Later Paintings Of Luca Signorelli
( Originally Published 1908 )
WE have seen that during the four years and a half in which Signorelli was engaged on the great work of the Orvieto frescoes, he yet spent some part of the time in his native city, and there, in 1502, he painted the signed and dated "Deposition" with its predelle for the church of Santa Margherita, now removed to the Cathedral. Vasari thus speaks of it : "In Santa Margherita of Cortona, his native town, belonging to the Frati del Zoccolo, he painted a dead Christ ; one of his most excellent works."' This dead Christ is the figure which by its realism and pathos gave rise to the legend, already quoted, that it was painted from the body of his own son. It is an exact counterpart of the "Pietà" in the Orvieto frescoes, except that it is here reversed. It is a work of great beauty and feeling, painted with sincere emotion, and has none of the academic dryness with which 1 he treated the same subject in Borgo San Sepolcro. The fine grouping, the restraint with which the sorrow is rendered, the real pathos of the scene, give the picture dignity and solemnity, and the glow of colour, obtained by the lavish use of gold in the embroideries, add to its richness and decorative beauty. The Virgin is nearly the same figure as in the Orvieto fresco, and in feature recalls the San Sepolcro "Crucifixion," and the Magdalen is almost identical with the altar-piece of the Opera del Duomo, just considered, although here painted with more refinement and grace. In the background is one of those vivid scenes of crowded movement, which occur so often at this period of the master's development —a group of excited soldiers pressing round the Cross, with fluttering pennons and prancing steeds. The predella hung just below, contains four subjects—"Christ in Gethsemane," " The Last Supper," " The Betrayal," and " The Flagellation." Unfortunately, both pictures are so badly lighted that it is almost impossible except on a very bright day to appreciate the colour. The scenes in this predella are nearly the same as in that of the Florence Academy, which hangs as part of the altar-piece, No. 164, although it does not seem really to have belonged to it. The two predelle must certainly have been painted within a very short time of one another. In both the composition of "The Last Supper" is precisely the same, as well as "The Flagellation." In the "Betrayal" there is the same violent crowd with spears and pennons, surging round the Christ. In the Florence picture, however, there are only three divisions, "The Betrayal" and "The Way to Calvary" forming the background to "The Agony in the Garden," where Christ kneels before a little brook, with the Apostles sleeping in rows behind Him. The broad impressionistic manner in which they are painted is the same ; and, coarse as is the brushwork, dark and heavy as is the colour, especially in the flesh tints, they are yet exceedingly fine examples of Signorelli's bold style and quick resolute workmanship, and well illustrate his power of rendering violent combined movement, in the crowds which throng round the betrayed Christ, and march tumultuously on the way to Calvary.
The "Madonna and Saints" above this last predella (No. 164) although according to Signor Milanesi, not its altar-piece, must certainly have been painted somewhere about the same time, for the broad style, tending rather to coarseness, of the work of this period is very noticeable. It was executed for the church of Santa Trinitâ in Cortona, and Milanesi suggests that it might be the altar-piece ordered in 1521 by the authorities of that church,' but the description given by the document of commission is very different, and the picture itself seems to bear evidence of an earlier date. Like so many of the works in this Gallery, the painting has been so thickly daubed over by modern restorers, that it is next to impossible to form a just idea of the original colour ; in its present state it is disagreeably crude and heavy, and in any case the overcrowding of the composition would prevent its being considered a successful example of the master's work, although it has his usual stately dignity and impressive qualities in the individual figures. The Virgin sits with the Child on her knee, clad in red robes, over which is a garment, now smeared over with black paint, but which formerly was covered with gold embroideries. Over her head is a Trinity, in a mandorla surrounded by cherubs. On the left stands the Archangel Michael, in Roman armour, holding the balances, in which are little nude figures representing the souls of the dead ; on the right stands Gabriel with the lily and scroll containing the Message of the Annunciation. Below, seated at the foot of the throne, are Saint Augustine and Saint Anastasio, the latter the same burly Bishop with wide-spread knees of the Loreto Cupola, and the Volterra altar-piece. These two Saints are fine, stately figures, painted with broad sweeping lines. The green robe of S. Anastasio was originally covered with a gorgeous pattern, probably of yellow or gold, but this has been effaced by the thick smear of repaint. The gentle humility in the face of the Virgin recalls the " Madonna," of the Brera Gallery, Milan (No. 197 bis), with which the picture has, besides, much in common, the Child, as well as the hands of the Virgin, being exactly the same, although in a reversed position. We shall not probably be far wrong in placing the Florence altar-piece about the same time as this " Madonna," of the Brera, which is dated 1508, and was painted for the church of S. Francesco in Arcevia (a town famous for its possession of one of Signorelli's most important works, which we shall presently consider). Very much repainted, the Madonna still retains great charm and beauty, but the composition is geometrical, and the figures of the Saints uninteresting and empty. In these, especially the standing figure on the left, I feel the hand of an assistant. With all Signorelli's mannerisms, it lacks his resolute touch and powerful presentation. It is probable that the great inequalities in many of his paintings, especially at this later time, are due to his leaving much of the execution to assistants. Whatever faults are in the work of the master himself, he is never, up to the last, guilty of any feebleness or insipidity, such, for instance, as in the painting of this unsolid figure.
