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The Carrying of the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Descent from the Cross and the Entombment

The Entombment of Christ. (A Panel of the Orsini Altarpiece)

Simone Martini (ca. 1284-1344). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie - Berlin. 1340.

The Orsini Altarpiece:

Angel, the Madonna, the Crucifixion, and the Descent from the cross:
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.
The Bearing of the Cross
Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Entombment
Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

The tragedy was great: the Son of God was hung on a cross and had died ignominiously. His body was taken from the cross and entombed. Panic and grieve were everywhere, in all minds and hearths. The corpse was frail and thin as it was lowered into the marble sarcophagus.

Mary’s sorrow is the most profound and tender. While her son was put on the cross she fainted. Now, while he is being entombed, she embraces him a last time with a tender kiss on the face. Joseph, Jesus’s father, anoints Jesus’s feet. Nicodemus helps him and holds the vessel with the ointments. He also is sad and his face shows that he still cannot understand how such a tragedy could happen. From now on, times will be hard on us all, he is thinking. Behind Joseph, it is all too heavy to bear for John the Evangelist, so liked by Jesus. He cannot but weep and because he is a man he cannot show that, so he hides his face in his bright red cloak. Weeping women are seated in front of the coffin. They all show signs of distress, hold their hand to their ears, caress gently the arm of Christ, want to touch him a last time and kiss his hand.

Mary Magdalene leads the weeping women. When Jesus was on the cross, she passionately held the wooden beam, reaching for his nailed feet, her robe red as blood and her long yellow hair hanging down to the ground all over the robe. She is still dressed here in fiery red and her long blond hair curls down. She and her accompanying women really let their feelings free. Mary Magdalene shows them ostentatively what has happened: look at what has been done to our Beloved. We have to weep and cry to tear the sadness out of our hearths. The other ladies cry out to the heavens above. They throw up their hands. They grasp at their hair. They crowd all together to have a last glimpse. Other women support each other and embrace to find some consolation at the greatest tragedy that could have happened to them. Gone are the hopes for a new Israel, the aspirations for a new kingdom. The family and the disciples will see no glory. All ends here.

The scene happens in a garden. There are trees bearing fruits of hope. The trees are all different; there is even an exotic palm tree. This was the beautiful creation of God. Originally the skies were painted all gold, as appropriate in a painting by a Siennese. Gold to symbolise the richness of creation.

The vivid colours accentuate the passion. Mary is of course dressed in the traditional blue maphorion cloak. The other hues are bright red, rose, yellow, blue, green. Very contrasting colours, splendours for the eye. Although there is so much passion in the painting, there are lines of structure that we follow unconsciously. The horizontal line of Jesus and Mary forms the basis of the picture. This is emphasised by the seated figures in front of the sarcophagus. But then there goes a line from the nimbus of Joseph over the nimbuses of Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene to the heads of the weeping women on the left. Balance is brought by the figure of John on the right, always a bystander and contemplator.

Simone Martini painted this panel for Cardinal Orsini in Avignon D1 . It was part of a small travel altarpiece, together with four other panels. These present an Angel, the Madonna, the ‘Crucifixion’ and the ‘Descent from the Cross’ now held in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp. A sixth panel, the ‘Bearing of the Cross’, is held in the Louvre of Paris. All the panels present the same figures, in the same dress, all in the same strong colours, with the same pathos, the same golden background.

The Angel on the panel of the Antwerp Museum is delicately painted. The gold emphasises the fact that this is an envoy of the Heavens. Gold leave and paint are lavishly applied, also to show the folds of the robe. Typical for Siennese painters is the golden, engraved nimbus from Byzantine tradition. This tradition was difficult to leave, it would have been a lack of respect to paint it otherwise, but Martini did it in ethereal, lighter colours.

The same golden decoration continues on the panel of the Madonna. She is seated on a light throne, much less imposing and finer than the thrones of the Maestà’s of Cimabue and Duccio. She recedes, as if in amazement and fear on the annunciation made to her by the Angel of the Lord. The borders of her blue maphorion flow playfully over her body, as in the Maestà of Duccio, and the cloak only covers her in part, showing a red robe. These flowing folds are typical of Siennese painters, as also for instance of Pietro Lorenzetti who painted around the same time as Simone Martini. Here also, the colours are contrasting to a marvel for the eye.

