Wednesday, February 18, 2015


The painter of these angels, Melozzo da Forli (1438-1494), is an unsung hero of the Italian Renaissance. He paints his sensitive, serious face here
looking out at the viewer on the far right in the scene of Christ's Entry into Jerusalem in the Sacristy of San Marco in the Basilica of the Santa Casa in Loreto.
In the background is probably an imaginary view of that Basilica in Loreto up on a hill, as it looks much like that today:
That Melozzo is a gifted artist is immediately apparent in this scene. He can paint landscape, realistic-looking humans, and he makes compositions into slices of life, tranches de vie, that keep us riveted by their various viewpoints: bird's eye (from above looking over), as over the trees, sotto in su (from below looking up as in the view of the basilica), and straight on, as in the angle we approach the apostles and Christ's entourage. Even the slicing off half of the bodies of the foreground figures makes us want more of them and the space they inhabit. He knows that art can be magical and engaging, and he uses his skill to form illusions of the highest order. That he is painting in the 1470's, before Raphael, Leonardo, or Michelangelo, makes his contribution even more astonishing.
           We can see pieces of his work in the Vatican Pinacoteca, and these are probably the most familiar of the images he is known for: the fresco from the Vatican Library in Rome (see another blog entry), painted sometime between 1480-82, showing us Pope Sixtus IV seated with his four standing nephews and kneeling librarian:
and the angels left from the ruins of the apse he painted for the church of S.S. Apostoli in Rome, around the same time:

His skill in rendering figures di sotto in su is most dramatic in the angels here and reminds us that he had been taught in Mantua by Mantegna, before coming down to Loreto and Rome.

But Melozzo's most well-preserved masterpiece in Loreto displays his influence from Mantegna the best and shows how he outdoes him. The sacristy of San Marco in the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, dated 1477-1480, has simple angel figures seen from sotto in su, painted into an architectural illusion of vaults and seats around a dome. The vaults splay out from the top, like spokes in an umbrella,
an illusion that reminds us directly of Mantegna's oculus in the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace in Mantua of 1465-74:                                           A
The Mantegna (A) opens a hole in the sky with figures of courtiers looking down on the viewer in a palace room
 and putti clinging to the trellis parapet.

In the Melozzo (B), the dome is closed up and filled in with illusionistic architectural supports and decoration.                                                                B
But Melozzo takes Mantegna's conceit one step further in the foreshortening. Instead of attaching his winged figures to the architecture, he produces angels who appear to fly IN FRONT OF the vaults above the head of the viewer.  His dome rises in three layers:
1) Old Testament prophets forming the symbolic and real base of the structure as they sit with their inscription plaques in Latin, then
2) angels flying above them who hold symbols of the Passion (the last days of Christ's life), then
3) the dome crowned with a circle of winged cherubim heads in clouds, culminating in the oak tree coat- of-arms of the patron in the very center with a cardinal hat dripping with red tassels on all sides. The patron was Cardinal Girolamo (or Geronimo) Basso della Rovere. He has made sure that acorns, fruits of the oak tree (the "rovere") of his family name, were emphasized in the very top of the dome.
Melozzo uses Mantegna's brilliant idea and elaborates it, giving a performance on the dome for religious display rather than secular purpose. Just as in Mantegna's oculus, the figures are three- dimensional and appear to bear weight, but Melozzo then transforms those figures into aery, ephemeral, elegantly blithe creatures who move in the space in both directions above the heads of the prophets and above the heads of the viewers.

The whole concept is dizzying, and melts away the  humorous quality of the Mantegna oculus, changing it into a heavenly cosmic panoply. Melozzo's dazzling skill is already enough of a triumph for the history of art, but Melozzo's patron is a cleric whose brilliance and seriousness turn this room into an even more extraordinary work.
        Girolamo Basso della Rovere is a cousin of Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II) and nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. Sixtus makes him Cardinal of Recanati (the port next to Loreto) in 1477, with permission to decorate the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto. Girolamo is not content just to have Melozzo paint his coat-of-arms. He sets up an elaborate program linking the prophets in the first layer with the angels' Passion symbols on the second layer, and he intended for the program to be continued into the wall level of the sacristy, where one narrative scene remains, the Entry into Jerusalem we have looked at earlier. (The later Passion cycle events were whitewashed in a later century.)

Ambitious would be an understatement in describing this room. Cardinal Basso della Rovere wants to make clear to the viewer the textual connections between statements recorded from Prophets in the Old Testament and actual events of Christ's Life described in the Book of Mark in the New Testament. He doesn't just fling up the textual references willy-nilly, though. He carefully calculates a sequence of Latin phrases quoted from Old Testament prophets that suggest the sequence of events that happened to Christ after he entered Jerusalem, and ones that coincide with textual passages from the New Testament Book of Mark (since this is the sacristy of San Marco.)The sequence begins with the Old Testament figure of Zacharias and moves around the dome from below in a counter-clockwise direction, the opposite way to the way the angel here faces:
The inscription Zacharias holds with his left hand is taken from his writings:
Latin – Zec 9:9, exulta satis filia Sion iubila filia Hierusalem ecce rex tuus venit tibi iustus et salvator ipse pauper et ascendens super asinum et super pullum filium asciens
English -Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The ANGEL above Zacharias puts out in offering an olive branch. Since olive branches were laid before Christ as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, this angel marks the beginning of the Passion narration (the last days of Christ's life.) Zacharias' words are interpreted by the Renaissance prelate as predicting the New Testament event as it is recounted in Mark 11:7-8:"And they brought the colt to Jesus, and cast their garments on him, and he sat upon him.And many spread their garments in the way: others cut down branches off the trees, and strawed them in the way."  The colt is the colt of a donkey, as Melozzo presents it in the ENTRY scene below this image, and the branches are those of the olive, as held here by the angel.
What follow in the circle are 7 more angels with an object linked directly to a passage in the Book of Mark and to the passage of the prophet below them in these ways:

Latin - invaluerunt adversum te viri pacis tuae qui comedunt tecum ponent insidias super te   
English –The men of your peace were strengthened against you; those who eat with you placed traps beneath you.
The symbol of the LAMB of sacrifice represents Christ, who sacrifices himself on the Cross for the sins of the world. The prophecy of Obediah, then, is thought of as referring to the betrayal of Judas, who eats with Jesus at the Last Supper before he gives him up to the Roman soldiers. Mark says: 14: 18 "And as they sat and did eat, Jesus said, Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray me."

 3 - EZEKIEL and ANGEL with CUP
Ch.3:14–Latin-Spiritus quoque levavit me, et assumpsit me: et abii amarus in indignatione spiritus mei: manus enim Domini erat mecum, confortans me.Ch.2:8Dixit aperi os tuum et comede que cumque do tibi.
English – 3:14 -Then the Spirit lifted me and took me away. And I went forth in bitterness, with the indignation of my spirit. For the hand of the Lord was with me, strengthening me. Ch. 2:8 – He said: open your mouth, and eat whatever I give to you.”
        The reference in Ezekiel to bitterness and to opening the mouth to accept whatever God offers is
interpreted as a prophecy of the Garden at Gethsemane, where Christ prays to God in Mark 14:36, Father, Take this cup from me.Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Before his arrest, Jesus is afraid, and asks to have the cup of bitterness be removed, but then he accepts what he knows is his fate. The chalice the angel holds here is also the kind of chalice used in the mass in commemoration of Christ's saying at the Last Supper, as recounted by Mark 14:23-24 "And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. 24 And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many."

The angel here has a particularly lovely face with a sweet sad expression, soft features, and blond curls. The sadness is appropriate to the hour of the Passion account, since suffering follows the Last Supper, as the metaphorical cup is drunk.

4 - BARUCH and ANGEL with ROPES and SALT -

Latin Bar. 4: 25-persecutus est enim te inimicus tuus: sed cito videbis perditionem ipsius, et super cervices ipsius ascendes.
English -What if thy enemy hunts thee down? Ere long thou shalt see the ruin of him, set thy foot on his neck!

The ropes and salt held by the angel refer to the arrest and torture of Jesus before he is crucified.
In Mark 15:1, Mark states, "And straightway in the morning the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council, and bound Jesus, and carried him away and delivered him to Pilate." He was bounds with ropes and beaten. The salt may be what they rubbed in the wounds to give him more pain. The Baruch quotation is not directly related to the arrest and flagellation of Christ, but suggests that after Christ's suffering, he will have revenge on his captors.
 5 - ISAIAH and ANGEL with COLUMN 

Latin ch. 50:6 - corpus meum dedi percutientibus et genas meas vellentibus  faciem meam non averti ab increpantibus et conspuentibus in me
English:I gave my back to the smiters,my cheeks to blows,and I did not turn away my face from shame and spitting 
Mark 15:19: "And they smote him on the head with a reed, and did spit upon him." In most Renaissance visual representations of the torture of Jesus, he is bound to a COLUMN while being spat at. The spitting and turning the other cheek in Isaiah is meant to evoke the flagellation scene in Mark.

Latin -11:19 - ego quasi agnus mansuetus qui portatur ad victimam et non cognovi quia cogitaverunt super me consilia dicentes: venite mittamus lignum in panem eius et eradamus eum de terra viventium.
English -  I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realize that they had plotted against me, saying, “Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living.” 
Mark 15: 20 "And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple from him, and put his own clothes on him, and led him out to crucify him." Mark 15:25,"And it was the third hour and they crucified him."
The CROSS evokes the crucifixion of Jesus and the passage in Jeremiah seems to foresee a sacrificial lamb and a tree destroyed with a man's life cut short.

 Closeup of hammer and nails:
DAVID -HAMMER AND NAILS–David holds a lyre with his name and P for Psalmist on it.
PSALMS –inscription on plaque to his left side –Psalm 22: 17,18 – Latin- Foderunt manus meas et pedes meos et dinumeraverunt omnia ossa mea. English -They have torn holes in my hands and feet; they have counted my bones one by one.

David's Psalm passage is about the painful treatment of someone's hands and feet. In Mark 15 Christ is crucified and they give him myrrh to drink, but no specific mention is made in Mark of the nailing of his hands and feet to the cross; all of that is implied in the phrase Mark 15:24 "And when they had crucified him."


Latin- Super tribus sceleribus, et super quatuor non convertam eum, proeo quod vendiderit pro argento iustum et pauperem pro calciamentis
English -For three sins, even for four, I will not turn back [my wrath]. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.

Though the Amos passage could be seen as a prophecy of Judas' betrayal for money, (30 shekels of silver) in Mark 14: 10-11:"And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.11 And when they heard it, they were glad, and promised to give him money. And he sought how he might conveniently betray him," when the passage is read in relation to the pliers used to remove the nails from Christ's body, it is interpreted more as Christ's acceptance of Judas' betrayal and of the subsequent end of the Crucifixion, the DEPOSITION,when Joseph of Arimathaea goes to Pilate to ask for permission to bury Christ's body in his own tomb: Mark 15: 46:" And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen and laid him in a sepulchre..."(In order to remove him from the cross, pliers would have been required to extract the nails from hands and feet.

The eight stories from Mark in the New Testament are therefore: 
Entry into Jerusalem, Last Supper, Gethsemane,Trial, Flagellation, Crucifixion(twice), Deposition

An outline of the programme looks like this:
OLIVE TREE BRANCH – ZACHARIAS (Entry into Jerusalem)
LAMB – OBADIAH (Abdias) (Sacrificial lamb)
CUP  - EZEKIEL (“Take this cup from me” in Garden at Gethsemane)
ROPES and SALT – BARUCH  (Flagellation and wounds salted)
COLUMN – ESIAS (Isaiah) (Flagellation)
PLIERS – AMOS (Deposition)
and might have been arranged thusly on the wall sides, had they been completed:
Olive branch  Lamb        Cup       Ropes    Column      Cross      Hammer & Nails  Pliers
Zacharias      Obediah     Ezekiel   Baruch   Isaiah        Jeremiah    David                   Amos
Entry   Last Supper  Gethsemane  Trial    Flagellation Crucifixion  Crucifixion     Deposition

As the viewer remembers the individual moments of Christ's life from his entry into the city to his
death on the cross, he/she is given certain Old Testament prophecies thought to be borne out by the last days of Christ's life (the Passion.) All of this erudition might be infinitely tedious and contrived were it not for the intensity of the Christian story and for the beauty of Melozzo's colors and grace. Even the Prophet Amos' sleeves are rainbow colored and iridescent, the stepping of the angel with the Cross particularly delicate:

With shadows Melozzo conveys the space between the robe of Jeremiah and the step as it falls gently over it. With shadows he makes us feel the presence of these weighty prophets sitting on ledges. With shadows he picks out the air between the feet of the angel of the cross and the back of his robe. Jeremiah almost looks up between his legs, but it is all very discrete - sensual but not sexual. We feel the air between the angel and the vault behind him, too. He floats above it all and holds the cross as if it weighed nothing, the fine distinctions of spiritual burdens. We feel the yellow and green cloth in the folds, we sense the thin muslin of the white robes; all of the beauty of material comes alive in his presentation.
       While art historians call this kind of comparative arrangement of Old and New Testaments typology, a typical juxtaposition of Biblical exegesis from its origins, the emphasis on the Jewish prophets and Angels speaks to two different visual needs for this specific room, a need for textual grounding for the Christian story in Jewish history and a need to remind the viewer of the local Loretan story for which the entire building was created.  

