THERE seems to be a moment in the life of every great man in which he touches the height of his possibilities, and reaches the limits of his powers of expression. To Signorelli it came late, at an age when most men begin to feel at least their physical powers on the wane. The two last frescoes of the Monte Oliveto series indicate that an immense force lay in reserve, waiting an opportunity for some wider and freer field of action, than had hitherto presented itself. That opportunity now came, when, at the age of fifty-nine, he was called upon to undertake the vast work of these Orvieto frescoes. With the exception of the Sistine Chapel, no such task has been achieved at so sustained a pitch of imaginative power and technical excellence. Whether the subject stirred his dramatic spirit, or whether the great spaces to be filled gave an expanded sense of liberty to his genius, or whether his powers, intellectual and physical, really were at the zenith of their strength ; whatever was the cause, he succeeded in executing a work which ranks among the greatest monuments of the Renaissance, perhaps should even rank as the very greatest.
Morelli writes : ” These masterpieces appear to me unequalled in the art of the fifteenth century; for to no other contemporary painter was it given to endow the human frame with a like degree of passion, vehemence, and strength.” 1 And beside the dignity with which he has in these frescoes elevated the body to an almost superhuman grandeur, his conception of supernatural things is proportionately solemn and impressive. It is impossible to look at the scenes without emotion, and the mood evoked is due in a great measure to the earnest conviction with which they are conceived. Signorelli, always a religious painter, in the wider meaning of the word, seems here to assume an almost prophetic attitude of warning, embodied, one might almost think, in the portrait of himself, stern and menacing, standing sentinel-like over the work.
Vasari thus speaks of the frescoes : ” In the principal church of Orvietothat of the Madonnahe completed with his own hand the chapel which had been begun there by Fra Giovane da Fiesole ; in which he painted all the history of the end of the world, with strange fantastic invention : Angels, demons, ruins, earthquakes, fires, miracles of Antichrist, and many other of the like things ; besides which; nudes, foreshortened figures, and many beautiful designs ; having pictured to him-self the terror which will be in that latest tremendous day. By the which he roused the spirit of all those who came after him in such a way that since, they have found the difficulty of that manner easy. Wherefore it does not surprise me that the works of Luca should have always been most highly praised by Michelagnolo, nor that certain things of his divine Judgement which he painted in the chapel were in part courteously taken from the invention of Luca ; as are the Angels, Demons, the heavenly orders, and other things in which Michelagolo imitated the style of Luca, as everyone may see. Luca portrayed in the above-mentioned work himself and many of his friends ; Niccolô, Paulo and Vitellozzo Vitelli ; Giovan, Paulo and Orazio Baglioni, and others whose names are unknown.”‘
Fifty-two years before, in 1447, Fra Angelico had spent three months and a half in this Cathedral of Orvieto, painting the spandrels in the roof of the Cappella Nuova, as it was then called. He had time to complete only two frescoes, being either recalled to Rome by Nicholas V., or to the convent of S. Domenico, near Fiesole (of which, in 1450, he was made Prior). These two works are among the best and strongest of his paintings. In the principal space, that over the altar, he painted Christ in glory, surrounded by a mandorla, with angels on either side ; and in the spandrel on the right, a group of sixteen prophets, seated pyramidally against a blaze of gold background. It is probable that he had thought out the general scheme of the frescoes, and that Signorelli only carried out his intention in working the paintings into one great wholeChrist in Heaven, surrounded by Angels, Apostles, Martyrs, Virgins, Patriarchs and Fathers of the Church, witnessing from on high the execution of divine justice below. However that may be, it is certain that Signorelli, in his painting of the roof, kept most scrupulously to the older master’s arrangement, and in one of the spandrels actually seems to have worked over his design.
After the withdrawal of Fra Angelico, the chapel remained untouched for more than fifty years. In 1449 his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli, who had probably been his assistant in the painting, demanded permission to continue the work ; but the authorities were not content to grant it, and it was only in 1499, after some futile negotiations with Perugino, who appears to have refused the commission, that they finally resolved to place the decoration in the hands of Signorelli. Perhaps decided to this step by the success of the Monte Oliveto frescoes, they were yet so cautious and so determined to have only the very best work in their chapel, that at first they only entrusted to him the painting of the vaulting, already begun. They were wise to be careful in their choice, for they were probably conscious of the extreme beauty of their cathedral, and, in particular, of the exquisite architecture of this chapel. Orvieto Cathedral is one of the finest and most impressive of the Italian churches, and from its foundation in 1290, the authorities had been notoriously lavish in their expenditure for its building, and fastidious in their choice of architects, sculptors, and painters.’ From the point of view merely of decoration, they could have given the work to no better artist than Signorelli, and the first impression, on passing into the chapel from the austere and spacious nave, is of the harmonious plan, both of colour and design, with which the original beauty of the architecture has been enhanced, and its graceful characteristics accentuated.
