LUCA SIGNORELLI: Apocalypse or the Destruction of the World, 1499 – 1502, Fresco, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

LUCA SIGNORELLI: Apocalypse or the Destruction of the World, 1499 – 1502, Fresco, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

 ‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’ (Mark 13:24)

 Italy in the early sixteenth century was ridden with not just disease and war but with a sense of spiritual paranoid. The Apocalyptic hysteria meddled minds and perturbed souls. This was best exemplified by the prophecies of Girolamo Savonarola, a charismatic Dominican friar. He staged ‘bonfires of vanities’ along with ‘hell-fire sermons’. He warned about the end of time and the great battle between the spiritual and temporal which would usher in the Last Judgement. Regarded Antichrist, Savonarola was burnt at stake in Florence on May 23, 1498.

Was Signorelli inspired by Savonarola? Perhaps yes. This is observed in his paintings in the Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto. In order to illustrate the ‘Apocalypse’ the artist had to make do with the narrow but beautifully proportioned space on the inner side of the Chapel portal.

We are greeted with a heightened sense of absolute drama. The painting is surmounted with a group of cherubs that seem to blissfully wrestle with a ribbon plaque. At the centre stands a little winged creature holding high the herald of the ‘Opera del Duomo di Orvieto’ (O.P.S.M – the institution that promotes, manages and administers the work of the construction of the Cathedral).

The narrative is divided into two significant scenes. To our right are the early signs of the end of times. Notice the darkening of the moon, the raining of stars and the eclipse. The sky is gloomy and the earth quakes in fear. In the background – stormy waves surge the sea threatening to engulf humanity.

The left arch

Signorelli segments the mortal beings into three groups here. The first depicts Antichrist henchmen harrowing their targets. The second group consists of men and women appalled by the destruction of a marbled structure (Temple?). They stare at the three truncated pillars in horror while a pile of broken columns and capitals silently sit by their feet. Could this resemble the marble pedestal of the Antichrist as portrayed in the previous painting?

In the foreground we encounter the prophets and the philosophers who seem to study the spectacle before them in solemn awe. This includes King David and the Sibyl, as witnesses of Dies Irae, Latin for ‘day of wrath’, and a hymn sung during Mass for the dead.  

The epilogue of the catastrophic Apocalypse is recounted to our left. Dangerous demons dance amongst the treacherous skies while spewing floods of fire onto fragile survivors. The attacked mortals topple against each other like broken dolls. Terrified women with babies at breast are seen shrieking in pain. Some men on horsebacks seek to flee the flames but in vain.

The right arch

The next group in the foreground of the painting includes individuals beyond the distinction of age. The elderly, youth and children fall victim to the monstrous attacks. Confusion camouflages the canvas. Upturned faces, covered ears and dreaded eyes creed the calamity. As the rays of death invade the earth – angels in heaven await the trumpet blasts! We shall witness the flesh rising back to life through the next painting in this series. How far will this Renaissance imagination soar?

Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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