In the three panels, the ‘Bearing of the Cross’, the Crucifixion and the ‘Descent of the Cross’, we see the same pathos, show of feelings, as in the ‘Entombment’. The frailness of Jesus is emphasised so that we would be entirely compassionate. Jesus is naked; the clothes around him are translucent. The soldiers are richly clad, armour studded with gold. In the ‘Crucifixion’, Mary has fainted and is consoled by a group of women and saints. This group forms a balance with the group of soldiers. Mary Magdalene passionately embraces the wood of the cross. Simone Martini has even drawn two children down on the right who have come to watch; one child shows with his outstretched arm to his comrades that there is something special happening.

In the ‘Descent from the Cross’, the figures that are lowering Jesus all form a passionate embrace. The whole group supports the corpse and the group itself. On the right, weeping and outcrying women again form the balance of the painting. In the Louvre painting, the eye is drawn to Jesus carrying the cross. Jesus here is clad in red, the colour of his passion, and in a robe that forms the largest uni-colour surface amongst the figures. The brown cross forms a strong line. Around this line are gathered a mass of soldiers. Mary, Mary Magdalene and women and men are following, out of a medieval fortified town. Children again are onlookers. Mary Magdalene here also is the personage that has been chosen to show the grieve and panic: she wears the same red robe, throws her arms above her.

The Orsini altarpiece is a small painting in various panels. Each panel is less than 30 centimetres high and half as large. It was a very private piece, to be taken on travels over Europe by a cardinal at the court of the Pope. Maybe for that reason Simone Martini has been able, more than in any other of his works, to tell a story, as a poet would have. Simone Martini had a keen eye for the costumes and their decorative qualities in these panels. He knew well how to show grace and elegance in his scenes. Martini appreciated the grandeur of the courts, the pomp show in his complex scenes. He has also been able to show feelings outrightly. His scenes are poetic narration. Martini’s pictures are lyrical in their sweet display of sentiment. Simone Martini emphasises the grieve and sadness by extreme gestures of some of the figures, especially of Mary Magdalene. There is an enormous difference here with the frescoes of the rational Giotto, from whose frescoes one can read this artist’s reflection and intelligence. This is even much different from Duccio or the Lorenzetti brothers of Siena. Simone Martini has painted with his hearth in the first place and less with his mind. Intelligence always remains present however in his art and workmanship: the scenes are well balanced, lines deliberately engaged, areas and colours used to attract the eye to what the artist wants to lead the viewer to first.

Simone Martini was born in 1284 in Siena. He may have been a student of Duccio di Buoninsegna who made the ‘Madonna Rucellai’. Although a Gothic painter, sentiment of humans crept in his pictures and evolved from the austere, elevated images of previous periods. Martini was one of the foremost painters of the Siennese school. He liked to tell us stories and he does that seemingly with all the innocence of a naïve painter. He brought poetry in images. Supported by the bright contrasting colours and the gold so much used by the Gothic school of Siena. Simone Martini worked in Siena, Pisa, Assisi and Orvieto. He spent most of his life in Siena and Tuscany. He was first mentioned in 1315, with a Maestà he made in Siena. He visited Naples in 1317. He travelled to Avignon around 1335, but returned to Siena shortly after a time that remained only a visit. He returned to Avignon however in 1340. He died there in 1344. He was a friend of the most famous Renaissance poet Petrarca, whose father had to leave Florence when the White party there lost the political struggle in 1302. The Petrarca family wandered over various North Italian cities and finally also had landed in Avignon, in France. Petrarca dedicated poems to Simone Martini.

Simone Martini came to Avignon because there was the court of the Popes in the fourteenth century. He painted frescoes for the Popes, together with Matteo Giovanetti. Few of his Avignon frescoes however have survived the ages.