The roof is of very perfect shape, and the spaces well adapted for painting. It is divided in the middle by an arch, thus having two complete vaultings, each with four spandrels. The walls are high and spacious, also divided in two parts, in each of which, on either side, is a large fresco. Signorelli has separated the lower part of the wall by a painted frieze of delicate gold and ivory, and in the lower half executed a series of portraits, each surrounded by medallions in grisaille, containing small subject-pictures, the rest of the space being filled with an intricate pattern of grotesques. The south wall, in which are three small windows, has been unfortunately disfigured by a baroque seventeenth-century altar, whose projections hide a part of the frescoes. Opposite is the entrance, a magnificently-proportioned portal, with a rounded arch, most delicately decorated in colour. Every inch of the walls is covered, and for the most part by the work of Signorelli himself, the above-mentioned grotesques, the merely ornamental painting, and a few of the medallions alone being by his assistants.
In describing the frescoes I intend to begin with those of the vaulting, and then to work gradually round the walls from the left of the entrance, where the first of the series of larger paintings begins with ” The Preaching and Fall of Antichrist.”
In the spandrel opposite the Christ of Fra Angelico, Signorelli has painted eight angels holding the symbols of the Passion, while two others, not unlike the great Archangels of the ” Resurrection,” blow trumpets to announce the impending Judgment.
Left of the altar, opposite Fra Angelico’s ” Prophets,” and arranged in exactly the same pyramidal form, is a magnificent group, representing the ” Apostles,” the Virgin being seated on the lowest tier with S. Peter and S. Paul. Very noble, impressive figures, powerfully and solidly painted, with broadly-draped, heavy-folded robes, they sit like rocks upon clouds as solid as hills.
These, with the two frescoes of Fra Angelico, complete the paintings of the first vaulting.
Those on the other side of the arch are executed entirely by Signorelli, and, with the exception of one, from his own designs. This one is the weakest of his roof-paintings in execution, and the composition and actual drawing of the central figures, are the work of Fra Angelico. It represents the ” Choir of Martyrs,” a group of seven figures. In the centre are seated three Deacons in full canonicals, with Bishops on either side, and below two Saints in plain robes. These last have all Signorelli’s characteristics of drawing, and sit with wide-spread knees and broadly-painted draperies, a striking contrast to the weak attitudes and niggling robes of the central group. Signorelli has indeed hardly altered the childish chubby features of the Deacon in the middle, nor the benevolent vacuity of the two Bishops, so different to his own austere types.
Opposite to this, over the portal, is a group of eight Virgins,” broadly and vigorously treated, in Signorelli’s boldest manner. To the right is another of the pyramidal groups, fifteen “Doctors of the Church,” some of whom are represented disputing and discussing points of theology.
The last of the roof-paintings is a powerful group of “Patriarchs,” ranking, with that of the “Apostles,” among the most impressive of the frescoes. Here appear many of his well-known types of face ; the melancholy features of Pan are repeated in the turbaned youth in the top row, intended perhaps to be Solomon ; the Christ of the Uffizi “Holy Family” is in the second tier to the left ; the powerful Zacharias from the Berlin Tondo in the lowest.
Luzi, in his minute description of the paintings, has bestowed names on all these figures, without much advantage, since they are for the most part doubtful. Few of them bear symbols, but the different groups are sufficiently described in large letters, by the painters themselvesGLORIOSVS APOSTOLORVM CHOIR MARTIRVM CANDIDATVS EXERCITVSetc. etc.
The figures, with the exception of those by Fra Angelico, and the design for the ” Martyrs,” are entirely the work of Signorelli himself. The decorations between the spaces seem to be in part by the assistant of Fra Angelicoperhaps Benozzo Gozzoli. In the first border heads are painted, in lozenges, at regular intervals, a few of which are in the older master’s style, while many show the manner of Signorelli. The rounded projecting rib is painted with foliage of cypress-green, with here and there rich red and golden flowers gleaming out, and on either side a border of conventionalised water-lilies. It is difficult to say which of the masters designed this exceedingly beautiful decoration, but it is most effective, and well calculated to accentuate the life of the fine curves in the vaulting.
