Oratory of the brotherhood of San Francesco
The Passion of Christ, between popular narration and sacred tradition, in an exciting story more than thirty metres long.
The church of San Francesco in Santa Vittoria d’Alba was born in ancient times as a civil house, and was later taken on as the seat of the “Sancti Spiritus De Sancta Uitoria” brotherhood.
The sacred building contains a precious cycle of frescoes on the theme of the Passion of Christ, which amazes for its rarity in the local landscape. The emotional impact is often intense, with as many as nineteen scenes from the Passion of Christ (some of them only partially visible) that stretch over 34 metres on three sides of the single nave.
The building has a rectangular plan, with an irregular semi-prismatic apse located to the north. On the southern side there is a square-based bell tower, once the defensive tower of the “Porta Solani”. From the oratory of San Francesco comes the anchor with a painting from the workshop of Macrino d’Alba (around 1535), which has long been located in the parish church of Santa Vittoria d’Alba.
The entrance to the church is placed on the side, looking to the East, a strange and peculiar fact for a church of that period. From the entrance door you can immediately admire the scene of the Crucifixion of Christ, majestic and moving.
THE PASSION OF CHRIST (about 1490-1492)
In the cycle of the Oratory of S. Francesco, the executive contributions of several painters can be observed. It was undoubtedly a “huge” and demanding work, which at the time required the intervention of a capable workshop. This condition has led to some disparities and dissonances between the salient characters and the groups of figures, or between the protagonists and the historical setting.
The entire cycle was painted around the last decade of the fifteenth century and within the first of the following century. However, in many of the scenes there are later tweaks.
The theme of the Passion of Christ and in particular of the “Via Crucis”, originally propagated by the Franciscans, is undoubtedly one of the most important in Christian iconography. It draws inspiration from many sources: ranging from canonical evangelical stories to apocryphal Gospels, passing through popular legends and sacred medieval representations. In particular, the latter have enriched the narration with details, episodes and even colourful and popular characters, forming a lively and folkloristic religious tale, for use and consumption by large groups of the less educated or even illiterate population.
In the case of Santa Vittoria d’Alba, the sequence of the sacred drama is made up of anecdotes present in the narratives of several Evangelists, mixing with stories taken from the apocryphal Gospels. Matthew, Luke and John are the three reference Evangelists, mixed and alternated with scenic contributions present in the sacred representations of the time. The identity of the painter leading the workshop is not known.
1 Messianic Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem
The first box can only be deciphered thanks to a fragment in which we can see a face, a hand in the act of blessing and a donkey. The state of conservation is not optimal, but thanks to this we can better understand the original style of the workshop that operated in San Francesco.
The face of Christ has delicate features and expresses dignity and nobility, as indeed in the rest of the cycle, in contrast with the realism in which the other characters are more deeply rooted.
In this representation of the Last Supper, the disciples are gathered around an elliptical table, an element of certain iconographic peculiarity: think of other representations of the episode with the Apostles all on one side of rectangular or tau-shaped tables.
In the portion that has come down to us we can see six from behind, wrapped in remarkably draped garments, including Judas in the act of receiving the morsel dipped by Christ.
3 The washing of the feet
Here too, as in the second scene, an interesting iconographic detail can be found: Jesus is bowed, where in other representations of the same episode of a later period he is less genuflected.
Peter is seated in front of him: we recognise him by his white beard. Behind Peter two other Disciples, and behind them the other nine. Among all, we can also recognise John: iconographically he is always the closest to Christ, since he is “the most loved”; moreover, he is also the youngest and still beardless.
4 Judas selling Jesus to the high priests
The scene of Judas betrayal is the smallest in the series, and is located above the front door. A shelf with coins divides the characters, while Judas seems to be almost grinding his teeth in front of the Sanhedrin. Noteworthy are the hats of the Priests, in use in the fifteenth century.
5 The agony of Jesus on the Mount of Olives
Christ’s Prayer in Gethsemane is greatly deteriorated. The author has decided to follow the story of Luke’s Gospel, since only in it there is an Angel with the chalice that we find in the fresco mentioned. Another peculiarity, the Angel shows a cross that is barely visible, an omen of future events. In the lower part, we can see the two disciples asleep.
