Sunday, May 03, 2020

A Legend of St Helena, the Discoverer of the True Cross

The Basilica of the Holy Cross, the main church of the Franciscan Order in Florence, was founded on May 3rd, the feast of the Finding of the Cross, in 1294. Last September, on the Exaltation of the Cross, I posted pictures of the frescoes which the painter Agnolo Gaddi added to the main choir around the year 1385, a cycle that depicts the Legend of the True Cross. The Franciscans were extremely important patrons of the arts in that era, and the basilica is so rich in artworks that it would take several posts to list and describe them all. Here are some pictures from one of the side-chapels, which I decided to post today because they are marginally connected to the story of the Finding of the Cross.

The Bardi di Vernio chapel, located in the left transept, is dedicated to Pope St Sylvester I, and was decorated with stories of his life around the year 1335 by Maso di Banco; very little is known about him, but he is generally regarded as one of the most talented of Giotto’s followers. (“Maso” was a common Tuscan nickname for “Tommaso.”) This fresco, which is obviously very damaged, depicts the story that the Emperor Constantine, still a pagan and a persecutor of the Church (which he never was in reality) had leprosy, and had been advised by his doctors to bath in the blood of infants to cure it. Many Romans did believe in this kind of sympathetic magic, and while this particular story is certainly a later legend, it is by no means wholly implausible on this point. In this version, which was also read in the Roman Breviary before the Tridentine reform, Constantine was so moved by the weeping of the infants’ mothers that he refusing to commit this terrible crime. One of the great innovations of Giotto’s painting was the use of facial expressions to tell his story, which we see here imitated by Maso in the group of mothers on the right.

The Apostles Peter and Paul appear to Constantine in a dream, and tell him to seek out the Pope, St Sylvester, who is hiding from the persecution on Mt Soracte to the north of Rome, and that the Pope will cure him of his leprosy.

On the left side, Constantine meets Pope Sylvester, who shows him an image of the two Apostles; since he recognizes them as the men who had appeared to him in his dream, he agrees to be baptized, at which his leprosy is indeed cured. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The story that follows (which in the chapel is directly beneath the previous one) is the part of the legend that connects with the Finding of the Cross. Constantine’s mother, the dowager Empress Helena, holds a debate to determine which of the two monotheistic religions, Christianity, represented by the Pope and his cardinals (on the left), or Judaism, represented by a group of rabbis (on the right), is true. When the rabbis have been bested by the Pope at every point in the debate (which is recounted at wearisome length in The Golden Legend), one of them decides to prove the truth of Judaism by whispering what he claims to be the Divine Name into the ear of a ferocious bull, which immediately dies. However, Sylvester then whispers into its ear “O name of cursing and death, go out by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ, in Whose name I say to thee: o bull, arise, and return in all mildness to thy flock.” The bull immediately comes back to life and walks away. Helena and all those present, including the rabbis, become Christians; she then goes on her great expedition to the Holy Land, where she discovers the site of Mt Calvary and the relics of the True Cross. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Another part of the legend states that a dragon had settled down in a pit somewhere in Rome (later identified with a part of the Roman Forum), and its noxious breath was killing hundreds of people every day. Instructed by the Holy Spirit, Pope Sylvester descended into the pit and bound its mouth shut, leading to its death. After he comes out of the pit, the pagan priests of Rome convert to Christianity, among them two who had almost been killed by the dragon’s breath.
This painting is particularly famous because of the detail seen here in the acolyte closer to St Sylvester, with the highly realistic depiction of his facial expression and the gesture of holding his nose at the smell. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko; CC BY 3.0)
Two tombs of the Bardi family on the opposite wall.
The painting of this tomb is attributed to Taddeo Gaddi (1290 ca. - 1366), Agnolo’s father, who was also a student of Giotto; note the prominence of the Cross, to which the basilica is dedicated. The donor is shown kneeling before the dead Christ.
The tomb next to it shows the donor, Bettino de’ Bardi, kneeling before Christ in glory at the Last Judgment; again, note the prominence of the Cross. This was painted by Maso, shortly before his death in 1348.

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