Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Cathedral of Siena (Part 4): The Decorative Pavement of the Nave

One of the things for which Siena Cathedral is famous is the inlaid marble pavement which covers most of the floor. Its iconographic program is extraordinarily complex, and not completely unitary, as one would expect from a series of works that was executed over the course of five centuries. In this post, we will cover just the just images in the floor of the nave and the side aisles, which originally date mostly from the later 15th century, with a few earlier sections. Any such pavement will of course be damaged over time from the ordinary wear-and-tear of being trod on, and as we see it today, this part of the pavement owes its appearance to a massive and much-needed restoration of the later 1860s. The complete scheme can be see in this post on Italian Wikipedia; thanks once again to Nicola for sharing these photos with us.
Just inside the central door is this image of Hermes Trismegistus (Greek for “Thrice-Greatest”), executed ca. 1488. In the first centuries of the Christian era, a series of Greek treatises, strongly colored by both Gnosticism and Platonism, were written in Egypt, and later gathered under this name. By the early fourth century, the Christian writer Lactantius was citing him as a very ancient wise man, believed to be a contemporary of Moses (or even prior to him), who had anticipated in his writings some of the teachings of the true Faith. (St Augustine also talks about him in The City of God, but in a rather more negative way.) Here he is placed at the church’s threshold to indicate that the wisdom of the ancient pagan world, incomplete in and of itself, is nevertheless useful to bring us to Christ and to the truth. (In 1964, a British historian named Frances Yates published an extremely interesting book, “Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition”, the first chapters of which explain how this corpus came to play a significant rule in the culture of the later Italian Renaissance.)
A citation of the Hermetic Corpus, which explains why it was believed that he had foreseen the coming of Christ. “God, the creator of all things, made God-who-is-with-Him visible and made him the first and only, in whom he was delighted, and greatly loved him, his own son, who is called the holy word.” This would be understood as a prophesy, with the caveat that the Son is not, of course “made” by the Father, an idea that a pagan philosopher would not be expected to have understood.
The second panel is a tile mosaic, rather than an inlay, originally made in 1373, which shows the emblem of Siena in the center, and those of several other important central Italian cities around it. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, every town and city wanted to have some connection with the grandeur and glory of ancient Rome. The Sienese therefore claimed that their city had originally been founded by a son of Remus named Senius, who together with his younger brother Ascanius, fled from Rome after Romulus had killed their father; hence the adoption of the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus. The other cities are (clockwise from the top) Arezzo, Orvieto (a name which comes from the Latin “Urbs Vetus – Old City”), Roma, Perugia, Viterbo (a name which comes from the Latin “Vetus Urbs – Old City”), Pisa, Lucca and Florence. In the corners (clockwise from the upper left) are Massa Maritima, Grosseto, Pistoia and Volterra.
The third panel (also made ca. 1373) is focused entirely on an eagle, the symbol of imperial authority. For much of the Middle Ages, the Italian free cities were divided between the Guelphs who supported the Papacy, and the Ghibellines who supported the Holy Roman Emperor, and Siena was one of the most important in the latter faction. (Read the Wikipedia article on this interminably complex political conflict at your peril...)
The fourth panel was designed by the painter Pinturicchio, an associate of Perugino and Raphael, and executed in 1505. It an allegorical representation of philosophers scaling the hill of Wisdom. At the lower right part of the panel is Fortune, with her right foot balanced on a sphere, a symbol of inconstancy and change, a cornucopia, and a sail, which symbolizes a successful voyage. Her left foot rests on a ship with a broken mast, the ship by which a group of wise men have arrived at the mountain of wisdom.
The wise men climb a steep hill, which symbolizes the difficulty of attaining Wisdom, strewn with rock, plants and animals, which symbolizes the vices that need to be overcome to reach Wisdom.
At the top, the figure of Wisdom is seen with Socrates to the left, offering him a palm branch; this indicates that his forced suicide is understood as a kind of martyrdom. To the right, a philosopher called Crates the Theban pours a basket of jewelry off the cliff of the mountain, symbolising the renunciation of material wealth, and in general, the things of this world, in favor of Wisdom. (St Jerome refers to Crates in a passage of his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 3, 19, which is read in the Roman Breviary as part of the common homily for Holy Abbots.)
The last panel in the central part of the nave represents the Wheel of Fortune. Completed at the end of 1372, it was one of the most badly damaged of the original panels, and had to be replaced with a copy in the 1860s. At the corners, Epictetus, Aristotle, Euripides and Seneca offer their thoughts on the vicissitudes of Fortune.
In the side aisles flanking the naves are images in black and white, added in 1482-3, of the Sibyls, pagan prophetesses who were also believed to have foretold the coming of Christ, and figure prominently in Italian religious art in the 15th and early 16th centuries, most notably in Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This belief derives not from the pagans, but rather from the Jews, who began migrating in large numbers into the Greek-speaking world after they were conquered by Alexander the Great in the later 4th century BC. Although the Jews were duly impressed by many aspects of Greek culture, they did not like the fact that its literature was focused so much on the pagan gods and their spectacularly immoral behavior. They therefore began to produce their own literary works modeled on those of the Greeks, but with Jewish content, including a good number of “prophecies” on Jewish religious themes such as the unicity of God and the coming of the Messiah, put into the mouths of the Sibyls. These were accepted as authentic by Christians, to whom it seemed perfectly natural that, since Christ was sent as the Savior and Redeemer of all nations, His coming should be foretold to all nations. The last edition of the Sarum Breviary included a very lengthy passage from St Augustine’s City of God in the readings of the second nocturn of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, in which he cites the Sibylline prophecies about the coming of Christ.

