Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The Life of St Philip Benizi in Art

Today is the feast of St Philip Benizi, a 13th century Florentine who stands for the Servite Order in the same position that St Bernard of Claivaux does for the Cistercians. He was not the order’s founder, but he was its most effective early propagator, and his lifetime of work and his reputation for holiness did a great deal to consolidate its position in the Church. He entered as a lay brother in 1254; four years later, he was ordained a priest, and rapidly rose to prominence. In a general chapter held in 1267, he was elected superior general, despite the fact that three of the original seven founders were still alive, and held that office for the rest of his life. During the papal conclave of 1268-71 (at 33 months, the longest in history), he was seriously proposed as a candidate for the papacy, which he avoided by going into hiding until the danger of being elected had passed. The Pope elected by this conclave and his successor are both Blesseds, but not Saint, so it seems Philip really did choose the better part. He was born on the feast of the Assumption in 1233, and died on its octave, August 22nd, 1285; his feast was therefore assigned to the 23rd when he was canonized in 1671.

In the mid-15th century, a new portico, now known as the “chiostrino dei voti – the little cloister of the vows”, was added to the front of the Servite church in Florence, which is dedicated to the Annunciation. A project was begun to decorate it with frescoes depicting episodes from life of the Virgin Mary and of St Philip, which, however, went forth very slowly. In 1509, the painter Andrea del Sarto was hired to complete it, and the majority of the paintings are his work. In 1513, a native son of Florence, Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, was elected Pope with the name Leo X; the decoration of the portico was hastily finished with the hiring of new painters to prepare for his first official visit to the city as Pope. By the early decades of the 16th century, the Renaissance had effectively run its course, and the paintings are in the early Mannerist style, which is very much more interested in artifice than in realism, and is probably to the modern eye more interesting than attractive.
The Calling and Profession of St Philip, by Cosimo Rosselli, 1476 (one of only two parts of the fresco series to be completed at the time of its original proposal.) - On the right, St Philip has a vision of the Virgin Mary while he prays in his room; on the left, he receives the habit of the order. The depiction of the Saint in his underwear as he is about to receive the habit will perhaps strike the modern viewer as rather inappropriate. Florence was a city that made its fortune in the cloth market, and less than half a mile away, walking in an almost perfectly straight line from the door of this portico, stands the famous and very richly decorated city baptistery, which was paid for by cloth merchants guild. The depiction of the Saint in this fashion serves to emphasize the poverty which he embraced by entering the mendicant Servite order. 
(The remaining paintings of the life of St Philip are all by Andrea del Sarto, done from 1509-14.)
St Philip Heals a Leper. In the scenes in the background, the leper, having been healed, is able to come close to the Saint, who then embraces and clothes him. The Roman Breviary states that it was because of this miracle specifically that the cardinals in Rome thought to make him Pope in the midst of the long deadlocked conclave.   

The Punishment of a Group of Blasphemers, who are struck by an arrow from heaven. The art historian Giorgio Vasari singled out the startled horse in the background as a particularly praiseworthy aspect of del Sarto’s work.

St Philip Heals a Possessed Woman by making the sign of the Cross over her. Note how the figure of the woman, the beneficiary of the miracle, is highlighted by the illumination of her dress, while the rest of the figures, including the Saint himself, are less luminous.

The Death of St Philip; a newly deceased child is brought to the place where his body is laid out, and raised to life upon touching the bier. As is typical with Mannerists, who generally preferred to imitate art rather than life, this painting was done as a deliberate imitation of Ghirlandaio’s Funeral of Santa Fina in the collegiate church of San Gimignano.

Florentines Venerate the Relics of St Philip; note that the priest holding them is wearing a blue stole, and the altar has a blue antependium, since this is before Trent, and there was a certain amount of flexibility in the use of liturgical colors. (Blue vestments remained quite common in Tuscany long after they were in theory prohibited by various decrees of the S.R.C.)
The Birth of the Virgin, the first chronologically in the cycle of episodes from Her life. This was also painted by del Sarto, and another deliberate homage to Ghirlandaio, who had done the same scene in the choir chapel of the main Dominican church of Florence, Santa Maria Novella. This was also a subject particularly important to the Servites, as the feast day on which their order was founded.
The first scene to be painted, and the only part of the Marian cycle completed at the time of the original proposal, is this Adoration of the Shepherds by Alessandro Baldovinetti, from the year 1463. As can easily be seen, many of the pigments chosen by the artist have not stood the test of time well.

The Journey of the Magi, by del Sarto. This was a subject near and dear to the Florentines in the time of their great prosperity, as a sign that the wealthy were also accepted by the Christ Child. This is, however, very much less elaborate than the two most famous examples of the motif in the city, the Strozzi Altarpiece by Gentile da Fabriano (1423), and the Chapel of the Magi (1459) by Benozzo Gozzoli in the palazzo of the Medicis.

The Marriage of the Virgin, by Francesco di Cristofano, known as Franciabigio, 1513. This work is manifestly influenced by two works of Raphael, his version of the same subject (1504), and the so-called School of Athens (1509-11).

The Visitation, by Jacopo Carucci, a student of del Sarto, known from the town of his birth as Pontormo, 1514-16. Both his use of color and the sculptural quality of his figures, emphasized by the contrast with the concave space behind them, are very much reminiscent of Michelangelo’s work in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, completed in 1512.

The Assumption of the Virgin, 1517, by another student of del Sarto, Giovan Battista di Jacopo di Gasparre, known as Rosso Fiorentino (‘Red Florentine’) from the color of his hair, extremely uncommon in Italy. This is also based on a work of Raphael, the Oddi Altarpiece, which depicts the same subject (1503).

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