LUCA SIGNORELLI: Painting All Things Holy

The Damned Cast into Hell, 1499-1504, fresco by Luca Signorelli - photo by Khan Academy

Luca d’Egidio di Ventura de’ Signorelli, also known as Luca da Cortona, was probably born sometime between 1445-1450, but after 1441. Although little information is available on his private life, he is reputed to have been a family man, living relatively comfortably.

He is first recorded in 1470, where it is noted that he worked in municipal offices in Cortona. He also sat as a judge on the committee which discussed the façade of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral), but which remained unfinished until the 19th century. He is reputed to have taken a loan from Michelangelo, who complained that Luca was remiss in repaying him.

Deeds of the Antichrist, detail (self-portrait) by Luca Signorelli – photo by WikiArt

Signorelli was of the Renaissance school of painting, renowned for his use of foreshortening and his aptitude as a draughtsman. His nudes and enormous frescoes also set him aside as an artist of great skill.

Art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was related to Signorelli; his great-grandfather Lazzaro Vasari was Luca’s uncle on his mother’s side. Lazzaro apparently arranged for Luca to train as an apprentice under Piero della Francesa (1415-1492), a Renaissance painter who was also known as a mathematician specialising in geometry.

His introduction to art probably began in Perugia, under the influence of fellow Umbrian Renaissance painters Benedetto Bonfigli, Fiorenzo di Lorenzo and Pinturicchio. Vasari recorded that the latter was employed by Perugino, who had been an apprentice to Andrea Del Verrocchio, whose other pupils included Leonardo da Vinci and Filippino Lippi. Perugino was one of the first Italian artists to paint in oils; he went on to tutor Raphael.

It is known that in 1472, Luca worked in Arezzo, about 80km south-east of Florence, and in 1474, he painted at the Città di Castello (Castle Town), situated in Perugia in northern Umbria.

The Flagellation of Christ by Luca Signorelli, c.1445-1523 – photo by Gallerix

In about 1475, Signorelli was appointed by the Confraternity of the Raccomandati at Santa Maria del Mercato in Fabriano, Ancona to paint a processional banner that they had commissioned. The Brotherhood was dedicated to charitable works for abandoned children; their penance included public self-flagellation. The church has since been destroyed. The work, tempera and oil on wood and measuring 84cm x 57cm (33in x 22.4in), was cut into two pieces and transferred to Brera, Milan, after Napoleon dissolved the Council of Bishops on 10 July 1811. Today, it remains in the Pinacoteca di Brera (Brera Art Gallery). Five predella panels (Christ on the Mount of Olives, Flagellation, Crucifixion, Deposition, and Resurrection), that were probably painted around 1505 and that are thought to be associated with the altar-piece, now reside in the Lindenau Museum in Altenburg, Germany after being acquired in Rome between 1848-1853 by Baron Bernhard August von Lindenau.

View of the Vaulting of the Sacristy of St John by Luca Signorelli,
Basilica della Santa Casa, from 1477 until 1480 – photo by Wikimedia Commons

Between 1481-1485, Signorelli and a number of other artists were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484), a major patron of Signorelli’s, to paint frescoes in the vault of the Basilica of the Holy House (Basilica della Santa Casa) in Loreto, in the province of Ancona. Luca was responsible for the art in the Chapel of San Giovanni (St. John). On the ceiling, in each of eight panels, is an angel playing music with each panel also depicting four saints; St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Gregorius Magnus and St. Ambrose, alternating with the Evangelists St. Luke, St. John, St. Mark and St. Matthew. Seven additional panels comprise the Apostles Peter and St. John the Evangelist, four other pairs of Apostles, Christ and the Doubting Thomas and the conversion of St. Paul.

Loreto remains an important place of pilgrimage for Catholics and is renowned for its Sanctuary. Documentary evidence exists proving that the walls of the house occupied by Mary in Nazareth were transported, from Trsat (Tersatto in Italian) in what was then Illyria (present-day Croatia), and onwards to Loreto on 10 December 1294, after the Crusaders were driven out of Palestine in 1291. The 3m-high original sandstone walls are illustrated with sixty Judeo-Christian images, while the upper stones are of local provenance; it is these which are illustrated with frescoes in the various chapels.

The Holy House of Loreto – photo by Wikimedia Commons | Catholic Herald

How the House of Loreto came to be situated in its present-day location is an enduring mystery. Some believe that the stones comprising the walls of the original house were transported by the Angeli family, while others believe that a miracle occurred. A scientific study was undertaken by Professor Giorgio Nicolini and his conclusions were presented at a conference held on 24 April 2015. His talk was titled “The Story of the Incredible Move of the House of Mary of Nazareth to Loreto.”

The house was apparently transported 2000 miles, or approximately 3200 km on the night of 9 May 1291.

The following timeline is extracted from Prof. Nicolini’s presentation and accredited to the Amici del Timone Cultural Centre of Staggia Senese:

  1. On May 9, 1291, the Holy House was still in Nazareth.
  2. On the night of May 9 to 10, 1291, it travelled nearly 2,000 miles and reached Tersatto (now Trsat), in the region of Dalmatia, in what is now a suburb of Rijeka, Croatia.
  3. On that occasion, Nicolò Frangipane, feudal lord of Tersatto personally sent a delegation to Nazareth to ascertain whether the Holy House had indeed disappeared from its original place. The emissaries not only verified its disappearance but found the foundation on which the house was built and from which the walls had been taken away as a block. Around these foundations in Nazareth, the Basilica of the Annunciation was built. In Loreto, the Holy House stands firmly, without its foundation, directly on the ground.
  4. On the night of December 9 to 10, 1294, the Holy House disappeared from Tersatto and landed “in various places” of Italy. For nine months it stayed on a hillside overlooking the port of Ancona, which thus came to be called “Posatora,” from the Latin “posat et ora” (to set down, or land, and pray).
  5. A church was built on the site as a memorial, as was recorded at the time and signed by a priest “Don Matteo,” probably an eyewitness.
  6. Two tombstones also commemorate this occurrence. One is from the same time period of the event and is written in old Vulgar Latin. The other, from the sixteenth century, is written in vernacular and is a copy of the older.
  7. Posatora’s oldest tombstone already mentioned “Our Lady of Loreto,” making it clear that the inscription was done after the House’s departure from the site.
  8. In 1295, after nine months in Posatora, the Holy House moved to a forest that belonged to a woman called Loreta, near the town of Recanati. That is where the name Loreto comes from.
  9. Between 1295 and 1296, after spending eight months in this location, the Holy House was miraculously transported to a farm on Mount Prodo, belonging to two brothers of the Antici family.
  10. In 1296, after four months at this farm, the Holy House departed and landed on a public road on Mount Prodo connecting Recanati to Ancona, where it remains to this day.

Further confirmation is documented with proof that the chemical composition of the mortar which holds the stones together is found only in Palestine. The exact dimensions of the original structure were maintained, and the building was finally placed on a well-used and rutted road, supported only partially on solid ground. The structure has only three walls and no foundations; the glass floor in place today allows visitors to see the precarious positioning for themselves.

Testament and Death of Moses by Luca Signorelli (and Bartolomeo della Gatta), Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Rome – photo by Traveling in Tuscany

At Pope Sixtus’ instruction, Luca worked on the Testament and Death of Moses in 1483. The oil on panel, 21.6cm x48 cm, remains in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, for which it was commissioned. Vasari believed the whole piece was Signorelli’s, but modern historians believe that he only worked on the major figures and that most of the work was by Bartolomeo della Gatta. The masterpiece is based on Deuteronomy 34:5, “And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said.” The work was a completion of frescoes left unfinished by fellow artists Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, and Rosselli in 1482, reputedly because they had not received payment.

In the late 1480s, Signorelli painted the School of Pan for Lorenzo de’ Medici. In 1865, it was uncovered in an attic in Florence by English historian and biographer Janet Ross and her husband Henry. They sold the painting to the Kaiser Frederick Museum in Berlin, where it was destroyed by the Allied bombing in May 1945.

Life of St Benedict, Scene 23, Benedict Drives the Devil out of a Stone by Luca Signorelli – photo by Wikimedia Commons

However, these are not regarded as being Signorelli’s most important works. In 1484, he left Rome and returned to Cortona. Various assignments followed before he was commissioned to paint eight frescoes, The Life of St Benedict, in the Great Cloister of the Benedictine Monte Oliveto Maggiore Abbey in Siena, which he began in 1497 on the appointment of Abbot Airoldi. They are based on St. Gregory the Great’s book Dialogues describing St. Benedict’s adult life.

