Thursday, September 19, 2013

Last Judgement in Orvieto

Luca Signorelli’s frescoes of ‘The Last Judgement’ in the Cappella di San Brizio in the Duomo of Orvieto is claimed by some to equal or exceed Michelangelo’s famous version of that story painted on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Having now been fortunate enough to see both, I’ll pick Signorelli’s work. Although Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling is superb, I’ve always thought his ‘Last Judgement’ to be a bit over-rated - rather grim, a writhing and a creaking air to it (even considering that a pious Pope had someone later paint decorous bits of clothing over the naughty bits of the completely naked figures of Michelangelo). Signorelli’s frescoes have more lightness, and more narrative, I think. Recently restored, they have a freshness to the eye, and an absorbing narrative. I managed a crick on my neck from staring at them. Entrancing.

Signorelli painted his version of events about 40 years before Michelangelo. Michelangelo is said to have spent three months in Orvieto considering Signorelli’s work before he embarked upon the Sistine wall, and it’s also said that the Sistine shows the influence of Luca Signorelli’s work. The historian Giorgio Vasari wrote in the 16th century:
‘...I am not surprised that Luca’s works were always highly praised by Michelangelo. or that some things he did in the chapel with his own Final Judgement were kindly and partly taken from Luca’s inventiveness; such as Angels, Demons, the order of the heavens and other things, Michelangelo imitated the steps of Luca, as anyone can see.’
Luca Signorelli (1445 - 15230 was from the town of Cortona. Stylistically, he’s remembered for his draughtsmanship, particularly of the human form, which he could render in all kinds of poses and facial expressions, including dramatic foreshortening - which was very innovative in his day. He is also said to have consulted with theologians before commencing his ‘Last Judgement’, one of the earliest examples of a painter seeking help from theologians for his composition.The contract for Signorelli's work is still on record in the archives of the Cathedral of Orvieto. He undertook on April 5, 1499 to complete the ceiling for 200 ducats, and to paint the walls for 600 ducats, along with lodging, and in every month two measures of wine and two quarters of corn.

Self portrait.
The Orvieto fresco cycle was painted between 1499 and 1504. It was begun by two other painters, Perugino and particularly Fra’Angelico - they completed some of the ceiling panels. But it's Signorelli whose style and verve dominates. He painted portraits of himself and Fra’Angelico in the lower left corner of ‘The Sermon of the Antichrist’. The story is told across the ceiling and in several great panels on the walls.

The scenes on the ceiling panels depict ‘Christ in Judgement’ surrounded by various angels and cherubs; there are panels of Prophets, Apostles, symbols of the Passion, Doctors, Martyrs, Patriarchs and Virgins. But it’s the walls that tell the story. Here are the main scenes:

'The Antichrist'

The Antichrist

(2 Thess 3-4)

The panel centres on a figure on a podium that bears a spooky resemblance to Christ himself. A devil is speaking in his ear. Around him the people are paying off prostitutes, swanking in rich clothes; a murderer is finishing off his victim. The temple in the background is swarming with black figures that look a bit like Darth Vader; in background scenes martyrs are being beheaded, priests are arguing unawares. Above, the Antichrist is depicted falling from the heavens into the world. The scene is tells a ghastly story, full of symbols, but is bright and luminous nonetheless.

'The End of the World'

The End of the World
(Luke 21, 25-26)

Here the people are terrorised by signs and portents - the darkening of the skies, turmoil in the seas and
tides, and there is great confusion amongst them. The terrorised seem to fall from the wall in Signorelli’s rendering of the scenes of panic.

'The Resurrection of the Flesh'
The Resurrection of the Flesh
(1 Corinthians 15, 52)

Here Signorelli’s enormous genius as a painter of the human figure is given completely free reign - to say nothing of his astounding imagination. In his rendering of the resurrection, the dead climb fully formed from the ground, all in the prime of youth, helping one another step up out of the earth. Angels above - themselves very muscular - call them with trumpets. There are skeletons patiently awaiting their new flesh; groups of newly resurrected looking about them in awe and chat amongst themselves. The scene is both weird and human at the same time.

'The Scene of Hell'
The Scene of Hell
(Matthew 13, 40-42)

Like many scenes of hell, including Michelangelo’s, this one writhes with bodies in agony. Signorelli
even painted his unfaithful mistress into this one, clasped forever and without hope in the arms of a ghastly devil. In the ‘bestial forces of the passions’, ‘souls drown and die.’ The devils have green and blue skin, horns, weapons and grins. The suffering humans are naked, muscular and overpowered. On the left, the fires of hell await.

'The Scene of Paradise'
The Scene of Paradise
(1 Corinthians, 2,9)

“Those things which the eye did not see, or the ear hear, which never entered the man’s heart, that is what God has reserved for those who love him.” How do you paint that? Signorelli has a starry heaven full of angels, raining flowers on the blessed below. All the angels are playing musical instruments - music is clearly part of Paradise. But the strongest element in giving a sense of the wonder and joy of it all has to be the expressions on the upturned faces of the blessed - all look absolutely astonished, serene and amazed, calm and entranced.

Note: since it is not possible for visitors to take photographs in the Cappella di San Brizio, the images are from various sources around the web.

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