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

View of the Sacristy of St John

Basilica of Santa Casa, Loreto

The Santuario della Santa Casa (Sanctuary of the Holy House) at Loreto was constructed in the fifteenth century to enshrine the Holy House (Santa Casa) of the Virgin Mary, which tradition held had been brought from the Holy Land to Loreto by angels in the fourteenth century. The heart of the sanctuary is an unprepossessing brick chapel, said to be the structure in which the Virgin Mary was born, received the Annunciation, lived with Joseph and her child after returning from Egypt, and finally died in the presence of the twelve apostles.

In its layout, the shrine consists of three-aisle arms ending in apses to the north, east, and south, and a six-bay nave extending to the west. The chapels off the nave were added only after 1507, by Bramante. Around the crossing, with the Santa Casa in the centre, are four octagonal rooms, closed off by doors, that are referred to simply as sacristies. Two of the four were painted in the fifteenth century, the Sacristy of St John by Luca Signorelli, and the Sacristy of St Mark by Melozzo da Forli.

There is a close connection between the gospel texts and the pictorial programs of the two painted sacristies. The paintings in the Sacristy of St Mark focus on the Passion, appropriately, since it is Mark who describes it in the greatest detail. The Gospel of St John, by contrast, places particular emphasis on the gathering of Christ's disciples and the mission of the apostles, and this is reflected in the paintings of the Sacristy of St John.

In five of the seven openings on the walls of the Sacristy of St John - the eighth is taken up by the window - there are pairs of apostles in dispute. The Conversion of Paul, a scene filled with dramatic movements, fills the one above the door, and the viewer sees it only when he turns to leave. The last opening, centred on the right as one enters, presents another familiar event, but one that in its composition repeats the pairings of the apostles, for it presents two figures side by side. In this case it is Christ and the apostle Thomas, who places his hand against the wound in Christ's side to assure himself that this is the resurrected Christ.

The individual apostles cannot be identified with the exception of Peter and John, who stand in the panel to the left of the Christ-Thomas grouping. The idea of presenting pairs of apostles in debate is borrowed from the bronze doors that Donatello created for the Old Sacristy at San Lorenzo, Florence. Signorelli borrowed not only some of the compositional features of Donatello's reliefs but also specific iconographic details. Like Donatello, he depicts his apostles barefoot and draped in classical garments, eschewing any identifying attributes and even halos.