(b. ca. 1450, Cortona, d. 1523, Cortona)

Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist

Fresco, width 700 cm
Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

It is quite likely that the Deeds of the Antichrist is intended as a reference to Savonarola, the Dominican friar hanged and burnt at the stake in Florence on 23 May 1498. In a 'Papist' city like Urbino, and in the case of an artist like Signorelli who had been a Medici protégé and who thought of himself basically as a victim of persecution from the Florentine democratic government (a fact we learn from Michelangelo), this identification of Savonarola with the Antichrist is very plausible; it is also supported by a famous passage in Marsilio Ficino's Apologia, published in 1498, where the Ferrarese monk is again identified as the false prophet.

There is no doubt that Signorelli has given us a very convincing portrayal of the sinister and mysterious atmosphere evoked in the prophecies of the Gospels in the huge fresco showing the Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist. Against a vast and desolate background, dominated on the right by an unusually large classical building, depicted in distorted perspective, the false prophet is shown disseminating his lies and spreading his message of destruction. He has the features of Christ, but it is Satan (portrayed behind him) who tells him what to say. The people around him, who have piled up gifts at the foot of his throne, have clearly already been corrupted by the iniquities the Gospel has warned us of. And, starting from the left, we have a description of a brutal massacre, followed by a young woman selling her body to an old merchant, and then more aggressive and evil-looking men. In the background of this scene all sorts of horrors and miraculous events are taking place. The Antichrist orders people to be executed and even resurrects a man, while a group of clerics, huddled together like a fortified citadel, resist the devil's temptations by praying. Lastly, to the left, Signorelli shows us how the age of the Antichrist is rapidly reaching its inevitable epilogue, with the false prophet being hurled down from the heavens by the Angel and all his followers being defeated and destroyed by the wrath of God.

That this scene is the masterpiece of the whole cycle (at least in terms of originality of invention and evocation of fantastic imagery) even Signorelli himself must have realized, and he has placed himself, together with a monk (traditionally identified as Fra Angelico) on the left-hand side of the composition.