These groups of Signorelli’s are noble and impressive paintings, in technique strong and vigorous. The draperies are treated with simplicity and breadth of fold, and the gold background gives richness and beauty to the colour. No wonder that the authorities, jealous though they were at the beauty of their chapel, should have hesitated no longer to hand over the great spaces of the walls to the brush of the painter who had so well executed their first commission.
In the April of the following year, 1500, the new task was given. The payment for the roof was to have been 205 ducats ; for the walls they offered 575. Besides this, the painter was to be furnished with ultramarine, a certain quantity of food and wine, and a free lodging, with two beds, as the lengthy documents of commission minutely tell.’
The paintings begin with ” The Preaching and Fall of Antichrist.” Here the foreground is filled with groups of the followers of the false prophet, who, with the features of Christ, stands on a little raised dais, listening with an evil expression, as the Devil behind him, unseen by the crowd, whispers into his ear what he shall say. Before the dais are scattered gold vessels, bars and coins, with which he tempts the audience. Farther back to the right, different groups represent the false teaching and miracles of Antichrist, and in the background is his Temple, with armed men going in and out of its open portico. The left of the frescoes is devoted to the fall of the false prophet, and the destruction of his followers. Above we see him precipitated head-downwards from heaven by an angel surrounded by fiery rays, which strike death to the army beneath.
In sombre black, and standing outside the scene, Signorelli has painted the portrait of himself, with fingers interlaced and firmly-planted feet, and behind, the milder, but still gloomy figure of Fra Angelico.
There is something sinister in the saturnine melancholy on the faces of the crowd, unrelieved by any lightness, and culminating in the evil expression of Antichrist himself. The peace of the gold-flecked landscape only accentuates the horror of the scene of the downfall in the background. The picture is a fit prologue to the terrible Judgment to come.
In composition the fresco is very fine, the values of distance are well kept, and the meaning of the scene is obvious and significant, and dramatically rendered. The foreground group is very strongly painted, natural in attitude and gesture, and the figure of a man in striped hose is magnificently modelled. I do not care to touch on so hypothetical a thing as the supposed portraiture in this group, but it is interesting to note, in the old man right of Anti-christ, the features familiar to us in the drawings of Leonardo, possibly painted from a study of the same model. Behind is a profile head, obviously intended for Dante. The terrible force of the angel, with its hawk-like swoop, the unresisting heavy fall of the body through the air, are rendered with extraordinary power. The foreshortening is admirable, and so is the fine perspective of the beautiful architecture of the Temple.
The figures of the soldiers on the steps recall Perugino in the manner of treatmentdark against light, and well detached from the background. The capitals of the pillars, the buttons on the clothes, and the rays of the angel are embossed with gilded gesso, as also are the distant hills. This form of ornamentation, so much used by Signorelli in these frescoes, adds greatly to their decorative beauty.
Under this painting is a square – shaped portrait, half cut away by a recess, in which stands a modern altar. It is supposed by Luzi to represent Homer, and is the first of a series which run all round the walls, much repainted, but all of them the work of the master himself. They are surrounded by four medallions, painted in grisaille, also for the most part by Signorelli, but in this case only two, and a fragment of the third, remain, the enlarging of the recess having almost entirely cut that and the fourth away. In the top medallion are five nude figures, a powerful female and four males, all wildly hastening as if from some impending destruction. In that on the left a a man stands on a dais, surrounded by soldiers who hold a prisoner bound before him. In the lower fragment, only one figure remains. These all represent, according to Luzi, scenes from Homer. The groups are well composed and full of vigorous energy, the nudes are splendidly modelled in broad, bold strokes, so sharply drawn on the wet plaster that the outlines are deeply incised. Where, as here, these grisaille pictures are the work of Signorelli himself, they are worthy of more attention than is usually given to them, being as fine as any of his best work. To realise fully their vigour and excellence, one need only compare these powerful nudes with those painted in the pilasters close by, the work of assistants. The medallions in every case are surrounded by a broadly painted coloured pattern of grotesques, also by assistants, but probably to a large extent designed by Signorelli, for they are extremely characteristic of his preoccupation with the human form and with movement. Arabesques have but little attraction for him, and it will be noticed that in all his ornamental work where it is possible, he paints figures. These decorations are almost entirely composed of fantastic creatures, fauns, tiny satyrs, horses, birds, etc., who blending their shapes and borrowing each other’s limbs, frisk all over the walls, and by their gambols and contortions form a pattern of curves and lines, which is a maze of animated life, retaining at the same time the broad and harmonious effect of an arabesque.
The next large painting represents ” The Crowning of the Elect.” A crowd of men and women, many draped round the loins, some quite naked, gaze up-wards ecstatically, or kneel reverently to receive the gold crowns which angels are placing on their heads. Above, seated on clouds, are nine other angels, draped in many-folded robes, who play musical instruments. To the right two figures (in one of whom the Echo of the “Pan” is repeated) seem to walk out of the scene, thus connecting this fresco with the next, in which the elect and crowned souls prepare to ascend to Heaven.
The background is entirely of gold, thickly studded with bosses of gilded gesso. The figures are finely modelled and posed. The flesh-painting, as in all the frescoes, is perhaps somewhat heavy in colour, but the whole effect is rich and harmonious. The chief defects in the work are the overcrowding of the composition, and the bad values of distance, caused in a great measure by the gold background. Signorelli’s treatment is too realistic, his figures are too solid and too true to life, to bear the decorative background so suitable to the flat, half- symbolic painting of the Sienese school. They need space and air behind them, and lacking that, one feels a disagreeable sensation of oppression and overcrowding. Keeping the eye upon the ground, which is treated naturally, this feeling goes ; the long shadows distinctly marked, send the figures to their different planes, and the confused composition becomes clear.
Underneath are the usual decorations, two square portraits surrounded each by four medallions. We do not need the help of Luzi to recognise Dante in the first, injured though it is, and much repainted, especially about the mouth, which gives the face a somewhat grotesque expression.
The grisaille paintings represent stories from the ” Purgatorio,” but although fine in design, are not executed by Signorelli himself. They have none of the breadth and grandeur of the first series, and the effect is meagre and niggling, equal importance being given to the rocks and to the figures.
The other portrait is probably intended for Virgil, who, with upturned face and melodramatic expression, seems to seek for inspiration. This expression is exaggerated, but the painting is vigorous and strong.
Around, the medallions again represent subjects from the “Purgatorio,” and are apparently by the same hand as the last, with the exception of the lower one, which seems to have some of Signorelli’s own work in the nude figures.
The south wall is pierced by three lancet windows, the central one over the altar, dividing the two principal frescoes of ” Heaven ” and ” Hell.” The former is, as I have said, a continuation of the last scene, and represents angels preceding the elect souls, and showing them the way to Heaven. In the sky, heavily embossed with gold like the last, float angels with musical instruments, one of whom, with face down-ward, blowing a pipe, is not so successfully foreshortened as is usual with Signorelli.
In the thickness of the small window which cuts into this fresco, are painted two coloured medallions, one of an angel vanquishing a devil, the other of S. Michael, with the balances, weighing soulsboth by the master himself. Below are two series of small pictures in grisaille, with scenes from the “Purgatorio.” The lowest is unfortunately hidden by the altar. All of them are by Signorelli himself, exceedingly good, and worthy of careful study, one being especially beautifulthe top picture of the first series, in which Dante and Virgil stand before the Angel, with the gold-plumed Eagle in the foregrounda most nobly conceived illustration to the ninth canto of the ” Purgatorio.”
On the opposite side of the altar is the Judgment of Minos, and ,the driving of the lost souls to Hell under the superintendence of the two Archangels, who stand in the sky with drawn swords, sorrowfully watching the fulfilment of divine justice. Signorelli here has followed very closely the text of the ” Inferno.” In the foreground ” Minos standeth horribly and gnasheth,” condemning the miserable souls before him each to his different circle, his tail wound twice about his middle. Farther back, the Pistoiese, Vanno Fucci, with blasphemous gesture, yells out his challenge to God ; Charon plies his boat ; and in the background despairing souls follow a mocking demon who runs before them with a banner.
The two medallions on the sides of the window contain, one the Archangel Gabriel with the lily of the Annunciation, the other a very beautiful group of Raphael and Tobias, both by Signorelli himself. Below, the decorations correspond to those on the opposite side, the grisaille pictures, representing, according to Luzi, scenes from the ” Metamorphoses ” of Ovid, all, with the exception, perhaps, of the medallion just below the window, being also the work of the master, and very powerfully painted.