I have been led from one picture to another by reason of similarities of form, and have omitted to speak of a beautiful and important painting, evidently executed soon after the Orvieto frescoes, with which it has much in common. This is the altar-piece in the church of S. Niccolo, Cortona, on one side of which is a " Madonna and Saints," on the other a "Dead Christ upheld by Angels." It is as far as I know, original in idea—this dead Christ supported by the Archangel, while others show the symbols of the Passion to the group of kneeling Saints. The four Angels are very noble figures, and resemble those of the " Hell" and "Resurrection," of Orvieto. The "S. Jerome" is sincerely painted, and without any of the senile sentimentality with which Signorelli occasionally represents this Saint. The one false note in the work is the stunted figure of the dead Christ, which seems all the more insignificant by contrast with the grand Archangel who supports it. This poetic figure with its great wings and its tender beauty is perhaps the greatest of all the master's renderings of the "Divine Birds." The colour scheme is much lighter than usual, the flesh-tints being especially fair, and the painting is another instance of those seeming efforts to adopt a less heavy palette, to which I have drawn attention in speaking of the Uffizi Tondo.
Vischer considers the "Madonna and Saints" on the reverse of the panel to have been painted at a different date. It is an exceedingly fine picture, with all the great qualities of majestic beauty. The Virgin sits enthroned between SS. Peter and Paul, robed in red, and wearing a blue mantle lined with green. The Child, half lying on her knee, has his hand raised in act to bless. It is well modelled, and of a more pleasing type than usual.
In 1507 was painted another very important work —the altar-piece in the church of S. Medardo in Arcevia, a splendid Ancona, still in its original Gothic frame. The Virgin is of the same tender type as in the Brera and Florence Academy pictures, but with an added stateliness and gravity. In the centre panel she sits enthroned, with the Child on her knee, clad in an embroidered robe, on the breast of which are two naked cherubs. On the left stand S. Medardo and S. Sebastian, on the right S. Andrew and S. Rock, each figure separated, as in the old polyptychs, by the pilasters of the frame. Above is God the Father, with two Saints on either side, left S. Paul and S. John the Baptist, right S. Peter and S. James of Camerino. Each of the side pilasters of the frame is divided into seven small spaces, each containing the half figure of a saint, the work of assistants. The effect of the whole painting is of great splendour, the colours are of glowing depth, and the richness enhanced by the low relief in gilded gesso of some of the brocades. But with all its state and dignity, perhaps the most important part of the altar-piece is the predella, with its five beautiful pictures, flanked on either side by the arms of Arcevia. As colour these are remark-ably fine and are treated with more care and less rapidity than Signorelli usually gave to predella work, while retaining the same breadth and freedom of general effect. " The Annunciation," with its beautiful perspective, is one of his best compositions of this subject, in which he is always so successful. "The Nativity" recalls that of the Uffizi predella ; "The Adoration of the Magi" is a fine rendering of the scene, but the two last are the most interesting as well as being the best in workmanship. In "The Flight into Egypt" the painter has evidently been influenced by the engravings of Albrecht Dürer, and has painted the little fortified town of the background very much in his manner. "The Murder of the Innocents" contains two figures in splendid action, the executioners, one with his dagger raised in act to strike, the other holding the child up by the leg—both magnificent studies of the nude, and worthy of the painter of the Orvieto frescoes.
Very inferior is the altar-piece of " The Baptism," in the same church of S. Medardo. The existence of the contract of commission, dated June 5, 1508, shows that Signorelli bound himself to paint the figures of Christ, of the Baptist, and of God the Father, with his own hand, leaving the rest of the work to his best pupils. These figures are, however, so different from any of the master's own work, that it is difficult to believe that they are entirely by him. The picture had evidently to be finished in great haste, since the receipt for payment in Luca's hand is dated the 24th of the same month of June, thus leaving only ninteen days between commission and completion, a very short time for so large a work. The Baptist stands in a rich red mantle pouring the water on the head of the Herculean Christ, who wears the Pollaiuolesque striped loin-cloth. The coarseness and exaggeration of the muscular development have not the characteristics of Signorelli's own errors in over-realism, but bear the same relation to his style that the work of Bandinelli bears to that of Michelangelo. Above is a feeble figure of God the Father, and in the middle distance a man pulls off his shirt, reminding one, both in form and treatment, of the figures in Pier dei Franceschi's "Baptism," of the National Gallery. Another sits by the river putting on a sandal, not unlike, although very inferior to, the athlete of the Munich Tondo. The composition is grand, and in the importance given by it to the two principal figures we certainly see the work of Signorelli. The picture is an example of one of those mysterious conflicts of documentary and internal evidence, which the study of Art occasionally furnishes. It still remains in its beautiful original frame, in the gables of which is painted an " Annunciation," and below, on each side, three half figures of Saints by some assistant, who was not even a pupil of Signorelli, but obviously a follower of Niccolo da Foligno. The predella contains five scenes. "The Birth of the Baptist," " The Preaching in the Desert," " The Denouncing of Herod and Herodias " (a Tondo), " The Feast of Herod," and—rather out of its due course, since the head is offered in the charger in the fourth scene—" The Decapitation in Prison."
There is a very beautiful fragment of an unknown predella in the possession of Mr Jarvis of New Haven, U.S.A., 'which belongs approximately to this period. It has all the impressive dignity and breadth of treatment of Signorelli's best work. The subject is conceived with special feeling for its stateliness, Joseph standing by the side of the Virgin to receive the gifts, as a Chamberlain might stand beside the throne, while the earnest reverence of the kneeling King, who has cast his crown at the feet of the Child, is most nobly rendered. The gold in the brocaded robes is here slightly in relief. The face of the kneeling King recalls that of the aged Apostle in "The Institution of the Eucharist," Cortona, a painting dated 1512; a beautiful picture, executed for the high altar of the Gesù, but which has now been removed to the Cathedral. Like the other works in this choir it is very badly lighted, and the photo- graph is also indistinct. Vasari writes of it : "In the Compagnia del Gesù, in the same city (Cortona), he painted three pictures, of which the one over the high altar is marvellous, where Christ communicates the Apostles, and Judas puts the wafer in his satchel." l At the end of a shallow hall, in the usual good perspective, His head accentuated against the sky, as in Leonardo's " Last Supper," Christ stands, and puts the sacred wafer in the mouth of a kneeling Apostle. In the foreground Judas, with a crafty look, opens his satchel. The composition is exceedingly fine, the twelve Apostles making a stately frame for the central figure of Christ. The attitudes and gestures are natural and dramatic, and the faces have individual character.
The two other pictures of which Vasari speaks as having also been painted for the Gesù, now the Baptistery, are—" The Nativity" (a coarse and badly-painted school picture, having affinities with that of the National Gallery, London, No. 1133), and a "Madonna and Saints," which still remains in the Baptistery. Here the Virgin sits, with a Bishop on either side, and two monks below. Dry and precise in composition, like that of the Brera, and apparently painted with the assistance of pupils, the Madonna herself is still very characteristic of the master, and not unlike those of the Brera and the Florence Academy. The picture is in an exceedingly ruined state, and the gabled top in which is painted God the Father, though not without merit, does not belong to the original painting, but is of a later date.
Lastly, we may place in this group, the broadly-painted predella, which hangs now, badly lighted, in the sacristy of the Arezzo Cathedral. It is unknown to what altar-piece it belonged, and the pictures are now divided and separately framed. The first represents " The Birth of the Virgin," the second " The Presentation," and the last " The Marriage." "The Presentation" is the finest in composition and general effect, and contains very stately figures of Joachim and Anna, with splendidly draped robes, and behind them a fine austere landscape. All three pictures are broadly painted and swept in in the usual impressionistic manner.