The Sibyl of Cuma (in the Aeolian islands in Greece). “And he will put an end to the fate of death, having taken a sleep of three days. Then having returned from the dead, he will come into the light, showing the first beginning of the resurrection.”
The Sibyl of Cuma, a Greek colony near Naples, Italy, whom Aeneas visits in book VI of the Aeneid. A legend famous among the ancient Romans told that the Cumaean Sibyl had come to one of the kings of Rome and offered to sell him nine books of prophecies for a very large sum of money. When he refused, she burnt three of the books (as seen at the lower left) and offered to sell him the remaining six at the same price. When he refused again, she burnt three more of the books, and offered to sell him the remaining three at the same price; her confidence convinced the king of their value, and he bought them.
The quotation here is not from something attributed to the Sibyl herself, but four lines (4-7) of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, known as the Messianic Eclogue, which was understood from at least the time of the Emperor Constantine, and throughout the Middle Ages, as a prophecy of the coming of Christ. “Now hath come the last age of Cumaean song! The great order of the ages beginneth anew. Now the Virgin (i.e., the constellation Virgo) reappears, and the reigns of Saturn, now a new birth is sent down from high heaven.”
The Sibyl of Erythraea, in the Anatolia region of Lydia, to whom Lactantius attributes a lengthy acrostic poem about the coming of Christ.
“From the high dwelling place of heaven, the Lord looked forth upon his humble ones, and he shall be born in the last days from a Hebrew virgin in the cradles of the earth.”
The Sibyl of the Hellespont
“They gave (him) gall as food, and vinegar for his thirst; they will show him this table of inhospitability. But the veil of the temple will be rent, and in the midst of the day, there will be a gloomy night for three hours.” In the third picture of this post, a she-wolf represents Siena and a lion Florence; the two animals shaking hands here probably represents a treaty between the two rival states.
The Phrygian Sibyl
“A trumpet from heaven will give forth a mournful sound; the earth, gaping open, will show the chaos of the netherworld. All the kings will come to the judgment-seat of God. God himself, judging the good and wicked alike, then at last will send the wicked into fire and darkness, but those who keep right conduct will live again.”
The Sibyl of Samos
“For thou, foolish Judea, knew not thy god, and he shone upon the minds of mortals, but thou didst even crown him with thorns, and mixed terrible gall (for him).”
The Tiburtine Sibyl
“Christ will be born in Bethlehem, he will be announced in Nazareth, in the reign of the peaceful bull, the founder of rest. O happy mother, whose breasts shall give him milk.”
The Persian Sibyl. “With only five loaves of bread and two fish, he will fill five thousand men upon the grass; taking the remains he will fill twelve baskets for the hope of many.”

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