LUCA SIGNORELLI: The Crowning of the Elect, 1499 – 1502, Fresco, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto
‘For now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for His appearing.’ – 2 Timothy 4:8
The next painting in this series is titled ‘The Crowning of the Elect’. To the terrified observer of the Chapel of San Brizio, this fresco instantly ushers in a sigh of relief. No longer does fire flood down from heaven nor meteors pelt the earth. The deadly demons have departed with the damned and the horrors of the ‘final hour’ have now fallen still.
We are welcomed to a scene of celestial bliss. Unlike the previous frescos, the star studded golden glow flows-forth from the heavens to touch the horizons of the earth. The nine choirs of angels surround this glorious arch. They are seen seated over billows of little clouds making a joyful noise unto the Lord. They sing out in chorus: ‘This is the day of celebration. This is the day to rejoice. The Lord our God is our deliverer. Let’s praise His Name.’
Notice the marvellous medieval instruments they orchestrate. This includes – the organistrum (?), timbrels, lutes, the Latin guitar, the Guitarra Morisca (?), the medieval vielle and the violins. Dressed in flowing robes and noble wings, they sing praises to our Lord and King. At the centre we encounter two angels spraying white petals over the elect.
We now gaze at the foreground of the fresco. It is here that the faithful tribes gather. Dressed in loins, they are depicted in serene ecstasy. The righteous are cloaked with the cardinal Christian virtues of chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility. This is their first blissful stage of grace before they enter into heaven.
With eyes raised to heaven and hands joined in prayer, they bow down, worship and adore the Most High. They join the angels in making melody unto the King of Kings. As their voices ascend into heaven, angels with dotted halos descend with diadems to crown the earth. Around twelve in number, they embrace, guide and uplift the faithful.
Observe the angels at the centre of the painting. Strangely, Signorelli depicts a possibly preoccupied angel, crowning another heavenly being who in turn appears to crown a tonsured man. Could this be a symbolic indication to the scriptures? ‘For when they rise from the dead… (They) are like angels in heaven.’ (Mark: 12:25)
What then is heaven? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states ‘this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called “heaven”. Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.’
Notice the two figures to the far-right of the fresco. Prodded by the angel, they seem to be walking out of this painting to the last scene in this cycle of frescos. It is here that the final journey is undertaken and the destination reached. The faithful will find heaven and the damned shall be doomed to hell. The curtains shall fall on ‘Time’ and paradise, once lost, will now forever outshine.
Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum