A catechism in frescoes, along with chaconnes
by Laura A
Yesterday Sarie and I drove to Bastia Mondovì, about an hour away in the Langhe region south of Torino, so that she could play in a concert entitled L’Età delle ciaconne (Age of the Chaconne, which is the 17th century). The ensemble included two Baroque violins, a Baroque cello, a theorbo, and a harpsichord.
First a word about the music: The chaconne derives from a Spanish dance and has a distinctive basso continuo line that encourages improvisation. You can hear an example of one such line (which varies somewhat depending on the piece) in one of my favorite Monteverdi madrigals, Zefiro torna. La Folia is another common chaconne and may be one of the oldest European musical themes on record. If you know the Suzuki violin books, you’ve probably heard a basic version by Corelli.
Anyway, the rehearsal started early in the afternoon, and the church wasn’t within walking distance of the town, but I didn’t mind hanging around, because there were frescoes. Shortly after I had taken a preliminary look around, a docent arrived with a group and started a guided tour, and soon I found myself listening in. What I discovered was that the walls were a veritable catechism, with surprisingly empathetic lessons for the people of 15th century Bastia.
To begin with, the church of San Fiorenzo* is named after a Roman soldier from the Theban legion who survived an imperial massacre of Christian troops in the third century, came to Piemonte, preached to the people in the Roman crossroads settlement which once occupied the vicinity, and was eventually martyred and buried on the spot where the original church stood. An archeological excavation in the 18th century uncovered an early grave upon which the original church was built.
The tomb of San Fiorenzo became associated with miracles and attracted pilgrims, especially the lame (maybe they had some help?). In fact, when the saint’s tomb was discovered, it was said that the locals had to cart away three loads of no-longer-needed crutches!
The history of the site is complex and shrouded in the mists of time, but we know that a small Romanesque church on the site was expanded and renovated beyond the point of recognition, and was eventually placed into the care of the noble Della Torre family, who commissioned the main fresco cycles. They were not only rich, but genuinely pious, which may be one reason for the particularly free expression in some of the frescoes.
During the 18th century excavations, a Baroque side chapel (painted pastel blue and pink, glimpses below) and a pink bell tower were added, but since they aren’t very visible from the nave, they don’t intrude much into the rustic warmth of the main part of the church.
Some of the frescoes from the original Romanesque church (part of which has now been demolished) are still visible on the walls just outside the presbytery of the present church. In the foreground you can plainly recognize an image of St. Christopher, patron saint of pilgrims, by the Christ’s child’s foot draped over his shoulder. There are also traces of older frescoes inside, along the back wall of the presbytery.
These outdoor frescoes are just outside the right hand wall in the photos of the rehearsal below. Now let’s start our tour of the inside. But first, let’s note that intricately decorated period instruments are a nice addition to the already warm ambience of the church, especially when they are playing!
All the later frescoes are in what is now called the Gothic Alpine style, and they have iconographic and aesthetic cousins in many other area churches. The artists’ identities are uncertain, but there seem to have been more than one.
In the photos above you can see the presbytery, which has the most elegant and best preserved of the frescoes. One reason for the superior preservation is that the artists used lapis lazuli instead of vegetable dye for the deep blue of the late medieval heavens. The black skies you see in the photos below were once a similar shade of blue, but they have since oxidized. Another reason for superior preservation may be that the presbytery has windows to allow in light and warmth. In fact, all the frescoes on that (southwestern) side of the church are generally in much better shape than those on the other side. The other side is facing uphill and would have accumulated more snow as well.
The middle fresco along the back of the presbytery shows San Fiorenzo and San Martino (the patron saint of Bastia) with the Virgin and Child. The Virgin in the Crucifixion scene above is being held up in the shape of a cross because she is sharing in her Son’s sufferings, as prophesied by Simeon in the temple. There are several other themes on these walls, including a large panel of St. George and the dragon. Underneath the back wall you can also see remnants of an earlier fresco cycle.
Surrounding the groin vault above the presbytery are the Four Evangelists. Two are sitting together because the fourth panel has an image of Christ Pantocrator (ruler) blessing their work. If you look closely, you will notice that one of the two young evangelists sitting together (Luke) is left-handed. This is pretty unusual when you consider that, according to the superstition of the time, left-handedness was from the devil. I quickly formed my own theory that the fresco looked more balanced with each evangelist’s outer arm resting on the table, but still, someone must have noticed that Luke was a mancino and allowed it. A quick Google search brought up some tantalizing hints that showing Luke as left-handed was an iconographic tradition.
Above the arch just outside the presbytery is the Annunciation, and below it, Saints Dominic and Francis (shown in the brown habit on the right), who as founders of the two main mendicant orders of the day and opponents of a heresy common in the area, were “pillars” of the church. I particularly liked the free and beautiful brushwork on the cloth below St. Francis’ feet.