Leaving the window wall, we now come to the finest of all the frescoes, the magnificent scene of the ” Damnation.” So vivid is the realisation, so life-like the movements and gestures, that the writhing mass appears really alive, and one can almost hear the horrible clamour of the devils, and the despairing yells of the victims. The general effect is of one simultaneous convulsed movement, one seething turmoil. In detail, the horror is most dramatically rendered. The malignancy of the devils, their brutal fury as they claw their prey, tear at their throats, and wrench back their heads ; the utter horror and anguish of the victims, the confusion, the uproar, are given with a convincing realistic force, which makes the scene ghastly and terrible. In most representations of Hell, and especially of Devils, human imagination fails in conveying any sense of real horror, even the earnest Dürer and Botticelli treating them with a grotesqueness which shows how far they were from any conviction of their reality. Signorelli is the only painter of the Renaissance I can recall who has succeeded in giving a savage sternness, a formidable brutishness to his fiends, which is very far from grotesque, but is really appalling. These ferocious creatures are of all colours, slate-blue, crude purple, heavy green, livid mauvesometimes of all’ these poisonous-looking colours fading one into the other. Strong and malevolent, they triumph in their work of torture, with a gloomy malignancy very different from the trifling malice of the fiends he painted at Monte Oliveto. Above stand the three Archangels, in armour, with half- drawn swords, menacing those who try to fly upward instead of toward the flames of Hell. Two, in their hurry to escape chastisement, let fall their prey ; another, with great bat-wings which cut the air like scythes, swoops down again into the chaos below.
I suppose a mass of convulsed limbs has never been rendered in so masterly a manner. The effect is so natural that one is inclined to forget the difficulties Signorelli has so superbly overcome. But if one considers in detail the different attitudes, the violent action of the arms and legs, the contorted positions of the bodiesevery muscle either on the stretch or relaxed into a flaccid limpness,the foreshortened limbs twisted into every kind of unnatural posture, and the complicated interweaving of the whole, one realises that it is indeed his masterpiece, not only for the mood of terror and awe it induces by its imaginative power, but for its marvellous rendering of tumultuous movement, and the ease with which enormous technical difficulties have been surmounted.
The portraits below are, according to Luzi, of Ovid and Horace, the four medallions round the former seeming, in their energy and furious life, to carry out the tumult of the great fresco above. They represent scenes from ” The Metamorphoses,” and deal chiefly with Hades and the infernal Deities. Above stand four female figures with fluttering draperies, among whom we can distinguish Diana with the bow, and Pallas with the lance and shield. Below, Pluto stands in a chariot drawn by dragons. This painting is very much injured, as is much of this lower part of the wall, especially the grotesques. On the right Pluto bears away Persephone in his arms in a chariot drawn by two fantastic horses, which an attendant urges furiously forward with a caduceus. On the left Ceres, with wildly-floating hair, leaps into a tearing chariot drawn by two winged serpents, which Cupid goads onward with a flaming torch. These are all by Signorelli himself, and, for the rendering of violent movement, worthy of their position under the great painting.
Round the other portrait are subjects also connected with the infernal regions. Over it, Aeneas stands before the Cuman Sybil, a very injured painting. Below, Orpheus in Hades plays before Pluto and Persephone to win back Eurydice, who lies bound before them. On the right Hercules rescues Theseus from Hades, and slays Cerberus, and on the left, Eurydice, following Orpheus, looks back, and is re-seized by the demons. These are all exceedingly good and dramatic paintings, and are by Signorelli himself.
The next large space, after the fresco of ” The Damnation,” is filled with ” The Resurrection.” Above, the two mighty Archangels sound their trumpets, and the dead wake, and break through the crust of the grey earth below. They stand about embracing each other, or helping each other to rise, or gazing with rapture up at the Archangels, who, with fluttering draperies and ribbons, and great spread wings of purple and peacock-green, stand, surrounded by little shadowy cherubs, in the gold-embossed sky. Most of the figures are of Signorelli’s usual powerful build, one, however, is an emaciated youth with little on his bones but skin, many are skeletons. To these last he has given a pathetic look of ecstasy, which is wonderfully expressive, considering it is obtained only by means of eyeless sockets and grinning jaw-bones.
The fresco has suffered much, particularly from the painting, in later times, of draperies round the loins, some of which have been worn or rubbed half off.
