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The recent post about Orvieto’s gorgeous Gothic cathedral gave plenty of attention to the outside of the building, but I failed to illustrate the wonders which are housed within.  Today therefore, we venture into the splendid Christian church in order to look at a magnificent fresco of…the Antichrist?

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Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist (Luca Signorelli, 100-1503) Ffresco

Here is Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, a large fresco by Luca Signorelli, the fifteenth-century Tuscan master of foreshortening.  In fact Signorelli (and his school of apprentices, assistants, and students) painted a whole series of large frescoes about the apocalypse and the end of earthly existence within the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio (a fifteenth century addition to Orvieto Cathedral).  The disquieting series of eschatological paintings is considered to be Signorelli’s greatest achievement–his magnum opus.  For today, let’s just look at The Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, which was the first work in the series (and which pleased the Cathedral board so well that they commissioned the rest).

 

Signorelli began the work in 1499, a mere year after the execution of Giralamo Savonarola in Florence in 1498 (Savonarola was burned at the stake for the heresy of denouncing church corruption corruption, despotic cruelty, and the exploitation of the poor: he was a sort of ur-Luther).  Death, political tumult, and questions of true righteousness were much upon people’s minds.

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In the work, the Antichrist (center bottom) preaches to a great crowd.  Although he has the features of Jesus, we recognize that the Antichrist is not the savior thanks to the pile of gold and treasure heaped at his feet by deluded followers. These so-called Christians are stupidly unable to discern the teachings of Jesus from the self-serving slander, calumny, and lies of the vile (yet sumptuously attired) puppet on the pedestal.  We art lovers however can clearly see that the Antichrist’s true lord is right there behind him, whispering the words of the sermon into his ear.

In the background, the Antichrist’s vile shocktroops (dressed in tactical black like ninjas) seize control of the church and the state.  In the foreground his coistrels and operatives slit the throats of the righteous.  Various scenes of depravity show a woman selling herself to a stupendously rich merchant as the Antichrist performs false miracles of healing and resurrection.

However the center left shows the Antichrist’s fall (figurative and literal).  The archangel Michael smites the foul false messiah with the sword of divine Justice.  Golden fire spills from heaven, laying low the Antichrist’s evil and benighted followers who die writhing in anguish.

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It is a stunning work. Signorelli knew it was his masterpiece and painted himself in black in the left corner watching events transpire (indeed, also mixed into the crowd are young Raphael, Dante, Columbus (maybe), Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cesare Borgia, and Fra Angelico in his Dominican garb), and yet it is a deeply strange and confusing painting.  The righteous and unrighteous are all jumbled together in weird intersecting groups which are hard to distinguish.  There is a great empty hole in the center of the composition and the final victory of the angel is in the mid-distance on the left (which is not where it should be in terms of classical composition).  The gentle Signorelli was perhaps troubled by the Orvieto of 1500 (which was filled with squabbling mercenaries fighting between two factions of wealthy nobles).  Also, as he was painting the work, the plague was in the 8000 person city and two or three people died every day!

It is almost as though the pious Signorelli is warning the viewer about brutal leaders who crush the peasantry for personal gain and sanctimonious “Christians” who pretend to believe in Jesus while truly serving the Devil.  The work is ostensibly about end-times but it shows Signorelli’s contemporary society coming apart from fighting, misinformation, plague, and greed.  It is wonderful to look at art, but thank goodness this is a work about the distant past. It would be truly disturbing if it offered timeless lessons about the never-ending strife, greed, and fear in the human heart or how susceptible we all are to impostors who are the exact opposite of everything Christ stood for.

 

 

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Orvieto

In the center of Italy is Umbria, a green land of deep forests and medieval hill towns. One of the most dramatic of these hill towns is the small city of Orvieto which is located atop a volcanic plug of tuff.  Atop the taupe butte, the ancient towers and campaniles of Orvietto rise above the dark green hills.  One building stands out beyond the others, the Duomo di Orvieto which is universally acclaimed for having the consummate masterpiece of Italian Gothic cathedral facades.

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Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, the Cathedral of Orvieto was commissioned by Pope Urban IV sometime around 1263 as a suitable place to keep the Corporal of Bolsena, a miraculous uhhh cloth which soaked up the miraculous blood of Jesus which spouted out of a miraculous host (the sacred bread) in the nearby town of Bolsena.  The Cathedral was begun in earnest in 1290 as a classic Romanesque basilica, however progress was fitful.  When Giovanni di Uguccione succeeded Fra Bevignate as principal architect (project manager?) of the cathedral, the design morphed from Romanesqe to Italian Gothic.  It was an inspired upgrade which incorporated the best of both styles in the breathtaking facade (which is said to have been the creation of the Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani).

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Creation of Eve (probably by Maitani)

The Facade is such a masterpiece, with so many things going on, that it is nearly impossible to describe properly.  Wikipedia resolutely approaches the task by breaking down the individual elements as follows:

The most exciting and eye-catching part is its golden frontage, which is decorated by large bas-reliefs and statues with the symbols (Angel, Ox, Lion, Eagle) of the Evangelists created by Maitani and collaborators (between 1325 and 1330) standing on the cornice above the sculptured panels on the piers. In 1352 Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna added the bronze Lamb of God above the central gable and the bronze statue of Saint Michael on top of the gable of the left entrance.

The bas-reliefs on the piers depict biblical stories from the Old and New Testament. They are considered among the most famous of all 14th-century sculpture. These marbles from the fourteenth and fifteenth century are the collective and anonymous work of at least three or four masters with assistance of their workshops, It is assumed that Maitani must have worked on the reliefs on the first pier from the left, as work on the reliefs began before 1310.

The glittering mosaics of Mary’s life which make up such an impressive part of the facade have been redesigned and replaced since the originals were installed in 1390. However the great central rose window is an original by Orcagna.  The widow is surrounded by statues of Apostles within niches in the manner of French Gothic style.

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Naturally I was unable to find any high-resolution photos that really do justice to this supremely complicated book of a building, but here is a link to a clickable high resolution image if you want to examine particular individual elements.

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Actually the interior of the church might really be the feature of greatest interest to artists, featuring exquisite murals by Fra Angelico and crazy violent “Antichrist” mural by Luca Signorelli, but we will address those another day. How much apocalyptic stuff can we handle right now?  Let’s just enjoy the exquisite outside of this Italian Gothic wonder.

Orvieto medieval town, Umbria, Italy, Europe.

Orvieto medieval town, Umbria, Italy, Europe.

 

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