On the inside of the archway are Saints Margaret of Antioch and Catherine of Alexandria, who are patrons of childbirth and lactation. So women, as well as the left-handed, had sympathetic intercessors near the altar. But even these woman saints are dressed as nobles, because that’s what the people would have expected.
As you travel down the right side of the nave from Saint Francis, along the southwestern wall, there is a series of frescoes representing the life and miracles of San Fiorenzo. The scene above depicts an episode in which the people of Bastia prayed for intercession from San Fiorenzo against a plague of serpents and wild boars (both real threats). The saint is shown above the white Alban hills announcing to the people that God wants to save them. A particular type of eagle native to the region, recognizable by its protected lidded eyes, came and killed the serpents. (I love the arrow-straight pinwheel formation of eagle feathers!) In additional to a literal interpretation of the episode, the local literature allows for a couple of different metaphorical interpretations, one involving a local invasion of Saracens and another involving an outbreak of the plague. This story may even be superimposing a later San Fiorenzo onto the earlier one. But the tradition is so old by now that it’s hard to tell.
The next cycle is the depiction of Heaven and Hell, complete with the works of mercy based on the Gospel of Matthew (the detail above shows feeding the sick and burying the dead) and the seven deadly sins. You can see the orderly nature of The New Jerusalem in the first photo, which I included to give some idea of the context. The central scene is the Coronation of the Virgin, in which the placement of each saint along the sides has its significance. If you click to enlarge the image, you can see that music in Heaven is also played on period instruments! I’m sure Sarie and her friends would approve. In fact, the church once hosted a concert played on the kinds of instruments shown in the frescoes.
Heavenly order would have appealed greatly to the people of the 15th century, but many contemporary visitors are fascinated with the chaotic depiction of Hell, which includes a monstrous Satan devouring some local magistrates and lawyers, the French and Milanese butting heads, and even some errant clergy. Some of these representations are derived from literature, but they may have also served as a reassuring message directed toward the common folk of Bastia–Don’t fret when corrupt rulers prosper! Our guide, who grew up in the area and occasionally attended this church as a child, said none of the kids she knew wanted to sit near the Hell cycle. They all sat up front! I don’t blame them.
I chose this depiction of Envy to represent the Hell cycle. She is wearing green, of course, and she has no face of her own, because she always wants to be someone else. The animal she is riding on is labeled as a leopard, but it looks more like a monkey, no doubt because the painter was simply told that a leopard is an exotic African animal. What amused me was that the leopard/monkey’s face looked so much like Gollum’s!
The next cycle, which I didn’t take photos of because of the dark, depicts the life of St. Anthony the Hermit. He is often depicted in churches of the period because outbreaks of St. Anthony’s fire** (ergot poisoning), a hideous toxicity caused by grain fungus, were at their height. The monks of his order were particularly successful in treating it.
Along the back wall are Biblical and traditional scenes from the birth and infancy of Christ. In the nativity scene, St. Joseph seems to be outside the stable enjoying a bowl of soup while the Blessed Virgin is on her knees adoring the Christ Child, to whom she has just given birth. The guide had a more sympathetic explanation: He is fixing her some chicken broth, a natural antibiotic, and the particular cheese hanging from the stable is also known for its antibiotic properties. A nearby scene, a legend involving the Flight into Egypt, shows the Christ Child picking his mother some dates off of a palm tree (once again, the artist wasn’t so knowledgeable about his exotics), as a worried looking St. Joseph, carrying an empty food pot, looks on. I really like these tender and sympathetic depictions of Jesus’ earthly father.
And finally, below, I’ve included one panel from the Passion of Christ (from the damaged northeastern wall). It depicts Christ’s appearance before the high priest, who is tearing his robe according to the gospel account. In the tradition of the time, the face of a saint (and especially the Son of God) would often be painted in a very refined, almost feminine manner, while the face of a villain would be exaggeratedly ugly. A quick glance at the faces of Christ and the soldiers confirms this. In the Crowning with Thorns scene a couple of panels down, a man with a goiter appears in the doorway, about to join the mockers. He is a local piemontese, malnourished from eating mostly polenta.
(This last photo of the rehearsal was taken by the harpsichordist’s father, whom I only know by his last name, Stefanelli.)
At the end of the tour, I went back to my seat at the front pew and watched the rehearsal, refreshed by a breeze that came into the side door near the San Fiorenzo frescoes. The little church soon filled with some very literate present day locals, and the historical concert, presenting music from two-hundred years after the fresco cycle, began. The music, the warm evening colors, and the stories behind the frescoes, all combined to create a serendipitous evening. And then the musicians and their parents went out for salumi, fresh tomini, purée di tonno, insalata russa, gnocchi alla bava, and good company.
*In most of this post, I’ve translated the names of the saints into English. But since I don’t know of an English translation for Fiorenzo (Florentius, maybe? Florence?), I just left it! And then it just seemed silly to write St. Martin next to San Fiorenzo, so I left that too…
**Confusingly, another well-known St. Anthony, the Franciscan St. Anthony of Padua, also died of ergotism.