Andrea di Bonaiuto's 'Via Veritatis' and Dominican thought in late medieval Italy.

Author:Polzer, Joseph

The Dominican priory of S. Maria Novella in Florence is not only a religious institution but also an impressive museum of late medieval and Renaissance art and architecture. Behind Leone Battista Alberti's grand quattrocento facade it contains Brunelleschi's wooden crucifix, Masaccio's Holy Trinity mural, Ghirlandaio's vast mural cycle of the Lives of the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist covering the choir,(1) Filippino Lippi's Scenes from the Lives of Saints Philip and John the Evangelist, and Giorgio Vasari's altars lining the aisle walls. Some masterpieces originally there have long since left the church, including Duccio's Rucellai Madonna, which is now in the Uffizi Gallery. However, the art of the period following the Black Death of 1348 is still well represented, by the murals of Nardo di Cione and the young Giovanni del Biondo in the Strozzi Chapel,(2) which also shelters Orcagna's altar of 1357, and by Andrea di Bonaiuto's mural decoration in the chapter house, now known as the Spanish Chapel. Andrea's murals, painted during the years 1365-68, rank among the most impressive records of Dominican art and thought produced in late medieval Italy ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]).(3)

This paper concerns the problematic iconography of the Via Veritatis, the best known of Andrea di Bonaiuto's murals in the chapter house. The evidence presented here was not available before the mid-1970s, when the mural of the Purgatory of Saint Patrick ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]), the first extant image of this remarkable account, was uncovered in the oratory of the Poor Clares in Todi, originally owned by the Servite order.(4) This evidence contributes to the resolution of iconographic problems that have been open to sharp differences of opinion, and the following discussion of the Via Veritatis extends to the other murals in the Dominican chapter house and to wider issues.

The Corpus Domini Chapel

The new chapter house, built in its present form by the architect Fra Jacopo Talenti with funds provided in the will of the merchant Buonamico di Lapo Guidalotti after his death in 1355,(5) differs from all other known early Dominican chapter houses in that it contains a separate chapel, here oriented axially toward the north in keeping with the orientation of the church's choir.(6) According to the will of Buonamico di Lapo Guidalotti,(7) who was buried directly in front of the entrance,(8) this chapel was dedicated to the Corpus Domini. Although Andrea di Bonaiuto's murals in the chapter house have survived in relatively good condition, the Corpus Domini Chapel was thoroughly repainted in the sixteenth century, thus most probably obliterating murals incorporating Corpus Domini iconography, of which very little is known in Italy at this early time. It has been observed that the cult of the Corpus Domini had been established at S. Maria Novella by the late thirteenth century,(9) and an altarpiece still located in the Spanish Chapel, bearing Bernardo Daddi's name and the date 1344, must have served a Corpus Domini altar. This polyptych of half-figures consists of the Madonna holding the Christ Child, with four flanking saints, following a popular compositional format. The texts on the scrolls held by the saints and the Christ Child refer, however, to the Corpus Domini, the Child's scroll reading: "Ego sum panis vivus qui de celo descendi" (John 6:51).(10) One has to wait for Sassetta's now-dismembered Corpus Domini altarpiece, begun in 1423 and painted probably for the church of the Carmine in Siena, for a decisive Corpus Domini imagery to emerge in Italy for the first recorded time. There a large monstrance occupies what was originally the main field, while the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper is the subject of the central panel of the predella.(11) Two other extant predella panels represent Saint Thomas Aquinas praying before an altar and extending his book toward an image of Christ suspended on the cross. The latter scene has been duly linked to two episodes in William of Tocco's Vita of Saint Thomas. One occurred in the Dominican priory in Naples where Christ addressed Thomas from a crucifix with the words: "Bene scripsisti di me Thoma." The saint then proceeded to write the third part of the Summa theologica, which contains the discussion of the Eucharist. According to the second account, Christ, again speaking from the Cross, tells Thomas, inquiring about the truth of his writing on the Eucharist: "Bene de hoc mei Corporis Sacramento scripsisti."(12) Thomas had been credited by his friar confessor with writing the office of the Corpus Domini.(13) A vast gap regarding how both image and text relate to the body of Christ separates the polyptych bearing Bernardo Daddi's name from Sassetta's altarpiece.

