LUCA SIGNORELLI: The Elect being called to Paradise and the Damned being plunged into hell

LUCA SIGNORELLI: The Elect being called to Paradise and the Damned being plunged into hell, 1499 – 1502, Fresco, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

 The zebra-lined interiors of the mighty Cathedral of Orvieto stirs a strange sense of peace. Peace amidst the storm-of-art it holds in its Chapel dedicated to San Brizio. As we step beyond the metallic gate, we are embraced by the great theatrum mundi. It is here that history, mystery, faith and reality collide. It is a thrilling play of the unimaginable universe. The author of this sensational script is the amazing Signorelli. His tool was his burning brush and his source of inspiration was the scriptures and the spirit of the Renaissance.

The last painting in this series is titled ‘The Elect being called to Paradise’ and ‘The Damned being plunged into hell.’  The fresco covers the south wall pierced by three lancet windows. Within the embrasures of the windows are painted the angels and the saints namely St Brizio, St Constantius, Archangel Michael crushing a demon and Archangel Raphael guiding Tobias. The central window divides the scenes into two principal parts.

The former to our left is a continuation of the previous painting. Angelic beings are seen guiding the faithful towards heaven. The golden skies glow with glory while a choir of angels rejoice with song and dance. The medieval musical instruments they play are both string and wind based.

As we move to the second fresco, the rapturous melodies are stifled by the shrilling shrieks. Two archangels, sadly and silently, bear witness to divine tragedy. The setting is striking. The scene is derived from Dante’s ‘Inferno’ taken from his ‘Divine Comedy’.

The transcending golden skies are interrupted by the icy waters of the rivers Styx and Acheron. They divide the world of the living from the world of the dead. Flaming fires roar along the boundaries. The damned in despair wail and moan their folly. Besides the raging pit runs a mocking demon with a white flag. A group of sinners follow him in lamentation. He leads them further into destruction.

Notice the famous ferryman Charon at the centre of this scene. As described in the Dante’s Inferno, he is a spiteful winged demon. His duty was to transport souls of the newly dead across the river into the underworld. The oar he holds was used to strike the stragglers.

In the foreground of the painting stands the scarlet Minos, the judge of the dead in the underworld. With haughty horns, he is depicted with a snake-like tail that curls round his waist. In Dante’s Inferno he sits at the beginning of hell proper. Notice the demons punishing the damned. The sinners scream under the devil’s regime.

Minos

As we zoom out of this terrible scene, we are dispensed a depiction of our destination. It is an ‘either-or’ decision – Heaven (the fullness of love) or Hell (the absence of love). Here even God cannot compel our choice. The poetic brush of the sensational Signorelli through this significant series coerces us to choose wisely!

Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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