A further twenty-eight frescoes were completed between 1505-1508 by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (or Sodoma, so-called “because he always surrounded himself with boys and beardless youths whom he loved beyond measure” as described by Vasari in his “The Lives of Artists” published in the 16th century).

Signorelli’s frescoes, in chronological order, are:

  • How God punishes Florentius
  • How Benedict evangelizes the inhabitants of Monte Cassino
  • How Benedict drives the enemy from the stone
  • How Benedict revives a young monk on whom a wall had fallen
  • How Benedict tells the monks where and when they had eaten outside the monastery
  • How Benedict reproves the brother of the monk Valerian for having violated his fast
  • How Benedict exposes Totila’s sham
  • How Benedict recognizes and receives Totila

Sodoma’s frescoes depict St Benedict’s earlier and later life; one includes a self-portrait with his pet badgers. The frescoes were restored in 1994-1997, the lead white having deteriorated which contributed to their inferior condition.

Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502, fresco – photo by Web Gallery of Art

Signorelli left the project in 1499 when he was requested to complete frescoes for the Cappella della Madonna di San Brizio (then known as the Capella Nuova) in the Orvieto Cathedral. This work, the Last Judgement, is considered to be his greatest accomplishment. His striking and powerful nudes and foreshortened figures were daring for the times. Michelangelo is said to have used some of these figures for his work on the Sistine Chapel wall.

Work on the chapel had begun much earlier, in 1447, when Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli painted two sections; Christ in Judgment and Angels and Prophets. However, Pope Nicholas V summoned the pair back to Rome to paint the Niccoline Chapel. In 1489, Perugino was invited to complete the work but never took up the offer. Some fifty years later, on 5 April 1499, Signorelli signed a contract whereby he would receive lodging and be paid a monthly figure of 200 ducats, plus 600 ducats for the walls. He would also receive two measures of wine and two-quarters of corn. He was also stipulated to consult the Masters of the Scared Page for theological guidance. Signorelli remained in Orvieto until 1502, when he returned to Cortona, probably because funds were not forthcoming. He went back to Orvieto where he completed the frescoes in 1504.

Dante and Virgil Entering Purgatory by Luca Signorelli, 1499 – 1502, fresco – photo by Web Gallery of Art

His initial work comprised the Choir of the Apostles, the Doctors of the Church, the Martyrs, the Virgins and the Patriarchs, all relating to biblical Roman liturgies for the Feast of All Saints and Advent. Additional work on the lower walls consists of references to Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio, part two of his Divine Comedy; the first being Inferno and the third Paradiso. Purgatorio includes the seven deadly sins of the bible, namely Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lust.

The lower wall also includes a Pietà which references two martyred saints, San Pietro Parenzo and San Faustino, as well as a dead Christ, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. It was thought that the face of Christ was based on Signorelli’s son Antonio, who had died of the plague, but this was later discounted as he died in July 1502, five months after the work had been completed.

Apocalypse by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502, fresco – photo by Web Gallery of Art

The spectacular composition of the Last Judgement is regarded as being one of the most important of Italian Renaissance art. Four massive lunettes contain Deeds of the Antichrist, Damned condemned to Hell, Resurrection of the Dead and Paradise. Two additional scenes depict the Damned descending into Hell and the Blessed ascending to Heaven. The epic masterpiece is completed with the Apocalypse.

Signorelli continued to accept work on leaving Orvieto. Pope Julius II summoned him and various other artists to Rome to execute work on the Vatican Palace. However, all their work was destroyed, except for the ceiling in the Stanza della Segnatura, in favour of the rising star, Raphael.

Once more, Signorelli returned to Cortona, where he continued to work, but his standards did not match those of his earlier years. He began work on a fresco, the Baptism of Christ in the Passerini palace near Cortona but was, by this time, partially paralysed. It is thought either this piece or Coronation of the Virgin at Foiano was his final work. He died on 16 October 1523 and is buried in his birthplace of Cortona.