Almost in the centre is a large stain, outlining the shape of a window, which Signorelli caused to be filled up, and which can still be seen on the outside of the Cathedral. The damp, oozing through the new plaster round the framework, partly destroyed the painting, but the centre is remarkably well preserved.
It is interesting to note in studying this fresco, that, student of anatomy though he was, the skeleton seems to have had little attraction for Signorelli. The placing of the bones is, of course, correct, but the delicacy of their curves, their relative proportions and thicknesses, their beauty of detail, are not given at all. For example, in the skeleton in the foreground, the pelvis has scarcely the shape, and none of the variety of line, of the bone itself, but is merely a coarsely – drawn girdle. Compared to the extreme delicacy with which he models flesh, and his minute appreciation of every gradation of curve in the muscles, this carelessness in the treatment of the skeleton is noteworthy.
Under this, the last of the larger frescoes, is a recess, in which was formerly the sarcophagus containing the bones of Pietro Parens, the patron saint of Orvieto. In this recess, under the brackets on which the sarcophagus stood, Signorelli has painted one of his most beautiful ” Pietàs.” Unfortunately, half hidden by a marble group, sculptured in 1574 by Ippolito Scalza, it is difficult to see, and impossible to photograph, and is therefore not so well known and appreciated as it deserves to be. The Christ is an exact repetition of the figure in the ” Deposition,” of the Cortona Cathedral, and was probably painted about the same time-15o2. The position only is reversed. The other two figures are also repeated from that altar-piece, with only very slight variations. Behind is painted the Tomb, on which is a relief in grisaille of four naked figures bearing the dead body of the Saviour. This formed the lower part of the now removed sarcophagus, the three stone supports of which still project from the wall. On the right of the “Pietà,” is painted the martyr Pietro Parens himself. The saint gazes down with tender reverence at the scene at his feet, standing in fur-trimmed robes and cap, one hand on his breast, the other holding the palm of martyrdom. Over his head is the hammer, the instrument of his death. The face is of extreme beauty, with gentle expression, the robes are finely draped, the attitude most natural, and the whole figure is one of the noblest and most sympathetic of all Signorelli’s works, and deserves to be better known. On the other side, and also as supporter of the “Pietà,” stands Faustinus, another patron saint of the city, also a very beautiful figure, with features which recall the type generally used by Signorelli for S. John. At his feet lies the millstone with which he was drowned. On either side, in the thickness of the wall, is a medallion in grisaille, containing the scenes of their deaths, very powerfully painted.
This recess occupies more than one half of the space below “The Resurrection,” allowing room for only one portrait and two medallions. The former Luzi has decided to be Lucan, and represents a beautiful youth, with a mass of loose curling hair crowned with oak-leaves and acorns. The scenes of the medallions are supposed to be from “The Pharsalia.” In that above three nude men fight with fists, one binds his prostrate foe, and another bears off a slain body. In that on the right four men fight with clubs and swords. All are powerful figures, painted by Signorelli in his most characteristic manner. Below the portrait of the poet is an inscription of 1667, honouring the memory of Signorelli, and of Ippolito Scalza, the sculptor of the marble “Pietâ”
The frescoes round the beautifully -proportioned entrance portal, being on an inside wall, are in a state of better preservation than the rest, and the colours brighter. They represent “The Signs of the Destruction of the World.” For imaginative power they can be compared only with the woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer’s ” Apocalypse.” To our right on entering, the “Rain of Fire” shoots in heavy lines from the hands and bodies of demons with outspread wings. The distraction of the people on whom it falls is well rendered. In the foreground armed men on horse and foot seek wildly to escape the shafts, which have already precipitated some to the ground. In the middle distance the flames pursue a flying mob of terrified women clutching their infants, and men trying to protect them ; while in the foreground old men, youths, and children, are struck down in heaps, stopping their ears, and gazing up in panic at the unearthly apparition.
On the opposite side the sun and moon are eclipsed, and a dark rain of blood falls from the gloomy sky. An earthquake has shaken the city, and its buildings totter and fall in fragments on the people. In the foreground is a group, perhaps intended for the Prophets of the Destruction, who gaze up, less terrified, but with fear and solemn awe.
Next to ” The Damnation,” these are perhaps the finest of the series, and show most imagination and dramatic feeling. The foreshortening of some of the figures is admirable, the composition in the restricted space is good, and there is superb drawing and modelling in the foreground figure among the Prophets in the last fresco.
In the centre, over the arch, Signorelli has painted a group of winged children, who hold a tablet by a bunch of ribbons, in one of whom are repeated the features of the Christ-child of the Uffizi ” Holy Family.”
In the space under ” The Rain of Fire” has been painted a portrait, but not a fragment of the face remains, an obelisk-shaped monument having in later times been placed against the wall, completely destroying it. Cavalcaselle, for what reason is not clear to me, supposes that it represented Niccolô Franceschi, the treasurer of the works. On the opposite side of the doorway is a coloured medallion, representing a man with a turban, who, leaning his back over the frame as though it were a window, seems to be gazing up at the painting above. This, Cavalcaselle suggests, is a portrait of the painter himself ; Luzi, however, considers it to be Empedocles. Over it in the decorations are two small tablets bearing the master’s initials, L. and S.
We began by considering the general impression of the frescoes upon the mind, their great imaginative qualities, and the solemn mood they induce. We will conclude by summing up the technical excellences, which distinguish them from all his previous work by extra power and ability. The beauty of the compositions, the filling of the spaces and the effectiveness of the scheme of decoration are as much above the work of three years beforethe Mount Oliveto seriesas is the freedom and dramatic power with which the scenes are rendered.
What chiefly strikes one is the homogeneousness of the whole design, each part of the work keeping its due place in the great scheme. We are never unconscious, even while carried away by the emotions of each separate scene, of the solemn presence of the Judges above, who preside over the final justice. Considered as subject-pictures, the intense dramatic feeling makes them extremely powerful in their different effects, so that it is impossible to look at them unmoved. Finally, the facility and freedom with which his anatomical knowledge has allowed Signorelli to render all the possibilities of movement and gesture, is as much in advance of his age, as is his modern and natural visualisation, and the impressionistic breadth of his brushwork. In that respect, indeed, it is impossible to go farther. Later painters have erred as much in exaggerating violent action and over-developing muscles, as the earlier master fell short in dry and laborious stiffness. Signorelli, while retaining the earnest sincerity and thoughtfulness of the earlier workers, has been able at the same time to render with modern facility every movement of the human frame, and the result is an achievement which no later skill has surpassed, which is perhaps the last word in the treatment of the nude in action.
Before closing these remarks, I must not omit to record the gratitude due to the two German painters, Bothe and Pfannenschmidt of Würtemburg, who, in 1845, at their own cost, cleaned and carefully restored the frescoes, a work done on the whole with great discretion.
Two other paintings of the master, now in the Opera del Duomo, are so closely connected with the chapel, that the description would be incomplete without mention of them herethe altar-piece of the Magdalen, and the portraits of himself and the treasurer of the Cathedral, Niccolô Franceschi.
The former, painted originally for the Cathedral, is a life-sized, very broadly painted figure, somewhat coarse in execution, but exceedingly powerful. She wears a gorgeous gold garment, elaborately embroidered, and over it a brownish-red mantle lined with green. There is a stately dignity in the picture itself which the photograph unfortunately does not reproduce. It is dated 1504, and on the old frame is the following Inscription :
CECCARELLEVS . DE . APVIDVTISET . RVFINVS .
CONSERVAT . PA . PACIS . CONSERVATRICI . EX . SE .
CONSVLTO . M.D.IIII.
The double portrait, painted in 1503,1 is a work of the greatest importance, both by reason of the interest attached to the portraiture, and also that it remains to us absolutely untouched, every stroke being in the original state as the master left it. The heads are full of character and life, powerfully and rapidly painted in black and red, on a brick or tile, thickly overlaid with gesso. The brush-strokes are bold and firm, and the outline slightly incised in the plaster. Under each head Signorelli has painted the names LVCA and NICOLAVS, and on the back is a most interesting inscription, apparently painted by himself, although the words are most probably the composition of the Treasurer. The following is a translation : ” Luca Signorelli, an Italian by race, citizen of Cortona, renowned for his skill as a painter, comparable to Apelles for attainment, has, under the rule and in the pay of Niccolô Franceschi, of the same race, but a citizen of Orvieto, Treasurer of the vestry of its Cathedral, painted with clear meaning this chapel, dedicated to the Virgin, with figures of the Last Judgment ; and, eager for immortal fame, on the back of this inscription, has painted the effigy of both, life-like, and with wonderful art. In the reign of Pope Alexander VI. and of the Emperor Maximilian IV. in the year of grace M.CCCCC. in the third Kalends of January.”