LUCA SIGNORELLI: The Damned, 1499 – 1502, Fresco, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto
Our journey with Signorelli through this ‘End of Days’ series draws us to one of his most acclaimed masterpiece. Titled ‘The Damned’, a single glance at this chaos of evil can shoot shivers down your spine. It renders creativity at its best while inducing a sense of awe and terror in every observer who dares to marvel at the master’s mind.
The painting opens with a glimpse of heaven. Three armoured Archangels, namely Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, stand tall upon brittle billows of clouds. Their attitude and attire denotes their dignity and duty. With half-drawn swords they supervise the fulfilment of the Scriptures – ‘Then the King will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”’ – Matthew 25:41
In a well-proportioned pattern, alongside the Archangels are depicted the devouring devils with swooping bat-like wings. Notice how these muscular mighty figures tremble with fear. They haste towards hell in order to escape chastisement. In doing so, two of the fiends let go of their prey who in turn tumble through the atmosphere into the netherworld.
The foreground of the painting is absolutely appalling. A dense mass of writhing humans twist and turn in agony as diabolical demons torment their beings. To the far left of the foreground lies the ghastly Gehenna gloomed by a fuming fire that consumes the crawling corpses. Could any creature ever comprehend this catastrophic vision?
Men and women in contorted positions scream in suffering. One can almost hear their desperate and despairing cries. Some cover their faces in regret, yet others silently surrender to the raging clamour of garishly coloured demons. The devils bite, choke, claw, stab, tear and crush the damned. They sprightly strangle the sinners struggling to break-free.
These ferocious fiends sport satyr goat-like frames. Notice the shades of their beings. They are clothed in the colours of putrefying human flesh. This includes slate-blue, crude-purple, poisonous green etc
The heart-wrenching uproar urges us to question this crazy confusion – What is hell? And what on earth did the artist have in mind while composing this canvas? The answer to both these questions lies amidst all the action. Notice carefully the blue demon with a white horn at the centre of the fresco. Strangely this is a self-portrait of the artist himself! The captor represents the mind of the captured.
According to Signorelli, Hell was not a Biblical fantasy at a distant destination. Hell, most probably, is anywhere but up there in our heads. It’s a condition we choose through serious sin. It is a state of ‘definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed’ (CCC – 1033). It is an everlasting separation from God, the absolute absence of love.
Hounding with horror, this scene encourages us to undertake a spiritual journey like that of Dante’s Divine Comedy. It calls for self-awareness and an examination of conscience for the ladder that leads to hell can also be used to climb back up to heaven.
Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum