Fresco Cycle in the San Brizio Chapel, Cathedral, Orvieto
by Luca SIGNORELLI

Luca Signorelli, on 5 April 1499, signed a contract with Orvieto Cathedral: he was to paint the two remaining sections of the ceiling of the Chapel of San Brizio, a large Gothic construction built around 1408. In the summer of 1447 Fra Angelico, assisted by Gozzoli and several other minor artists, had painted a fresco of the Prophets in one of the triangular ceiling vanes and Christ the Judge in another. Half a century later Signorelli's task was to complete the fresco decoration begun by Angelico. The administrators of the Cathedral had asked other artists before Signorelli, including Perugino and Antonio da Viterbo, called Il Pastura. They finally decided to hire Luca both because he had asked for less money and because he had a reputation for being more efficient and faster than other artists. The contract refers to him as the artist who had painted 'multas pulcherrimas picturas in diversis civitatibus et presentim Senis' (many beautiful paintings in different cities and especially in Siena).

Signorelli respected the terms of the contract and worked at such a speed that even the Cathedral administrators must have been surprised. A year after the contract was signed, on 23 April 1500, the ceiling frescoes were finished and he was able to show his patrons his drawings for the side wall frescoes. The contract for these further paintings was signed a few days,later: he was to be paid 575 ducats for this second part. In 1502 the fresco cycle was certainly finished, although further payments to Signorelli are recorded as late as 1504.

In only three years, from 1499 to 1502, the decoration was planned and executed, with a speed and efficiency that is practically unique in the history of Italian art. As far as the subject matter is concerned, it is one of the most important subjects of Christian iconography. It is likely that for the ceiling frescoes (the groups of Apostles, Angels, Prophets, Patriarchs, Doctors of the Church, Martyrs and Virgins) Signorelli simply completed the programme that had originally been devised by Fra Angelico. But the frescoes on the side walls, although the basic subject would have been planned in accordance with the Cathedral's administrators and theologians, are wholly the product of Signorelli's fertile imagination. The side walls are covered with seven large scenes:

The lower part of the walls is decorated with grotesque patterns and with busts of philosophers and poets alongside monochromes commenting their works, as well as illustrations from the Divine Comedy. The overall decoration is completed in the jambs of the windows and in the small chapel on the far wall by the figures of Archangels Raphael (with Tobias), Gabriel and Michael (weighing souls and subjugating the devil), by Bishop Saints Brizio and Constant, and the Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints Parenzo and Faustino.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 10 minutes):
Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem, Dies irae (excerpt)


Preview Picture Data File Info Comment
View of the Chapel of San Brizio
1499-1502
Frescoes
Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

774*1100
True Color
209 Kb



View of the Frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio
1499-1502
Fresco
Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

1165*1072
True Color
191 Kb



Frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio
1499-1502
Fresco
Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

1000*900
True Color
216 Kb




Summary of paintings by Luca Signorelli
Frescoes
Frescoes in Orvieto | Frescoes in the Sistine Chapel
Frescoes in Loreto | Frescoes in Monteoliveto
Panel paintings
Altarpiece in Cortona | Various paintings