Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Collegiate Church of San Gimignano (Part 2)

In the first post in this series, we noted that the façade of the Collegiate Church of the Assumption in San Gimignano has two doors, one to the left and one to the right, but no central door. The left door was for the men, who congregated in the church’s left nave, while the right side was for the women; this division of the sexes was an important factor in the choice of subject matter for the frescos painted on the external walls. In the year 1367, the Sienese painter Bartolo di Fredi (1330 ca. - 1410) came to the town to do the frescos of the left nave, which all show stories from the Old Testament. They are arranged in three bands which run from left to right; within the decorative bands around them, captions are written in Italian which explain each story. (The stories on the women’s side are all from the New Testament, and have no captions, since they are all easily grasped, and the literacy rate among women was negligible.) Continuing with Nicola’s photos taken during a visit this summer, here are three photos which show an overview; the individual stories will be explained in detail below.

San Gimignano was a prosperous center of cloth manufacture, leather working, and the production of an excellent wine called ‘vernaccia’, which is made with one of the few varieties of white grape that flourish in Tuscany. (In the Divine Comedy, Purgatory XXIV, 23-24, Dante sees Pope Martin IV, who reigned from 1281-85, on the ledge of the gluttons, “purg(ing) by his fasting / the eels of Bolsena (a lake near Viterbo) and vernaccia wine.”) The stories depicted in this cycle are therefore largely chosen to speak to the concerns of men in business, and encourage within them a sense of their duties as Christians, as the heads of families, and merchants upon whose work many livelihoods depend. Within the arches of the top band, we see first the world, then the creation of Adam, “the first man.” As in most medieval images of the Creation, God is shown in the act of creation as the Son, rather than the Father.
God charges Adam with the naming of the animals.
The creation of Eve, and the command to abstain from eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (cut off in this photo. Another image to the right of the last arch was later destroyed to make a place on the wall for an organ.)
The first story in the second band, the banishment from the garden, is right next to the façade, but so badly damaged as to be almost unreadable. The second one shows the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel, and the murder of Abel, a warning against the vice of envy, which is especially corrosive to society in a very small place like San Gimignano.
Noah and his sons building the ark, an example of cooperation, and the animals entering the ark.
The animals leave the ark, and Noah and his family offer sacrifice to God, an example of a family fulfilling its religious duties, and of God’s providential care for man.
The drunkenness of Noah, a warning against disrespect to parents.
Among the many stories about Abraham in chapters 12-25 of Genesis, only two are included in this cycle: on the left, the departure of Abraham and his newphew Lot from Ur of the Chaldees, and on the right, the separation of Abraham and Lot. Both are chosen as examples of trust in God’s providence, and cooperation in matters of business among men.
The cycle skips the patriarchs Isaac and Jacob completely, and goes straight to Joseph, whose story is yet another warning against the vice of envy. On the left, we see Joseph’s dreams, and on the right, he is put into the well by his brothers, later to be sold as a slave to the Midianites. - In Bartolo di Fredi’s time, artists were still working their way towards the development of one-point linear perspective; note that Joseph’s bed is much less horizontal than is generally considered ideal for a bed. (The last two images of the middle band were also destroyed when an organ was installed on this wall.)
The first image on the lowest band, Joseph having his brothers arrested, is right next to the façade, and also very badly damaged. It is followed by this image, in which Joseph is recognized by his brothers, a prelude to their reconciliation, which serves as an exhortation to forgiveness.
Jumping forward to the book of Exodus, Moses changes his rod into a serpent before Pharaoh. This serves as an admonition to rulers to render justice to their subjects, and a reminder that one’s duty to God is paramount before all others duties, since Pharaoh refuses to allow the Israelites to go into the desert to sacrifice, and is for this reason punished and humiliated before God.
The Crossing of the Red Sea. From the most ancient times, the Church has understood this story as a prefiguration of Baptism, and every historical liturgical tradition reads it at the Easter vigil, the baptismal ceremony par excellence. As noted in the previous post of this series, the baptismal font is located outside of the church within the cloister on the building’s left side; it is actually directly on the other side of the wall from this picture. In the High Middle Ages, when most of the cities in northern and central Italy were independent states, many of them customarily delayed the baptism of healthy infants until the feast of the Annunciation, when they were all baptized together at a single ceremony. This rite signified that one became not only a member of the Church, but also of the specific place whose citizens were all reborn unto God in a common font; even to this day, a city as a legal entity is called a “comune” in Italian. This image is therefore given twice as much space as the others, as a reminder to the men that it was when they became members of the Church that they also became members of the “comune” which they share with their fellow citizens. 
Moses goes up Mt Sinai with Joshua to receive the Law, leaving behind his brother Aaron. Note again that God appears to Moses (in the upper right cormer) as the Son, rather than the Father.
The final series of stories are taken from the book of Job, as a reminder of the vicissitudes of fortune, to which all human lives, no matter how prosperous, are subject: on the left, Job in his prosperity; on the right, God and Satan, the murder of Job’s servants, and the theft of his flocks.
On the left, the theft of Job’s flocks, and the building collapse which kills his children; on the right, Job thanks God.
The last surviving part of the cycle shows Job covered in sores, and his friends Eliphaz, Baldad and Sophar; the conclusion of the cycle, which would have shown Job’s restoration, was destroyed to make way for the door seen at the right. This led to the gradual corruption of the right side of the fresco, and the figure of Job is a later repainting.

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