Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Cathedral of Siena (Part 5): The Decorative Pavement of the Crossing, Transepts and Sanctuary

This fifth part of our ongoing series on the cathedral of Siena will cover the rest of Nicola’s photos of the inlaid marble pavement which covers almost the whole of the church’s floor. The reader will perhaps find this easier to understand by referring to this plan of the upper half of the church, even though it is not in particularly high resolution. (This was made by Giovanni Pacciarelli in 1884; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. I have cropped the lower part, which shows the floor of the nave and side aisles.)
The hexagon at the bottom is the floor under the crossing, which is decorated with stories of the Prophet Elijah. The panel to the lower left of it is a battle scene known as The Banishment of Herod; above it is the Massacre of the Innocents. The pavement to the lower right of the hexagon is oriented towards the door of a very important side-chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary; it shows the Seven Ages of Man and the Three Theological Virtues; above it is the Sacrifice of Jephthe (Judges 11, 29-40). In the band above the hexagon are (from left to right): Judith and the end of the Seige of Bethulia; Moses on Mt Sinai, and below it, a narrow band showing him bringing water from the rock; the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (who visited Siena in 1431) with his ministers; and the death of Absalom. The band above that, right before the main sanctuary, has purely decorative panels on either end of it; the narrative panels show Joshua’s battle with the Amorrhites, stories of David, and stories of Samson. The panel in front of the altar is the Sacrifice of Isaac; the altar itself is surrounded by allegorical figures of the Four Philosophical virtues. Many of these are covered over, or difficult to photograph to advantage, and we will here present only a selection; the reason for the choice of images is also not always clear, particularly in regard to the military scenes.
The Philosophical Virtues, by Martino di Barolomeo, 1406: Fortitude
The Death of Absalom, by Piero della Minella, 1447.
The Emperor Sigismund with his ministers, by Domenico di Bartolo, 1434.
Joshua’s Battle with the Ammorrites (chapter 10), by Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, generally known as Sassetta, 1426, (one of the most badly worn out among the surviving sections of the 15th century.)

Part of the scene of Moses making water run from the rock (Exodus 17), by Domenico Beccafumi (1524-5), who also did the scene Mt Sinai scene that follows in 1531.

Aaron makes the Golden Calf
The stories of Elijah in the hexagon under the crossing were originally also done by Domenico Beccafumi from 1519-24, but being severely worn out, were in several places completely remade by Alessandro Franchi in 1878. Here we see the latter’s remade version of the Ascension of Elijah...
and a surviving original by Beccafumi, representing the Pact of Elijah and Ahab.

The Massacre of the Innocents, by Matteo di Giovanni, 1481-2. This subject may have been given particular prominence in reference to the horrifying Turkish sack of the southern Italian city of Otranto (at the very heel of the Italian boot), which took place in 1480, and in which more than 800 non-combatant citizens of the city were killed. (Pope Benedict XVI announced the canonization of this group as martyrs at the same occasion on which he announced his resignation, Feb. 11, 2013.)
The Lifting of the Seige of Bethulia, by Urbano di Cortona or Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1473.
The Sacrifice of Jephthe, by Neroccio di Bartolomeo de’ Landi, 1481-85.
The Banishment of Herod, by Benvenuto di Giovanni, 1485. As mentioned in the second part of this series, in 1482, a chapel was added to the left side of the cathedral to house a relic St John the Baptist’s arm which it had received from Pope Pius II in 1463; this part of the pavement is directly in front of that chapel. The scene is taken from book 18 of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (18, 7), which is cited in a Latin paraphrase in the panel seen here at the upper left. The sum of the story is that Herod’s army is massacred, and he himself is banished from the throne, which was seen by many of the Jews as a divine punishment for the murder of St John.

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