Orvieto duomo frescoes: Luca Signorelli’s masterworks

frescoes by Luca Signorelli in the Cappella di San Brizio

In the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio are some of the finest frescoes extant in Italy. They were created by Luca Signorelli in the 1490s.

Partial view on the vault – Christ in Judgment by Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli; other frescoes by Luca Signorelli and his school

Self-portrait of Luca Signorelli (left) with Fra Angelico.

Christ and the Doubting Thomas

This chapel was a fifteenth-century addition to the cathedral. It is almost identical in structure to the Chapel of the Corporal. The construction of this chapel was started in 1408 and completed in 1444. It is closed off from the rest of the cathedral by two wrought iron gates. The first one closes off the right arm of the transept. It was signed by the Sienese master Conte di lello Orlandi (1337). The second gate stands at the entrance of the chapel and is of a much later date. It was signed by master Gismondo da Orvieto (1516).

Originally called the Cappella Nuova, in 1622 this chapel was dedicated to Saint Britius (San Brizio), one of the first bishops of Spoleto and Foligno, who evangelized the people of Orvieto.

Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli began the decoration of the vault of the chapel in 1447. They painted only two sections: Christ in Judgment and Angels and Prophets as they were summoned in the same year to the Vatican by Pope Nicholas V to paint the Niccoline Chapel.

Work came to a halt until Perugino was approached in 1489. However, he never began.

After being abandoned for about 50 years, the decoration of the rest of the vault was awarded to Luca Signorelli on 5 April 1499. He added the scenes with the Choir of the Apostles, of the Doctors, of the Martyrs, Virgins and Patriarchs.

His work pleased the board and they assigned him to paint frescoes in the large lunettes of the walls of the chapel. Work began in 1500 and was completed in 1503. These frescoes in the chapel are considered to be Signorelli’s masterpieces. He and his school spent two years creating a series of frescoes concerning the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment, starting with the Preaching of the Antichrist, continuing with tumultuous episodes of the End of the World, finding a counterpart in the Resurrection of the Flesh. The fourth scene is a frightening depiction of the Damned taken to Hell and received by Demons. On the wall behind the altar, Signorelli depicts on the left side the Elect being led to Paradise and on the right side the Reprobates driven to Hell. He added to these expressive scenes some striking details.

The Preaching of the Antichrist was painted shortly after the trial on charges of heresy and execution of the Observant Dominican friar, Giralamo Savonarola in Florence on 23 May 1498. The Antichirst is depicted under the influence of the incarnated angel named Satan who suggests him what to say, while touching his rib cage. The analogy of the Antichrist sowing discord by preaching slander and calumny, would not have been lost on late 15th-century viewers. To underscore the contemporary analogy, at lower right, Signorelli includes recognizable portraits of the young Raphael, in a striking pose; Dante; possibly Christopher Columbus; Boccaccio; Petrarch; and Cesare Borgia, and, on the left, he depicts himself, dressed in noble garments, and Fra Angelico, in his Dominican habit.

In the left background the Antichrist is expelled from heavens by the archangel Michael, and his acolytes killed by a rain of fire. In the right background he depicts a large, domed temple in the Renaissance style.

The End of the World is painted over the arch of the entrance to the chapel. Signorelli paints frightening scenes as cities collapse in ruins and people flee under darkened skies. On the right side below he shows the Sibyl with her book of prophesies, and King David with raised hand predicting the end of the world. In the left corner below, people are scrambling and lying in diverse positions on the ground, producing an illusion as if falling out of the painting. This successful attempt in foreshortening was striking in its day.

The Resurrection of the Flesh is a study by Signorelli, exploring the possibilities of the male and female nude, while trying to recreate a three-dimensional setting. Signorelli shows his mastery in depicting the many positions of the human body. The risen, brought back to life, are crawling in an extreme effort from under the earth and are received by two angels in the sky blowing on a trumpet.

