COSTA, Lorenzo the Elder
(b. ca. 1460, Ferrara, d. 1535, Mantova)

View of the Oratory

Oratory of St Cecilia, San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna

The picture shows a view of the long south wall with scenes 6-10 of the St Cecilia cycle. Above the entrance on the west wall is the balcony which abuts the Bentivoglio family chapel in the adjacent church of San Giacomo Maggiore.

St Cecilia is one of the most famous Roman saints, although she is purely legendary. She is meant to have lived in the second or more probably the third century, but only appears in the tradition in the fifth and sixth centuries. A young girl of noble background, she was betrothed, in spite of her vow of chastity, to a noble Roman, Valerius. After the apparition of an angel in the marriage chamber, she converted the young man to Christianity and persuaded both him and his brother, Tibertius, to receive baptism. She then refused to make an offering to the pagan gods and was condemned to be suffocated in a boiler, but was saved by the descent of a refreshing cloud from the sky. She was then taken to be beheaded, but the executioner, even after three violent blows, could not detach her head. She lingered on, mutilated, for three days before expiring.

The fresco cycle in the Oratory of St Cecilia consists of ten scenes from the legend of Saints Cecilia and Valerian, located on the north (scenes 1-5) and south (scenes 6-10) walls of the Oratory, which is connected by a passageway to the church of San Domenico Maggiore. The cycle, resembling a continuous frieze, is very different from the sort of painting normally found in parish churches. It bears a greater resemblance to the suites of canvases produced for Venetian oratories and assembly rooms.

The ten horizontal panels, each filled with life-size figures in the foreground, create the impression of a continuous pictorial narrative, one that is structured but not actually interrupted by the framing pilasters. The continuous background landscapes incorporate scenes from the legend of St Cecilia, a large part of which involves the conversions and martyrdoms of her husband Valerian and his brother Tiburtius. Also depicted are the Roman official Maximus, another convert, and Pope Urban I as the saints' protectors, who are soon afterward martyred themselves.

The predominant character of the cycle completely reflects the styles of the two masters who set the tone for the Bolognese school in around 1500, namely Lorenzo Costa the Elder and Francesco Francia. They must be regarded as the ones who devised the St Cecilia cycle, which was ultimately realized by collaborators whose names can no longer be determined with the exception of two panels with the signature of Amico Aspertini. The fact that the first pictures on each wall are by Francia would indicate that he was the supervisor of the project.

Three pairs of scenes were executed by Francesco Francia, Lorenzo Costa the Elder, and Amico Aspertini, respectively. The author of the two other pairs are not known, here we present the reproductions of these scenes among the works by Francesco Francia.

The scenes of the cycle are the following:

Scene 1: Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian (Francesco Francia)

Scene 2: Valerian with Pope Urban (Lorenzo Costa the Elder)

Scene 3: Valerian is Baptized (unknown, displayed in Francesco Francia's section)

Scene 4: Coronation of Cecilia and Valerian (unknown, displayed in Francesco Francia's section)

Scene 5: Martyrdom of Valerian and Tiburtius (Amico Aspertini)

Scene 6: Burial of Valerian and Tiburtius (Amico Aspertini)

Scene 7: Cecilia Disputing with Almachius (unknown, displayed in Francesco Francia's section)

Scene 8: Martyrdom of St Cecilia (unknown, displayed in Francesco Francia's section)

Scene 9: Cecilia Gives away Her Possessions (Lorenzo Costa the Elder)

Scene 10: Burial of St Cecilia (Francesco Francia)

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.