Legend of the True Cross, fresco cycle in the Chancel of Santa Croce, Florence (1385-87)
by Agnolo GADDI

The chancel chapel of Santa Croce, constructed along with the transept at the beginning of the fourteenth century, received its fresco decoration relatively late, probably between 1385 and 1387. The patron was Benedetto degli Alberti, member of a major political family in Florence. The author of the frescoes is Agnolo Gaddi, but opinions are varied with regard to the role of his assistants.

In keeping with the dedication of the church, scenes from the Legend of the True Cross are depicted in the chancel. The scenes appear in the large picture fields on the side walls, four scenes per wall. This is the earliest surviving monumental painted cycle in Italy dedicated to this subject. Besides the large narrative paintings that make up the main part of the pictorial program, numerous depictions of saints and prophets, both full-length figures and busts, appear in the framing elements: between each window three saints are depicted; in the vault, the four evangelists, John the Baptist and Francis; on the inner sides of each entry pier, three Franciscan saints, and on each of the outer sides, three saints holding crosses; in the intrados of the entrance arch, half-figures of the apostles with the articles of faith of the Creed; and two prophets each in the spandrels of the entrance arch and in the upper section of the front wall.

The literary source on which the depiction of the Legend of the True Cross is based is the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine. The narrative tells the story of Christ's cross which, according to tradition, was made from a tree planted over Adam's grave by his son Seth. (See the story in detail in Guided Tour #5.) The sequence of scenes begins in the lunette of the south wall and then extends over the other three image field on the same wall. The frescoes continue on the north wall, beginning again in the lunette.

Having to combine several episodes into one image field presented the painter with a rather difficult task and inevitably brought with it an inconsistency in the pictorial arrangement. The compositional and narrative qualities of the frescoes are, nevertheless, considerable. This is particularly true of the frescoes on the north wall, where foreground and background, figures and settings, work together more effectively than in the frescoes on the south wall.

Agnolo's figures derive their essentially static style from Taddeo Gaddi's (his father's) frescoes in the Baroncelli Chapel, although his own hand is evident in their elongated, elegant poses, their grouping to suggest volumes in the landscape, and their placement in full, open spaces. Throughout the frescoes there are examples of compellingly individualized facial features which suggest that they were drawn from life. The individual scenes are suffused with light which enhances the solidity of buildings and landscape features against the dark background. The colours of the costumes are lighter than in earlier frescoes, lending the entire cycle a vivacity commensurate with the animation of its figures. These frescoes mark the end of a long development of fourteenth-century painting in Santa Croce which, beginning with Giotto's frescoes for the Bardi Chapel, established new ways of realizing narrative.

Preview Picture Data Info
Chancel chapels seen from the west
1385-87
Fresco
Santa Croce, Florence


Scenes on the south wall
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Recovery of the Wood (left) from Which the True Cross is Constructed
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Retrieval and Trial of the Three Crosses
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Recovery of the Wood (detail)
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Retrieval of the Three Crosses (detail)
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Retrieval and Trial of the Three Crosses (detail)
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Scenes on the north wall
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Worshiping of Chosroës, Dream of Emperor Heraclius, and Heraclius's Combat with Chosroës's Son
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Emperor Heraclius Beheads Chosroës and Enters Jerusalem with the True Cross
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Emperor Heraclius Beheads Chosroës and Enters Jerusalem with the True Cross
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Dream of Emperor Heraclius
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Emperor Heraclius Enters Jerusalem with the True Cross
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence


Emperor Heraclius Enters Jerusalem with the True Cross
1385-87
Fresco
Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence



Paintings by Agnolo GADDI
Fresco cycle in Santa Croce, Florence (1385-87)
Various paintings



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