Anne's Blog

In Spello, a Major Masterpiece in a Major Mary Church

Date: November 17, 2020 - categories: , , , - Leave your thoughts

Once a sacred site, always a sacred site.

Or often, in any case, here in Italy.  Spello’s Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Spello is an example, testament the Roman columns to the left of the entry at the base of the bell tower.

The marble columns certainly came from an important Roman building, though perhaps not used in the building of the Roman temple which was once on the church site, a temple dedicated to the goddesses Vesta and Juno.

Archaeologists are uncertain about the date of the transformation of temple site to church site although 13th-c century documents confirm a church here.   Towards the end of the Middle Ages, there were just over 200o inhabitants (about 8000 today) in this walled village of Spello and roughly 100 churches and 22 dedicated to Mary (under just as many names).

This one – on Via Cavour, principal road of Spello tracing the main Roman road of Hispellum – must have been the most important and the most splendid confirmed by its name.  Santa Maria Maggiore was dedicated to the Virgin and to two specific episodes of her life: her birth, September 8th – and Assumption into Heaven, August 15th.

Her image is over the door, a Baroque restoration of the medieval building:

Fortunately, when the church was restored in the 17th-century, the chapel on the left inside dedicated to episodes in the life of the Virgin was left untouched.  Trolio Baglione,  priore (and later bishop of Perugia), had commissioned Renaissance master from Perugia, Pinturicchio, to fresco their Cappella Baglioni – now also known as ” La Cappella Bella” (“The Beautiful Chapel”).

Bernardino di Betto, also known as “Pinturicchio” may have been a small man – indicated by his nickname “little painter” –  but his artistic skills are grand, grandiose, grandissimi:

As you enter this side chapel, note the fresco of the Nativity backdropped by the Umbria countryside and Lake Trasimeno where fishermen drop their nets into the lake from their boats:

This masterpiece is rich in minute details to note; many symbols are sharing information with those who have admired the frescoes since their creation in 1501. Let’s mention just a couple: the peacock on the roof symbolizing the incorruptibility of the flesh and  everlasting life and the crossed roof tiles on the stall foreshadowing Christ’s Crucifixion.

Eager to learn more? You will on November 21, 2020 in my ZOOM presentation, “Touring Spello, Umbria Medieval Gem.”

In the fresco as you enter the chapel, just to the left of the Nativity,  Pinturicchio’s splendid Annunciation scene is backdropped by an Umbrian landscape as well.

Out the elegant room with marble floor in red, green and white (symbolic colors – more to share!), past the wicker fence and through the arch, a countryside banquet is taking place along a road leading up to a fortified town (Spello?).

Pinturicchio’s self-portrait hangs on the wall behind the Virgin and a shelf above his portrait holds objects, each bearing significant symbolism as do the objects dangling below the portrait. How much to share about this scene – and I will in my ZOOM presentation Nov. 21, 2020.

And a few more enticements….

Pinturicchio signed this fresco cycle in two places and included his self-portrait at least three times: no mistaking who’s the artist!  He’s in this scene of the fresco depicting the young Christ disputing with the elders in the temple:

And not just Pinturicchio’s portrait appears twice in the fresco – found him? –  but also that of Trolio Baglioni who commissioned the work: dressed in the black habit of the canonico (priest associated with a cathedral), Baglioni appears to the left of his chamberlain with downcast eyes, dressed  in blue and holding a bulging pouch of money.  Perhaps Baglioni letting us know that he can well afford Pinturicchio?

And wasn’t this episode of Christ’s childhood set in the temple? Not in this fully Renaissance painting, emulating classical architecture, for behind the Christ child is a domed Renaissance church – not a temple  –  and classical deities,  the goddesses Minerva and Abundantia (Abundance), stand in the niches rather than saints.

This scene, too, is rich in symbolism,  for, after all,  works of art were didactic as much as decorative from Roman times through the Baroque period.

I’m looking forward to interpreting the symbolism and sharing the stories and local legends linked to these splendid frescoes for you.

Do tour Spello with me on November 7th.

Read about another Spello treasure, Fra’ Paolo

Read about – and see! – Spello’s stupendous floral festival, le Infiorate

Click here to read about remnants of  Roman splendor in Spello

Read about the stupendous Roman mosaics of Spello

Click here for more on Roman splendor in Hispellum





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