LUCA SIGNORELLI: The Sermon and the Deeds of the Antichrist, 1499 – 1502, Fresco, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

LUCA SIGNORELLI: The Sermon and the Deeds of the Antichrist, 1499 – 1502, Fresco, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

 ‘Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’ – do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray if possible, even the elect.’ – (Matthew 24: 23 – 25)

The sinister sacrileges of the end-times, as foretold by the Scriptures have enticed but a few artists in Italian history. Undoubtedly Luca Signorelli, the melodramatic Old Master of High Renaissance art, was one of them. With utmost veracity of fantastic imagery he brought to life a terrifying age dreaded by all humanity. However one is compelled to question – What sustained his imaginative genius to conceive an art abounding in human depravity? Was it the contemporary state of affairs?

The spectacular serene streets of present day Orvieto conceal the menacing maze of its medieval ways. Five hundred years ago, the beautiful Orvieto was ridden with disease and war as testified by Dante’s Purgatory in 1321. Amidst this wrecking way of life, the fifty-five year old Signorelli scaled the impregnable spurs of volcanic rock.  He painted a series of frantic frescos within the imposing Cathedral surrounded by sweeping shadows.

We will consider the first of these frescoes in today’s article. Titled the ‘The Sermon and the Deeds of the Antichrist’, this Renaissance Apocalypse was debated to be a reference to Savonarola, the famous Dominican friar who was identified as a false prophet and hanged and burned at stake in Florence on May 23, 1498.

Scenographic in space, hundreds of figures fill the flat landscape dominated by the Classical temple with a towering dome to our right. At the far end, bound by atmospheric perspective, a silent city lies still, awaiting its agony.

Against the cacophony of the canvas, in the central foreground, stands the Antichrist. He bears the features of Jesus but is counselled by the deceiver. Notice carefully how the prompter hovers against his ears whispering wrath as sweet nothings! The fiend’s left arm is wrapped in the overfold of his friend’s light red toga. Their frowned brows, brown eyes and perched ears draws our attention to their curled horns. This depiction is inspired by the book of Daniel Chapter 7 where the Prophet mentions about the ‘little horns’ in his vision of the dreadful beasts.

Interestingly the preacher delivers his sermon from a marble mount to an audience antagonistic to the beatitudes of Christ. Notice the piled up gold at the foot of his warrior throne. This military Messiah is an aghast contradiction to Christ the Suffering Saviour. The Gospel he preaches has sown the seeds of nothing but sin and massacre as witnessed amongst the spectators.

Right behind the Antichrist are placed three well-arranged groups. In scene one, the antichrist resurrects a man while in scene three he orders an execution. These contrary moral actions are discerned by the second group consisting of clerics huddled together like a fortified city, storming the heavens to resist all temptations.

The heavens are never far-gone. To our left, observe the hawk like angel, (perhaps Archangel Michael), swooping down the false prophet with a mighty strike. The followers of the fraudulent reach their fated finish as well. The foreshortening of the figures is fascinating, the perspective fine and the art amazing!

Signorelli shrivels not against the sinister scares but rather stands upright to the plight at the lower left of the canvas. Suitably dressed in a black cap and cloak he is accompanied by a monk, rumoured to be Fra Angelico. As the respected artist gazes intently at the viewer, perhaps he awaits his well-deserved curtain call. A call from the temporal and the eternal as the spine-chilling Last Judgement is soon to unravel!

Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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