LUCA SIGNORELLI: The Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto

LUCA SIGNORELLI: The Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto

Beyond the touristy tumult of Rome, Florence, Milan and Pisa lies the Green Heart of Italy. Perched upon its tufa cliffs, is the ancient Etruscan capital of Orvieto. Riddled with history and mystery, at the heart of the town is tucked the breadth-taking, magnificent Gothic Duomo.

The Duomo of Orvieto is undoubtedly one of the best cathedrals in the world – famously called the Golden Lily of all the Italian Cathedrals. Its construction began in 1290 and was encouraged by the Eucharistic Miracle of Bolsena (1263) and the Institution of the feast of the Corpus Christi in 1264. The Cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady of Assumption and boast of one of Italy’s liveliest Gothic façade. With every gaze one is embraced by a gentle breeze that beckons contemplation upon its crowning mystery, namely, the Corporal of the Eucharistic Miracle within its repository. The Duomo also houses a renowned gem in its right transept – the Chapel of San Brizio.

This splendid Chapel was built at the beginning of the 15th century. Initially called the Cappella Nuova or the New Chapel in 1622 it was dedicated to one of the first Bishop who evangelized the people of Orvieto – namely St. Brizio. Legends state that the Bishop left back a beautiful panel of the Madonna enthroned with Christ Child that continues to sit upon the high altar of the Chapel. At present the Chapel is separated from the rest of the Cathedral by two wrought iron gates. 

Beyond these gates, in the interiors, lies a paradise of art, history and faith. The Chapel boasts of a cycle of frescoes by some of the greatest geniuses of the Renaissance – Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli and finally Luca Signorelli, the Tuscan painter from Cortona. He is popularly recognised for having decorated the Sistine Chapel with a beautiful fresco illustrating the Testament and the Death of Moses. However, his greatest masterpiece to posterity was rendered within the serene hill-town of Orvieto.

It is interesting to note that the theme of the paintings executed by Signorelli in the Chapel of San Brizio are far from serene. They are melodramatic to say the least. They reflect the unthinkable in an age filled with turmoil within the Papal States, terrible rainstorms, diseases, civil struggles, fears and threats of invasion along with several other sufferings that plagued the minds and hearts of the citizens and the artist.

But how did this association come to being?

Fifty years before the commission could be signed by Signorelli, in 1447, the decorative work on the roof was undertaken by Fra Angelico. However having hardly painted two frescoes, Fra Angelico was recalled to Rome by the Pope, leaving it unfinished. Benozzo Gozzoli is said to have ‘begged’ for it – however the authorities chose Perugino who in turn refused the offer.

They finally decided to hire Luca Signorelli – both because he had asked for less money and because he had the reputation of being more efficient and faster than the other artists. Signorelli not only accepted the terms of the contract but surprised the Cathedral administrators with his speed and spectacular work. A year later, on April 23, 1500 the ceiling frescoes were completed and another contract was signed to further paint the side walls – a fresco cycle that would sweep history, faith and art off its feet and influence the greatest Masterartist of all times – Michelangelo himself!

Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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