The struggle for supremacy in Italy between the Popes and the Holy Roman Emperor of Germany Frederic II had ended around the middle of the thirteenth century. Frederic’s sons Conrad and Manfred lost Naples to the French house of Anjou. Charles of Anjou, its new monarch, was a brother to the King of France. The so beloved Sicily of Emperor Frederic II went to the house of Aragon. The Sicilians had more than enough of the harsh French regime of Charles of Anjou and helped Peter of Aragon, ruler of parts of the Provence and married to a daughter of Frederic II, to the throne of Sicily. New struggles between Popes and Emperor and Kings then began, now however more between the Kings of France and the Popes, the influence of the German Emperors in Italy being stopped. Philippe IV le Bel of France finally forced the choice of the French archbishop of Bordeaux, Bertrand de Got, as Pope Clemens V in 1305. This Pope, fearing the wrath of Rome and Italy, preferred to hold his court outside of Italy, but also outside of what was then France. He settled in 1309 in the town of Avignon in the southeast of France. This town belonged then to the Kingdom of Naples and the Anjou house. The Popes had already received the Venaissin County close by Avignon in 1274. So they owned lands in the vicinity of Avignon. They were under the protection of a powerful count that was neither the French King nor the German Emperor, and probably they hoped to expand their Venaissin County. The Popes indeed also acquired Avignon as their personal property, but that only in 1348.

Thus began from 1309 on what is called the Babylonian Exile of the Popes in Avignon. The Popes would only return to Rome in 1377, when Gregorius XI was urged by many - among whom Saint Catherine of Siena was spiritually the most influential - to come back to the town where the tomb of Saint Peter lay. Gregorius died the same year 1377. The French and Italian cardinals chose each another Pope. From then on there would be two Popes: one in Avignon, another in Rome. Around 1409 a Conclave in Pisa, supported by the Kings of France and England, tried to elect a new Pope in place of the two current ones. The only result was that now there were three Popes. The Conclave of Konstanz of 1414-1418 finally brought an end to this sad period. Two Popes voluntarily abdicated. The third was the Avignon Pope Benedictus. The cardinals of the Conclave had to depose him. With all three previous Popes demised, a new Pope Martin V was elected. Thus ended the schism of Avignon.

The history of the Popes in Avignon spans more than a century. Their palace in Avignon has been preserved and can still be visited. Mainly the austere Pope Benedictus XII built it. The following Popes added more elegant halls and towers. The austerity of Benedictus XII shows: the palace looks like an impregnable, massive castle now, a citadel on a rock and a fortress. It certainly had to be in these late Middle Ages: roaming bandit soldiers in 1310 and 1365 attacked Avignon, the Pope had to buy relief at high price. The castle itself was held under siege in 1398 and 1410. But inside it was quite luxurious, a palace with frescoes of Matteo Giovanetti dating from 1346 to 1348 and of course of Simone Martini’s workshop. The Popes were wealthy, held a princely court and drew artists to Avignon. They founded a university there and one can imagine the splendour of the cardinals and foreign ambassadors coming to this gentle town so close to the nice Provence and Vaucluse regions, mixed with the students, pilgrims and traders. This was where Simone Martini worked, in the stability and peace of the Popes and Cardinals.

Long after the Popes were gone from Avignon, the town remained their property. A papal legate continued to govern it for centuries. The town and the papal county Venaissin only returned to France after the French revolution, in 1791. Painters continued to work there and we have some fine paintings of the fifteenth century of the school of Avignon.

Simone Martini died in 1344. He died just a few years before the outbreak of the darkest period in Europe’s Middle Ages. In 1348 began the first black plague epidemics that would decimate European population by one third. Successive pandemic waves of the plague would occur from 1347 to 1350, and still later in the second half of the fourteenth century. Florence’s population was halved. One of the main literature works of those times talks about the plague: Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decamerone. Seven young ladies and three young men escape from Florence and the plague. They remain in a country house for ten days and each day each youth tells a story. These hundred stories form the Decamerone. They are stories of people of all classes. None is spared: noblemen, merchants, poor artisans, and priests. The stories are satires; tell the gallant adventures of all. The plague pandemics had other results besides killing off large parts of the population: it definitely changed people’s minds.