The Decoration of the Chapter House

The mural cycle covers the walls and ceiling of the chapter house, which consists of a squarish hall with a Gothic vault. It offers a unique program focusing on the Passion of Christ, the principal early saints of the Dominican order, and the order's mission past and present.(14) A panoramic Passion cycle is painted on the north wall, framing the entrance to the Corpus Domini Chapel ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]). The narrative moves without a break from the Road to Calvary at the lower left side to the Descent into Limbo at the lower right. Christ crucified, surrounded by a vast crowd, is situated along the vertical axis above the entrance arch. Here Andrea di Bonaiuto achieved the most elaborate panoramic Passion narrative of the trecento. This mural and the four scenes located in the cells of the vault - the Navicella, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost - depict events during and after Christ's life on earth.

The three other painted walls of the chapter house are devoted to the Church, the Dominican order, and its principal saints. On the west wall, Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian who had been canonized about four decades before, in 1323 ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED]), is enthroned within an intricate order of figures. These include the Seven Virtues, who appear in the sky above the saint, three heretics crouching beneath his throne, and Old and New Testament saints, kings, and prophets seated to either side of him. Below appear the personifications of various disciplines and arts, including their historical representatives. The composition is static and symmetrical, effectively projecting the idea that Thomas represents the Dominican claim to universal knowledge. The text on his book is taken from the Book of Wisdom (7:7-8): "Optavi et datum est sensus. Et invocavi et venit in me spiritus sapientiae; et praeposui illam regnis et sedibus" ("Wherefore I wished, and understanding was given me: and I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me: And I preferred her to kingdoms and thrones").(15) Thus, the wisdom of Thomas is granted by the grace of God.

The south wall, which contains the entrance from the cloister, shows scenes from the life of Saint Peter Martyr [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED]. Here the static, formal symmetry of the Triumph of Thomas is replaced by a lively narrative. Differing in structure from Christ's Passion located on the opposite wall, its successive episodes are clearly separated, rather than flowing one into the next without a break. This sectioned discourse conforms to the available surface of the wall, which is interrupted by the entrance, the oculus above it, and the flanking windows. How precisely the upper and lower registers were connected is unclear, since the central portion of the mural, including the borders separating the different scenes, has been destroyed. Klara Steinweg explains the three quatrefoils around the oculus, which contain the busts of the young Peter Martyr and two men, as referring to the story of the young saint who returns from school and informs his angry father and uncle - both heretics - that he has learned the creed.(16) To the left of the oculus Saint Peter receives the Dominican habit, and to the right he is shown preaching to a large crowd.(17) At the extreme left of the lower register he is martyred, the dying saint writing "Credo in deum" on the ground with his very blood [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 6 OMITTED], followed to the right by the sick and lame clamoring for healing at his tomb and by two posthumous cures.(18)

Saint Peter Martyr is represented here as the popular preacher and miraculous healer. He was in Florence in the mid-1240s and the scene of his preaching has been located by some scholars in the Piazza S. Maria Novella.(19) The complementary roles of these Dominican saints, Thomas attending to ideas and Peter Martyr serving people, are clearly underscored. It makes good sense that Peter's martyrdom - albeit occupying here but a limited side space - should be juxtaposed to Christ's supreme sacrifice on the opposite wall. His faith is sealed in his own blood, his death linking him, and through him the Dominican order, to the Apostles and the early martyrs of the Church. Accordingly, in the Paradise of the Via Veritatis Peter Martyr stands between the protomartyrs Saints Stephen and Lawrence, who are identified by the instruments of their martyrdom [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 7 OMITTED]. And across the vault Christ's sacrifice duly connects with Peter's death via the paintings of the Resurrection and Ascension.

The Via Veritatis [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], located opposite the Triumph of Thomas and between the Passion of Christ and the Life of Saint Peter Martyr, offers an unusually intricate allegorical structure. The name of the mural, coined by Millard Meiss, is conveniently brief.(20) The mural strives to identify the Dominican order with the Church as a whole, while underscoring the pastoral mission of the Dominicans and their commitment to the eradication of heresy. As might be expected, this remarkably complex subject...

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