Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Legend of the True Cross, by Agnolo Gaddi

Around the year 1385, the Florentine painter Agnolo Gaddi completed a cycle of paintings in the choir of the Franciscan basilica of the Holy Cross in his native city. These frescoes, which are very well preserved, are the earliest surviving Italian example of a cycle dedicated to the Legend of the True Cross, based on the stories collected in Bl. Jacopo da Voragine’s Golden Legend. Gaddi’s work is not as refined as that of the most famous version of this cycle, the one by Piero della Francesca in the basilica of St Francis in Arezzo. In a manner typical of the elaborately decorative International Gothic style, he tends to put too many figures into too small a space, which makes it difficult to read the story, especially in such a tall space. (The vault of the choir is almost 40m above the floor.) His work has also been overshadowed by some of the church’s many other artistic treasures, a few of which will be mentioned below. The eight panels are arranged in chronological order, first down the right wall, then down the left.

At the top of the first panel, Adam’s son Seth receives from the Archangel Michael a branch from the Tree of Life which grows in the Garden of Paradise; in the lower part, he plants the branch in the mouth of his dead father, who lies in his grave, with Eve mourning to the right. From this branch grows the tree which will become the wood of the Cross; the depiction of a skull at the base of Christ’s Cross derives from this legend. (In Gaddi’s time, the principles of one-point linear perspective had yet to be worked out; this is why Seth appears to be so much larger in the background than in the foreground, which should of course be done the other way around.)

Second panel – The tree lives until the time of Solomon, when it is cut down and part of it used to make a bridge. When the Queen of Sheba comes to visit Solomon, she “sees in the Spirit that the Savior of the world will be hung upon this wood”; she therefore refuses to step on it, but kneels in adoration. She then tells Solomon that someone will be hung on that wood, by whose death the kingdom of the Jews will be destroyed; the king therefore has it buried deep in the earth. (One version of the story adds that the queen had webbed feet, which were made normal by touching the wood.)

Third panel – The pool called Probatica which is mentioned in John 5, 2 is built on the place where the wood is buried; shortly before the time of Christ’s passion, the wood floats to the surface, and is used to make a cross, the one which will become His. In the background in the upper left are seen the sick people waiting for their chance to descend into the pool.

In the fourth panel, the narration switches direction, moving from right to left. The Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, discovers three crosses buried on the site of Mt Calvary; in order to determine which one is that of Christ, a dying woman is brought to the site, and completely healed at the touch of the third one. (The basilica of the Holy Cross was officially founded on May 3, 1294, the feast of the Finding of the Cross.)

Fifth panel, uppermost on the left side of the choir – St Helena brings the relics of the Cross into the newly constructed basilica of the Anastasis, which is usually called the Holy Sepulcher in the West. (The absence of linear perspective is especially notable in the improbably crooked buildings in the background.)

Sixth panel – During the 26-year long war (602-28) between the Byzantine and Persian Empires, the Emperor Chosroes takes the city of Jerusalem in 614, and steals the relics of the True Cross, along with other relics and sacred vessels from the Holy Sepulcher.

Seventh panel – As recounted in the Golden Legend’s entry on today’s feast, Chosroes builds himself a tower (here represented as a portico), with representations of the heavenly bodies, and devices that cause it turn and make a noise like thunder; sitting in the midst of it, with the Cross on one side to represent the Son, and a rooster on the other to represent the Holy Spirit, he orders the Persians to worship him as God the Father. In the middle, the Archangel Michael appears in a dream to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, encouraging him to go to war with Persia; on the right, Heraclius beats Chosroes’ son in single combat on a bridge.

Eighth panel – The Persians accept the Christian faith, but Chosroes refuses to do so, and is therefore beheaded by Heraclius, who then takes the relics of the Cross and brings them back to Jerusalem. As he arrives at the gate of the city, the very same one through which the Lord had passed during His passion, it closes before him of its own accord. An angel appears and says to him, “When the King of the heavens entered through this gate to His passion, not with kingly adornment, but on a lowly donkey did He enter, and so leave an example of humility to them that worship Him.” Heraclius therefore removes his royal robes, and as he approaches the gate, it opens of its own accord, and he enters the city. (The man standing behind the executioner is traditionally said to be a self-portrait of Agnolo Gaddi.)

It would require several posts to list and explain the many other artworks of note that grace the basilica, but I will add a few words here about some of its images of the Crucifixion. At the time of the church’s original construction, one of the most famous and admired painters in Italy was another Florentine, Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302), one of the teachers of Giotto. About 100 years before Gaddi, he painted for the Franciscans a large crucifix of the type which in those days was generally mounted on top of a church’s rood screen, or suspended from the ceiling so that it hung just over or just in front of the screen.

Cimabue was one of the first artists to break away from the Byzantine style then prevalent in Italy, and move towards the more naturalistic representations which we now think of as typical of the Renaissance. Earlier representations of the Crucifixion emphasized Christ’s divinity by showing Him on the Cross fully clothed, awake, and upright, the creator and sustainer of the world even in the midst of His Passion. St Francis and his followers, on the other hand, laid much greater emphasis on the humanity of Christ, and consequently of the many sufferings He endured in His humanity for love of mankind. Under the influence of his patrons, Cimabue depicts Christ almost nude, with closed eyes; the weight of both head and body is emphasized by the way they slump down, now that He is either dead or almost dead. Giotto will then take this an important step forward by having the body slump forward off the cross when he paints a similar crucifix for the Dominicans at Santa Maria Novella in 1290-95. (In Purgatory 11, 94-96, Dante makes a reference to the rapid ascent of his friend Giotto’s reputation in the estimation of their contemporaries, and the subsequent eclipse of his teacher: “In painting Cimabue thought / he held the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim; / the former only keeps a shadowed fame.”)

In 1412, the sculptor Donatello, then in his mid-20s, added a wooden crucifix to the chapel in the left transept of the church. According to a famous story, his friend and rival Filippo Brunelleschi intensely disliked the realism of this image, saying that Donatello had “crucified a peasant.”

Challenged to do better, Brunelleschi produced a crucifix for one of the chapels at Santa Maria Novella; the art historian Giorgio Vasari reports that Donatello, on seeing this work, was so astonished at its perfection that he forgot to keep his hands on his apron, which was full of eggs, and let them drop to the floor.

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