Painting the End of Time

Signorelli and Fra Angelico at Orvieto: Liturgy, Poetry, and a Vision of the End-time

by Sara Nair James
2003 Ashgate Publishing Company, 200 pages

Few scenes are more compelling in Renaissance art than depictions of the Apocalypse and Last Judgment. Certainly Michelangelo’s awe-inspiring and much-photographed Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel has jolted many a sinner to embrace repentance. But before Michelangelo, two artists embarked upon a program depicting the End of Time for the Cathedral of Orvieto. Their contribution, while less known, stands out as a masterpiece of theological painting with visual references not only to scripture, but to literature and liturgy as well. The numerous intellectual influences that helped formulate a work of art during the Renaissance will surprise those readers who have been too long conditioned by the singular and trifling ephemeralities that drive the art world today. Here, the author Sara Nair James, has so skillfully uncovered the various sources that inspired the decorations of the Cappella Nuova, one begins to yearn for a return to the days when art was served by such rich cultural complexities and sublime symbolism.

The Dominican painter Fra Angelico commenced the decoration of the Cappella Nuova in 1447. Professor James points out that Orvieto was a city that had benefited from papal patronage and it was also a place where the Dominican Order exercised much influence. Dominican scholarship had come to full flower within the papal court and throughout Italy by the mid-fifteenth century.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Fra Angelico’s decorative program for the cathedral chapel was influenced by the Order’s emphasis on doctrinal issues, with its optimistic view of the material world and the positive nature of mankind, preached here through paint in a clear systematic way, and with many levels of interpretation. When Fra Angelico was commissioned to do the Orvieto frescoes, he had been working at the Vatican and was considered to be the foremost painter of religious narrative in his day. It was presumed that he would alternate between the Vatican and the Orvieto until the work was completed.

As it turned out, Pope Nicholas V would only release Fra Angelico from Rome for a brief three months of one summer. Nevertheless, the friar accomplished much in that short tenure, presenting in the vault of the chapel an image of Christ seated in judgment that was much more attractive and merciful than the grim scourge of the damned that so typified earlier interpretations of the theme. The painter monk and his assistants only finished two sections of the vault, but left many preparatory sketches. The unfinished chapel languished for many years until 1499 when Luca Signorelli, in the twilight of his career, demonstrated that he could complete the program and adhere to its complex iconography while at the same time preserving the integrity of his own well-established genius.

Signorelli completed Angelico’s decorative program for the sections of the vault that surround the seated Christ as Judge. The groupings of the figures reflect the categories found in the Missal of the Mass. They include Apostles, Angels, Patriarchs, Doctors of the Church, Martyrs and Virgins. And the scenes painted on the walls of the chapel that they witness from their celestial perch are filled with all the drama and pathos that we have come to associated with End Time imagery: the Rule of the Antichrist, Doomsday, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Ascent of the Blessed to Heaven, the Damned Led to Hell, the Torture of the Damned, and the Blessed in Paradise. Professor James interprets each and every scene with such exhaustive scholarship that one can join with others in the academic community who have praised this book as the best overall account to date of Orvieto’s magnificent chapel.

Of particular interest to some readers will be Professor James fascinating claim that Signorelli’s advisors, identified in the documents only as “venerable Masters of the Sacred Page (Holy Scripture) of our City” were in fact Dominican theologians operating from their studium in the nearby Church of S. Domenico. Professor James gives ample evidence to support the idea that Signorelli’s entire program in the chapel is based on Dominican spiritual expositions and the writings of Dante (who was educated by Dominicans). The fact that the decoration of the chapel was originally offered to the Dominican painter Fra Angelico a half-century beforehand brings the scholarship, the spirituality, and the historical linkage full circle. The book demonstrates how the culture of a particular religious order gave rise to the iconography of a complex work of art.

If there be any criticism of the book at all, it would have to be in the quality of its illustrations. Lesser books on Signorelli have clearer and more detailed imagery of the artist’s work at Orvieto. Better to buy some cheap picture book on Signorelli, and use it as a side reference for the treasure trove of insights offered in this masterful study of End Time imagery.

Rev. Michael Morris, O.P., is professor of Art History at Berkeley and author of a monthly column on sacred art in Magnificat.