Italian artists I: Descending into sheol in Assisi

The basilica of St Francis in Assisi is actually two basilicas, one above the other. The upper basilica is famed for its frescoes by Giotto depicting the life of St Francis. They are fine work, but descend into the lower basilica and another kind of experience awaits you.

In the nave there are two depictions of the crucifixion. Both depict the moment immediately after Christ’s death.
On the north side is Giotto’s, a fine work, but the one that always draws me is that on the south side by Pietro Lorezetti. It is a horrifying picture, quite hard to really look at.

Crucifixion - Pietro Llorenzetti

14 angels fly around the cross in obvious distress. Some wring their hands in anguish; others cover their faces, unable to look. Finely dressed citizens, merchants and soldiers throng around the cross, jostling for the best position from which to view the spectacle.
On either side of Christ, the two criminals have been crucified in positions which must have dislocated their shoulders. One has a halo, the other not. Jesus’s followers are gathered together to our left, not at the foot of the cross because they cannot get close enough. Mary has fainted, and Mary Magdalene and John The Beloved Disciple are taking care of her.

The painting is distressing, but not as much as much as the next of Christ being taken down from the cross.
Pietro Lorenzetti - Deposizione
Pietro_lorenzetti,_compianto_(dettaglio)_basilica_inferiore_di_assisi_(1310-1329)Unlike the last, this fresco aims for realism. A ladder is thrown up against the cross, a T-shape with four nails fixing the cross piece to the upright. Joseph of Arimathea has gone up the ladder to retrieve the body whilst Nicodemus pulls the nails from Jesus’s feet with a pair of forceps. Jesus slumps in the arms of his family as his body is carefully let down. Mary Magdalene has caught her lover’s body tenderly around the legs. Her head rests on his thigh, conveying a mixture of tenderness and anguish. Mary cradles her dead son’s head, his hair falls around her hands. John The Beloved Disciple kisses his feet in a tender farewell. The fresco depicts a cauldron of emotion and has all the immediacy and power of a news photograph from a war zone. Jesus’s halo is barely visible; his light is going out.

On the other side of the arch, Jesus’s corpse is being gently laid into its tomb by the same group of seven. As John carefully lowers the shroud, Mary embraces her dead son and kisses him. Jesus has no halo; his light has been extinguished. Jesus is dead.
Pietro Lorenzetti - Entombment (ca. 1320)
The spiritual power of the frescoes drowns out the inane chattering of the tour guides, most of them monks, who are waving their laser pointers and cracking jokes. One is explaining what kind of pigment has been used to make the red paint. Curiously, it is cinnabar, which seems significant to anyone interested in alchemy. The tourists leave having seen nothing.


~ by scalambra on May 29, 2013.

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