Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Cathedral of Siena (Part 7): The Crypt

In 1999, work on the cathedral complex of Siena led to the accidental rediscovery beneath the church’s choir of a large space which had been sealed away and forgotten for about 650 years. This space is now called a “crypt”, although it was certainly not built as a crypt in the proper sense of the term, a burial space beneath a building; its original purpose and relationship to the rest of the complex remains a matter of speculation. Sometime in the mid-14th century, it was filled in with rubble and sealed off, one of various projects designed to shore up the huge cathedral, which sits at the edge of a rather steep hill, for fear that the weight of the recently extended choir would cause the hill to collapse. As a result, much of the fresco work within the space, which was still quite new when it was buried, is remarkably well-preserved.

As was almost always the case in the Middle Ages, none of the paintings are signed. Broadly speaking, they are attributed to a group of prominent artists known to have been active in Siena in the later 13th century and their students: first and foremost among them, Duccio di Buoninsegna (whose great masterwork, the altarpiece known as the Maestà, will be shown later in this series), then Guido di Siena, and the oddly-named Diotisalvi di Speme (“God-save-thee of Hope”), best known in the city as the painter of the Madonna which was replaced by the Maestà. Byzantine influence was still quite strong in Italy in the later 13th century, and especially in Siena, where artists were generally more concerned with decoration than perspective and three-dimensionality, but the tendency towards painting in a more realistic style which would be so characteristic of the Renaissance is already quite evident in many of these works. The more intact images show two cycles of the life of Our Lord, the Infancy and the Passion; a series of Old Testament stories above them were mostly destroyed when the building was, so to speak, decapitated before it was filled in and buried. (Photos by Nicola de’ Grandi.)
The Betrayal of Judas
Christ washes the feet of His disiples at the Last Supper.
The Crucifixion. In the earlier Middle Ages, Christ was shown on the Cross fully upright and awake, to indicate that even in the midst of His Passion, He is still God who sustains the universe. In the later years of the 13th century, especially under the influence of the Franciscans, the emphasis in art shifted towards Christ’s humanity, and hence, towards a more realistic portrayal of His sufferings. Here we see this in the slant of His body, which gives it a sense of real weight. This will be further accentuated in the next generation by Giotto, the first painter to show the body of Christ slumping forward as if it were about to fall off the Cross.
The Deposition from the Cross. Here we see very nicely another important trend of the period leading into the Renaissance, the use of facial expressions to tell a story, particularly evident in the women mourning over Christ.
The Lamentation at the Tomb.
The Harrowing of Hell
Noli me tangere
The first part of the Infancy cycle, the Annunciation (left) and Visitation
The Adoration of the Magi
The Holy Family; note how the artist uses different shades of violet in Our Lady’s robe to create a sense of real space and weight to the figure. The Greek letters MP ΘΥ are the abbreviation of “Μήτηρ Θεοῦ – Mother of God”, an obvious sign of Byzantine influence. (The blackening at the bottom of the painting is soot from candles.)
The Dream of St Joseph; above it, one of the few parts of the Old Testament cycle which is intact enough to read, Jacob sending Esau off to hunt before he blesses him (Genesis 37).
The Massacre of the Innocents (left) and the Baptism of Christ (right).
St Joseph at the Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple
An interesting example of a painted column.

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