The sixth scene is very spectacular for the orderly deployment of soldiers in fifteenth-century armour, which makes the episode’s descriptive intensity even more fascinating. Soldiers in a dense forest of spears and pikes appear to be waiting to receive the signal to capture Christ, located in the middle with Judas. The pictorial equilibrium is moved by the action of Peter who draws his sword, as if to interrupt the inevitable course of events.
7 Peter hits the ear of Malchus, servant of the High Priest
The seventh scene could refer to Peter hitting Malchus, the servant of the High Priest, injuring him in the ear. Unfortunately it is completely deteriorated.
8 Arrest and mistreatment of Jesus
If the previous scenes were mostly static, the eighth shines for dynamism: it represents the capture of Christ. Let’s compare it with the sixth scene and note how the previous immobility of the soldiers seems to have almost exploded dramatically in a tangle of bodies, spears, pitchforks and armour tightened around Jesus. However, he appears unperturbed in the middle of the jungle of warriors, in progressive ranks.
With a careful look, we can see some tweaks in the soldiers in the foreground.
9 Jesus at the Sanhedrin, questioned by Caiaphas
The scene of Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin questioned by Caiaphas is striking for the presence of a dark floral backdrop and for the order of the soldiers grouped behind Christ.
It is assumed that only the left side is in its original state, while the right portion has undergone obvious renovations and retouching over the following centuries: for example, the black hatching is very visible to accentuate the drapery of the Priest, of which apparently only the face remains at the original state. Note the dark background, characterised by floral elements.
10 Denial of Peter and flagellation of Jesus at the column
Peter denying Jesus occupies a small portion of the fresco dedicated to the Flagellation: two scenes not so directly connected in the Gospels, but here placed in dialogue with each other. Could it be to accentuate the contrast between betrayal as an antithesis to messianic suffering?
The presentation is noteworthy: one of the two scenes is framed by a window in the room where the scourging takes place. A delicate handmaid points the finger at Peter, while next to her the rooster of the prophecy is depicted: despite his assurances, Peter would have betrayed and denied Jesus three times before the crowing of the morning rooster.
In the right part of the box we see Jesus tied to a column, scourged by three torturers. In the upper portion a small mystery: there is a hint of other figures, perhaps an omen of what would come, namely Jesus blindfolded with a golden halo and two executioners.
11 Jesus crowned with thorns and beaten on the head
Only the figure of the blindfolded Christ, crowned with thorns and beaten on the head, is exempt from remakes. The bodies of the six individuals who mock it seem to spin suspended in the air due to a subsequent repainting. In the foreground, one of the six kneels in front of Christ, as if to mock him. In the right portion of the scene the faces of two characters shine with grotesque realism.
Worthy of note is the drapery of Christ, well done. Strangely it is white, while in the evangelical tradition it is purple.
The opening of a seventeenth-century window compromised the enjoyment of this scene, abruptly interrupting the surface, indecipherable at the moment. Only a few legs are visible, perhaps a reference to the episode of Jesus in front of Herod.
13 Pilate washing of the hands
Also in this scene there are two distinct episodes.
The first tells of the presentation of Jesus to the people. The figure of Christ is partly covered with lime, and Barabbas was originally supposed to be next to him. A very slender column separates him from Pilate. He wears a soft cloak and headdress, and is surrounded by his admonishing wife and two other characters.
Below them are two characters in fifteenth-century armour, from behind, in the act of making signs to Pilate. Next to the two soldiers, two other figures tighten a rope ready to tie the condemned man.
The rendering of Christ is remarkable, probably always the work of the Master of the workshop.
14 Ascent to Calvary and meeting with Veronica
The ascent to Calvary is one of the most intense frescoes of the entire cycle. The soldiers
immediately leap to the eye, accompanying Christ with their compact march. In the background some knights preceded by a herald proceed in procession, led by the sound of a horn, and followed by the Virgin. Almost leading the procession, Jesus walks tied to his Cross, while Veronica comes to meet him with the shroud in her hand. The Veronica episode is of apocryphal derivation: it is not present in Luke’s canonical tale, but was the object of ever-increasing popular devotion from the fifteenth century onwards.
