Monday, May 06, 2024

Norcia’s New Sanctuary Paintings in Honor of Our Lady

Near the start of this month of Our Lady, I am very pleased to be able to share with NLM readers several photos of the new wall paintings in the church of the Monastery of San Benedetto in Norcia, Italy. As will be quickly apparent, these are only the start (but what an auspicious start!) of an ambitious iconographic program that will eventually encompass the walls on both sides of the sanctuary, radiating down toward the choir. The monks have thought very carefully about the sequence, the symbolism, and the juxtaposition of scenes.

We will introduce the seven photos as if we are walking up through the choir, toward the sanctuary. (Click on any photo to enlarge it.)
Photo 1. Here we see the monks’ benches on either side, the wrought-iron candle holders, the seat of the prior, the statue of Our Lady, and the sanctuary lamp hanging at the juncture of choir and sanctuary, as if marking out the Holy of Holies.

Photo 2. We ascend the first flight of steps and take note of the Annunciation on the right side. This is one of ultimately six large panels (seven, if you include the image directly above the altar) that will decorate the entire apse. All of the marble is painted “faux marble,” a common technique throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods. On the right are the seats for the ministers at Mass, and the credence table.

Photo 3. Turning to the right, we gaze at the Annunciation.
Photo 4. In keeping with iconographic tradition, Our Lady is shown studying Scripture when St. Gabriel arrives. She demurely looks down, but interestingly her right hand is shown almost in a gesture of blessing, as if she is responding with her hand to the upraised right hand of the archangel. Gabriel wears the dalmatic of a deacon (a messenger of the good news, the Gospel), holds a lily, and genuflects. God the Father, enthroned upon the cherubim (Is 37:16), sends forth His Holy Spirit, which moves toward the Virgin’s womb for the enactment of the mystery of the Incarnation. The vegetation outside recalls the Garden of Eden; this garden is walled, for it is, in the words of the Song of Songs, a hortus conclusus or enclosed garden of unstained virginity consecrated to God.
Photo 5. Now we draw closer to the high altar, nobly dressed with its antependium. To the right, we see the Deposition of Christ; to the left, the holy death of the Virgin Mary and her (implied) Assumption; and directly above the altar, her Coronation.
Photo 6. The Deposition. Our Lady cradles the head of her dead Son; her sister holds His arm with veiled hands; Mary Magdalene bathes His feet again with her tears, a jar of ointment beside her. The crown of thorns and nails lie in the foreground. Giotto-like, three theatrical angels express their grief in contorted flight: one holds a hand over his eyes, another holds both hands to his cheeks, and a third holds his hands up. St. John stands and contemplates. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus rest to the side after their labor in taking the body down from the Cross. The splendor of the colors of all the clothing contrast sharply with the lifeless pallor of the dead Christ. Receding layers of mountains and writhing clouds suggest the ungraspable vastitude of the sacrifice that has been offered.
Photo 7. The Dormition of the Virgin Mary. She is surrounded by Apostles, some of whom are stricken with grief at the loss (as they feel it) of their spiritual mother. Christ her Son holds her soul in His hands. The body will be taken up soon thereafter. One of the Apostles, undoubtedly St Peter, wears a cope and reads a Gospel—the Gospel about “Mary hath chosen the better part.”
All the paints were executed by the Italian painter Fabrizio Diomedi, a portfolio of whose work may be viewed here and here.

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