The Damned are taken to Hell and received by Demons is in stark contrast to the previous one. Signorelli has gone to the extremes of his fantasy and evocative powers to portray his cataclysmic vision of the horrible fate, the agony and the despair of the damned. He uses the naked human body as his only expressive element, showing the isolated bodies entangling each other, merging in a convoluted mass. They are overpowered by demons in near-human form, depicted in colours of every shade of decomposing flesh. Above them, a flying demon transports a woman. This is probably a depiction of the Whore of the Apocalypse.

The Elect in Paradise shows the elect in ecstasy looking up to music-making angels. The few extant drawings, made in preparation for this fresco, are kept in the Uffizi in Florence. They show each figure in various positions, indicating that Signorelli must have used real models in the nude to portray his figures.

Below this are smaller paintings of famous writers and philosophers watching the unfolding disaster above them with interest. Legend states that the writers depicted here are Homer, Empedocles, Lucan, Horace, Ovid, Virgil and Dante, but the identifications are disputed by modern scholars. Several small-scale grisaille medallions depicting images from their works, including the first eleven books of Dante’s Purgatorio, Orpheus, Hercules, and various scenes from Ovid and Virgil, among others.

In a niche in the lower wall is shown a Pietà that contains explicit references to two important Orvietan martyr saints, S. Pietro Parenzo (podestà of Orvieto in 1199) and S. Faustino. They stand next to the dead Christ, along with Mary Magdalen and the Virgin Mary. The figure of the dead Christ, according to Giorgio Vasari, is the image of Signorelli’s son Antonio, who died from the plague during the course of the execution of the paintings. This fresco was Signorelli’s last work in the chapel.

But Tom Henry in his book “The Life and Art of Luca Signorelli” (Yale University Press, 2012) states that Vasari’s story is not correct: “Signorelli had two sons, Antonio and Tomasso. Tomasso outlived his father and Antonio was alive when this Lamentation was delivered in February 1502, dying a few months later in July 1502.” (Preface, p. xiii)

Near the left entrance is the large marble baptismal font with lions and elaborate frieze reliefs. It was begun in 1390 by Luca di Giovanni. It was expanded sixteen years later by Pietro di Giovanni from Freiburg, who added the red marble basin, and Sano di Matteo, who sculpted the octagonal pyramid in 1407.

The Cappella del Corporale lies on the north side of the main crossing. It was built between 1350 and 1356 to house the stained corporal of the miracle of Bolsena. It is from this chapel that the reliquary with the corporal is carried in religious processions through the town on the Feast of Corpus Christi. In this Chapel you will find relics from the eucharistic miracle in Bolsena. Some people refer to this miracle as the miracle of Bolsena, because that is where it actually happened. However the relics are kept in this cathedral in Orvieto, because this is where the Pope was at the time. Therefore people can also refer to this miracle as the miracle of Orvieto.

The chapel is two bays deep and covered with quadripartite vaults. It is closed off by a wrought iron gate, made between 1355 and 1362 by Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna and finished by Giovanni de Micheluccio da Orvieto in 1364.

The chapel is decorated with frescoes depicting on the left wall the history of the Eucharist and on the right wall miracles concerning the bleeding host throughout church history. They were painted between 1357 and 1363 by three artists from Orvieto: Ugolino di Prete Ilario, Domenico di Meo and Giovanni di Buccio Leonardelli. They were painted prior to the frescoes in the apse. They were restored in the middle of the 19th century.

The aedicule-shaped tabernacle on the altar was designed in 1358 by Nicola da Siena and finished by Orcagna.

In a niche on the right wall stands a panel of the Madonna dei Raccomandati (c. 1320). It was painted in the Italian Byzantine tradition by the Sienese artist Lippo Memmi, brother-in-law of Simone Martini.

At the centre of the chapel is the Reliquary of the Santo Corporale in silver, gilded silver and varicoloured translucent enamel containing the bloodstained corporal. This Gothic masterpiece, in the form of a triptych, was made by Sienese goldsmith Ugolino di Vieri between 1337 and 1338. It shows 24 scenes of the life of Christ and eight stories about the corporal.

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