In the background of the fresco some interesting details: a medieval citadel stands out against the leaden sky, while Judas hangs from a tree with his heart torn by a black devil. Also in this case the devil who tears the soul of Judas is of popular derivation. In the distance, some soldiers plant crosses on Golgotha for the two thieves.
15 Jesus nailed to the Cross
The next scene crudely depicts Jesus being nailed to the cross. A black boulder appears in the foreground, catching our attention. According to the Gospel of Luke, the Crucifixion took place on Golgotha, from the Aramaic “Skull”: perhaps due to the protruding shape of a small rock on the ground or because it is traditionally considered the burial place of Adam, hence the skull, for example, present in the fresco of Ceresole d’Alba.
Unfortunately, in this scene the original hand of the artist has been almost completely lost, due to subsequent renovations.
Purposely located in front of the entrance, this impressive and dramatic fresco welcomes visitors by offering a non-chronological narration of many events that occur before, during and after the death of Christ.
The scene is divided into two large blocks by the Cross in the middle: the groups of characters seem to articulate themselves on the basis of a peculiar symmetry in which negative characters (the soldiers who pierce Christ, who drink him with vinegar or who share the clothes) alternate to positive characters (the Virgin, the Magdalene and the doubtful centurion).
On the right, a knight addresses the High Priest, recognisable by the headdress, pointing to the Cross. Seeing what had happened, the centurion glorified God: “Truly this man was righteous” (Luke 23, 47)
Bystanders seem incredulous: was this really the Son of God? The sky full of dark clouds indicates the fulfilment of the prophecy.
Behind the soldiers a female figure can be glimpsed: the details of the face are unusually refined and delicate for that portion of the painting, and suggest that it is an author tribute to a character very close to him: the beloved woman, a benefactress close to the Disciplinanti or Santa Vittoria herself, later portrayed in the altarpiece.
Three soldiers quarrel in anger as they compete for the tunic “all in one piece”, which symbolizes the unity of the Church.
In the middle stands the cross of Christ, and a soldier holds out a cane with the well-known sponge soaked in vinegar: at this moment, Jesus has not died yet. Next to Christ, the crosses of the two thieves are placed in symmetry, and partially hide from view the representation of a city in the background, Jerusalem. The thief on the right has a Nordic-flavoured little devil who extracts his soul from his mouth.
On the left, a soldier on horseback pierces Christ’s side with a spear – at this moment death has come. A group of armed men watch the execution. With great and dramatic intensity Mary faints supported by John and the pious women. The quartet at the foot of the Cross possesses a delicate pictorial quality that is close to the courteous Gothic and Franco-Provençal ways. Mary Magdalene, in the foreground, embraces the Cross with pain and affection.
17 Deposition from the Cross
On the left, from behind on a ladder, Joseph of Arimatea is taking Christ from the Cross. On the right of the scene, the pious women are with the apostle John. At the foot of the Cross Our Lady extends her hands to Jesus.
Note the heavenly Jerusalem in the background and the presence of two stairs leaning against the Cross.
Unfortunately, the fresco describing the episode of the Deposition appears to be very deteriorated and the quality is lower than the previous scenes. The body of Christ is unnatural, and the figure that supports it is characterised by a remarkable rigidity.
18 Lamentation over dead Christ in the Sepulchre
The eighteenth scene is taken from the Gospel of Matthew, and tells about the pious women and the Virgin sitting in front of the tomb. Under the lime that unfortunately covers the painting, the body of Jesus can be glimpsed, while the women wrap it in a white cloth. According to tradition, prayer for the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, just as burial is one of the seven corporal works of mercy.
Here, too, the heavenly Jerusalem can be seen in the background.
19 Risen Christ in the Sepulchre
The last scene depicts Christ risen in the Sepulchre, but it is almost completely indecipherable. This is a portion that came to light after the removal of the eighteenth-century wooden pulpit, now moved to the apse. Only a fragment can be glimpsed with an astonished soldier, almost shocked by the extraordinary event taking place.