It is hard to imagine the disarray of people in the second half of the fourteenth century. The Popes were not in Rome anymore, from 1379 on there were even two Popes. Who to believe? What had happened to the seat of Saint Peter? What truth and certainty was left? The all-important universal position of the Catholic Church was put to doubt from these times on. The plague spared no one. Some sought redemption in extreme submission to a self-invented mysticism. Many thought the calamities were brought by God who wanted to punish the Church and the sad behaviour of many priests and monks. Penitents roamed in bands throughout the countries. Flagellants torturing themselves by constantly whipping their bodies led in front of the roaming processions. Still others sought the reasons for the calamities with the Jews, and anti-Semitic persecutions intensified. Mostly however, since death was always near and the Church could neither protect nor offer a stable haven, morals deteriorated just as told in the Decamerone. Let’s pluck the day ‘Carpe Diem’, do anything we like, let us find pleasure where we can, tomorrow we will be dead. On top of that, wars ravaged the countries, and not just in Italy.

The Hundred-Year War started between France and England around 1335. It would devastate vast regions of France. Just as the wars between the Popes and the Holy Roman Empire had ended the feudal system in Italy, the Hundred-Year War would prove the end of the feudal system in France. The Kings needed money and soldiers to fight, so they had to draw power to them. It was one major change more to medieval world. The wars brought a dearth of funding. Major banking houses of Italy went bankrupt when the Kings couldn’t pay their vast interests. Economic crisis ensued. As a result of that, of general poverty and misery, peasants revolted both in France in 1358 where they were led by Jacques Bonhomme, a revolt known as the Jacquerie and in England in 1381 by Wat Tyler. Bands of impoverished, angry, wild peasants roamed and devastated the country that had already suffered so much of the war, in France of passing French, Burgundian and English armies.

In Italy, violent blood feuds continued between the city-states. Venice and Genoa disputed supremacy over the seas. Naples fell into a period of chaos during the reign of Joanna I. In 1339 Florence bankers had so much overextended their credits that they fell in a bankruptcy, over which they would only recover more than a decade later.

From the East, the tidings were not better: a combined Serbian and Bulgarian army lost battle to the Osman army of Murad in 1389. These lands would be Turkish now. When subsequently Hungary was threatened, a new crusader army led by French knights was defeated catastrophically by Sultan Bajesid in 1396. Again, it was as if the Christian God had forsaken its flock. The only good news there was that the Osmans had met on their eastern borders a still more terrible enemy, the Mongol Tamerlan, so that they would stop further progress in the West for some time.

The Black Death also took a heavy toll to art and painters. The other two main Siennese painters, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti died of the plague. No major painter worked in the second half of the fourteenth century. The later Renaissance painters were either born late in the fourteenth or early in the fifteenth century. They started to work with major paintings only around 1420. The second half of the fourteenth century became almost a black hole in art.

The painting of Simone Martini is thus also a painting of premonition. He died just before the plague epidemics started, but the tragedy and panic shown by him then really would start to happen. And passion would become commonplace in the streets, towns and the country.

Simone Martini was one of the first painters who loved to tell stories and who showed sentimental, lyrical images. Many figures were part of his tales and the emotions of people in scenes like the Crucifixion or the ‘Bearing of the Cross’ are shown in anecdotal detail. Martini was one of the first to bring common folk in his pictures. We feel he was an ardent observer of the intense merchant and religious life at Avignon.

Out of the horrors of the fourteenth century would grow a civilisation that still, and even more than ever, believed in Jesus Christ and in the Catholic Church. But deep cracks had shaken Christianity. The plague pandemics, the unsuccessful crusades, the advances of the Turkish armies in Eastern Europe, and the scandals of the last Popes of Avignon had deep effects on society and on the conscience of European man. Much has been written on the Renaissance, the civilisation of the fifteenth century in Italy, but probably not enough on the roots of the awareness that God might just not interfere in the way that humans expected. Thus a humanity evolved out of the hardships that looked to itself, however frail, and that turned to more confidence in its own accomplishments while remaining in the respect of the message of Jesus Christ.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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