Wednesday, November 04, 2020

The Collegiate Church of San Gimignano (Part 3)

We have previously shared Nicola de’ Grandi’s photos of the Collegiate Church of the Assumption in San Gimignano in two different posts. The first of these gave a general overview of the church, and the second showed the frescos of Old Testament stories in the left nave, which was originally the side on which the men stood. The right nave was the women’s side, and the frescos all depict stories of the New Testament. This reflects the medieval understanding that women are in a certain sense closer to God, since they were to a large degree (though not exclusively so) occupied with home and family, and therefore less exposed to the temptations of the wider world. Unlike the Old Testament stories, the paintings on this side have no captions, in part because they are largely self-explanatory, and in part because literacy was extremely rare among women.
The attribution of this cycle has been a matter of much discussion. The artist and art historian Lorenzo Ghiberti, writing in the mid-15th century, attributed them to a painter called Barna from Siena, and says that he died in 1381, towards the end of project, when he fell off his scaffolding and broke his neck. This story is repeated by Giorgio Vasari in the later 16th century. However, modern scholarship generally dates them to about 1340, and assigns them to one or more unnamed followers of Simone Martini, the best-known and most successful artist of the early 14th century Sienese school, and his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi. The cycle runs back and forth, right to left across the top, left to right across the middle, and right to left at the bottom, culminating with a large Crucifixion. (It was not really practical to post them in chronological order.) The paintings in the last bay on the left are very badly damaged.

Here we see part of the paintings of the middle and lower band in the second bay (left), and the first. In the middle band (upper part of this photo), Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, followed by the triumphal entry into Jerusalem in two parts; in the lower band (right to left) the Last Supper, the betrayal of Judas, and the Agony in the Garden.
Above the paintings seen in the previous photo, the cycle begins with the Annunciation.
A closer view of the Last Supper.
The Betrayal of Judas. (Notice how close the artists of the Sienese school are to inventing one-point linear perspective already in the 1340s. The building splays out in a way that is architecturally unlikely, but the sense of space which it creates is nevertheless quite realistic.)
The Agony in the Garden. 
The second bay: at top, the Birth of Christ and the visitation of the Shepherds; in the middle band (left to right), the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus; in the lower band (right to left), the agony in the garden and the arrest of Christ.
The third bay: at top, the visit of the Magi; in the middle band (left to right), the calling of Ss Peter and Andrew and the wedding at Cana (damaged); in the lower band (right to left), Christ before Caiphas and the scourging at the column.
The scourging at the column. (Again, notice the valiant, though not wholly successful, attempt to give the scene a real sense of perspective, not only with the architectural element, but also by positioning the column between the figure of Christ and the viewer, and the tilting back of the figure in green to the right.)
The fourth bay: at top, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; in the middle band (left to right), the young Christ among the Doctors, and the Baptism of the Lord); in the lower band (right to left), the mocking of Christ and the Carrying of the Cross.
One of the products that made San Gimignano remarkably prosperous for its size (current population about 7,800, roughly twice that, but no more, at the height of its power in the 13th and 14th centuries) was the manufacture of an extremely costly luxury item, cloth dyed yellow with a special coloring made partly from saffron. Notice how, even though the Gospel says very clearly that the Lord was clothed by the soldiers in a scarlet cloak, He is here shown wearing an outer garment of yellow, as the city’s way of “dressing” Him in the finest thing it has to offer. The yellow paint also has several flecks of reflective mica embedded in it.
The fifth bay, with the Massacre of the Innocents deliberately placed over the Crucifixion, which occupies four scenes’ worth of space. Since this was the women’s side of the church, and it was very common for children to die at birth or in infancy, this image unites their suffering as mothers to the redemptive suffering of Christ. The line of the lance that is piercing Christ’s side points directly at the Virgin Mother’s heart as She faints over the death of Her child. (On the technical side of things, notice the not-very-successful attempt at perspective in the position of the soldier on horseback to the right of the Cross. Fresco is the technique of painting on wet plaster. Each day, the artist’s assistants would cover a section of the wall with as much plaster as he could paint before it dried in roughly four hours; each section is therefore called a “giornata – a day’s work.” In the upper part of the Crucifixion scene, the lines between the different “giornate” are clearly visible, a result of inferior plaster work which has also led to the corruption of the red background.)
The Harrowing of Hell is one of the four scenes after the Crucifixion, to the left of the bay shown in the previous photo, but obviously very badly damaged.

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