about it, are constantly changing. I can never decide how I feel, as I am so aware that photography can be a great way of seeing, but all to often it is effectively an excuse not to look.


  3. Richard,
    I can’t find the link to tickets for your next set of talks on women artists. It didn’t seem to be on the email you sent about the tickets going on sale yesterday? Sorry to use this comment box but I tried Facebook and I don’t think it reached you. Thanks,


  4. Richard Just having seen Handel’s Messiah with the ENO chorus and lestyn Davis, what painting would you select to accompany this?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good question! Sadly I missed The Messiah, but we need large forces, for the chorales, and brilliant solos, all spread out across space and time. So I’m going to stick with the Bonaiuti for now! I can’t think of a contemporary work (i.e. around 1742) that has the same grandeur. But if, during my exploration of the 18th Century, I do, I’ll let you know.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you so much for your magnificent posts during lent. They have become so much of my daily routine that I think I may suffer withdrawal symptoms!
    Thankfully there are your packages of talks and stories of art to look forward to.
    Happy Easter

    Liked by 2 people

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