My next ZOOM presentation – December 5th – will take us to Orvieto…
– and these blog notes prior are a preview of the wonders we’ll discover together.
In medieval frescoes, artists did not generally sign the works, nor slip themselves into the works as self-portraits, although artists have always left some sort of a personal mark on their creations. With the Renaissance, individual talents are lauded and the artist – a respected maestro – signs his work to assure merited accolades for his masterpiece (literally, “a piece of work done by a master” i.e., maestro). Patrons of the artists, too, wished to center attention on their commissions as evidence of their social roles and economic prowess: the creator of the work they had commissioned must be on view for all.
In my ZOOM presentation on Spello, we noted how the early 16th-c artist, Pinturicchio, portrayed himself at least three times in the Cappella Baglioni fresco cycle – and depicted his name twice – in the chapel’s glorious frescoes:
At about the same time that Pinturicchio was frescoing in Spello (1501- 1503), Perugino was painting in the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia (1497- 1501) and includes his self-portrait – and confirmation of himself as artist – in the fresco cycle, as well:
And in Orvieto, painter from Cortona, Luca Signorelli, was creating his fresco masterpieces in the Cappella San Brizio in the Duomo at roughly the same time (1499-1502). Logicamente, his self-portrait is there, just to the left as you enter the splendid chapel:
Dressed in sober and elegant black, his blond hair partially hidden by a beret, Signorelli seems to be a self-assured, satisfied director, looking out at his public, awaiting their reaction to his work.
Some historians interpret the figure to his right as that of Beato Angelico, Dominican friar and artist who had first started work on this chapel in 1447, though work in Rome later drew him away from Orvieto. His dress could be the black and white habit of his Dominican order. Other experts – including our art historian, Orvieto-born, daughter-in-law, Francesca – theorize that the personage to Signorelli’s right could be the erudite archdeacon Alberi, alive when this was painted and his own formidable library very close to the Cathedral.
The Signorelli “selfie” is part of the fresco, “The Preaching of the Antichrist”:
It seems likely that the Antichrist episode is linked to Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar burnt at the stake in 1498 in Florence. He had assumed psychological control of Florence after Lorenzo de’ Medici’s death in 1492, denouncing humanism, invoking the “bonfires of the vanities,” as he exhorted the burning of classical texts and philosophical as well as scientific treatises.
The Antichrist – causing turmoil just as Savonarola did – is an ugly, unpleasing depiction of Christ, listening to the Devil maliciously whispering in his ear the lies he must utter.
And, starting from the left, a brutal massacre is graphically depicted, followed by a young prostitute taking coins from an old merchant – though one interpretation indicates the woman taking coins as representing usury. Among those in the crowd listening to the Antichrist, Signorelli depicts Christopher Columbus (his journey to the New World had taken place just about seven years prior to the fresco), dressed in a white-collared yellow tunic and just to the left of the Antichrist. To the right of the Antichrist, a proud figure in elegant cloak, red beret and hands on hips perhaps represents a personage of the noble Monaldeschi family of Orvieto:
According to the prediction in the Scriptures, the horrific deeds of the Antichrist take place immediately before the end of the world, when “the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken” (Mark, 13: 24-25).
Faithful to the Gospel inscription, Signorelli foregoes painting rays of light in the upper part of the scene and instead, blood red color streams from the heavens where the Archangel Michael heads to Earth to combat the Antichrist.
A group of clerics just behind the Antichrist resist the devil’s temptations by praying, all huddled together like a resisting fortress.
Against a desolate gray background, an unusually large classical building of distorted perspective dominates the background scene on the right. Ominous armed black figures prepare an execution under the portico; nearby, the false prophet disseminates his lies, diffusing the message of destruction.
Signorelli has brilliantly brought to life the mysterious, sinister atmosphere evoked in the Gospel prophecy of the Antichrist. His “Preaching of the Antichrist” is arguably his greatest fresco in the San Brizio Chapel series. He himself might have already believed this when painting such an air of self-assurance in his self-portrait.
After we talk about the other Orvieto Signorelli frescoes (in following notes), you’ll decide if you agree.
Read more about Signorelli’s splendid work in Orvieto
Read about Orvieto’s link to Bolsena