       In the anxiety about Jewish history and its relation to the Christian story, the 15th-century clerics, and here particularly Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere, were trying to account for the Old Testament stories by making them legitimate precursors to the life of Christ. The prophets are old, the angels young, the difference meant to suggest the Old Religious Belief and the New. The Old Testament stories on the ceiling are seen as the history of mankind, so they can’t be ignored or erased; they lead up to the Christian story and are overtaken by it (for Christian believers), but the anxiety about the Jews who did not convert must have been great. Doesn’t Melozzo’s fresco speak a little of that anxiety, the two-tiered nature of the image, the angels in motion competing with the prophets’ serious stability?
       The Jews expected a Messiah and foretold many things before Jesus arrived; Christ’s story needs the Jewish backup because those stories came before and formed history before he was born, but his story also needs the Jewish backup because the idea of the Messiah was a Jewish idea. The Old Testament is never rejected as part of the Bible by Christians; it is included in the text used in the church services, it is regarded as wisdom before Christian history, and Christ’s text must be read in direct relation to THEIR text. Why could they not just start ab ovo with the New Testament? For Christians, if he is the Messiah foretold by Jews, he gains the depth of their time waiting for him. If he were not the Jewish Messiah, you wouldn’t need the Old Jewish history, but he evolves out of that, so the old Jewish history is tightly belted with HIS. 
          Remembering the Old Testament also, however, cements the 15th-century Christian believers' certainty that they are different, they are the New. The youth of the angels who carry Christ’s Instruments of the Passion underscores the notion that Christianity is the young religion, the New Faith. While supporting the Catholic religion by providing historical background, the Jewish prophets distinguish Christianity as different from their own traditions. They foresaw the Messiah, but they do not live to see him, and the angels fly above them with the new story for which the building is constructed.
          But there is another reason for the emphasis on ANGELS here.  The Basilica of the Santa Casa in Loreto is the church

 built over another building 

constructed over the Nazarene house where Mary received the ANNUNCIATION. 
In 1291 Mary's house is brought, brick by brick, from Nazareth, over the Mediterranean Sea, first to the Dalmatian coast and then to Loreto. An Italian merchant family provided the ships and money to transport the house from the Holy Land to Italy.  The last name of that family was ANGELI,
ANGELS.  You can't make these things up!  Of course, over the centuries, the legend arose that Angels had transported the house of the Virgin (where an angel had appeared to her) from Nazareth to Loreto.
         Melozzo's ANGELS are therefore part of the mythical makeup of the place. His angels are holding symbols of the Passion, but evoke the Angels who were thought to have magically carried a house from one side of the Mediterranean to the other.
          What is remarkable about this sacristy is how complex the pairings are of Old Testament prophets and Passion stories and symbols. The pairings seem a bit arbitrary, too, because the inscriptions are of rather obscure passages from these prophets, as if the Christians searched for anything that might be regarded as prophetic of Christ’s story and held onto whatever thought they could interpret as prophecy. To me, much of it speaks of the powerful nature of the Jewish community and its history; how could you just let it go and start over? Especially since Christ was Jewish! But how do you explain that not everyone was convinced, how some people still expect the Messiah today?  Do you try to convince them with their own words, Old Testament words used to suggest it was all fated? How many Jewish visitors, though, would have been expected to come up the hill to the Basilica della Santa Casa and enter the Sacristy of San Marco to witness the words of their prophets used to bolster the story of a Jew from Bethlehem who became famous enough for hundreds of churches to be built for him? It's not a sacristy for the Jews of Loreto; it's a sacristy for the priests of Loreto, meant to calm the worries about branching out from the old history, meant to calm the worries about a story of angels that seemed untrue on the surface. At the same time it's a sacristy meant to remember the magic of belief. And if you make it beautiful enough, people will come, and they will believe.                                                          
Melozzo creates a kaleidoscopic cosmos, a whirling, spinning world of images and words, linking two communities of belief into one, relying on his own sense of the miracle of it all, the stepping into air without falling, the mystery of flying beauty. The priests would certainly have had their faith sustained when they came into the sacristy to change for the mass. But Melozzo isn't just thinking of the priests.

         Melozzo hoped to seduce all viewers by his flight of winged creatures, up on air, in gold.

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