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di Balduccio Monument--The Christian Virtues

Capturing the back of the sarcophagus of Saint Peter Martyr is much trickier than photographing the front. The apse is quite close by, and there is a small altar/sanctuary roped off by the monument. So, I didn't have the luxury of enough space to take a full-frontal shot with my camera. The side-angle below gives you a fair idea of the subjects, and I'll use tighter shots for the individual sculptures.

As I said in the previous post, di Balduccio places the four pagan (Aristotelean) virtues on the front-side of the monument, and in the back are the three Christian virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity) and the Dominican chief-virtue of Obedience. From left to right, they are Obedience, Hope, Faith, and Charity, in the photo below.

After hours of looking at these sculptures, I hypothesize that there are intentional correspondences between the front and back virtues. Behind Justice (the queen of the pagan virtues in this monument), stands Charity, the greatest of the Christian virtues. Both have dogs at their feet. Behind Temperance is Faith--both figures hold vessels for wine. Where Temperance is attended by sphinxes, Faith has dragons--both are creatures of trickery. Fortitude corresponds with Hope, the former carries an image of Creation and the latter a cornucopia of plenty, perhaps joined as themes of abundance and life. Fortitude's base has lions and Hope's has griffins--both are representations of Christ, but Hope's griffins reflect his dual nature as lord of earth (lion body) and heaven (eagle wings and head). Prudence is backed by Obedience, both carry books and have guardian lions at their bases.

di Balduccio Monument to Saint Peter, Martyr, 1339, back side

I can't quite tell whether it's aging, or a trick of the lighting, but the Hope sculpture, which gazes upward, seems noticeably brighter than the other three. I'm also struck by how the gazes of the four sculptures seem to mostly be dissociated from each other--the exception being that Obedience does appear to be looking at her companions with a direct, and almost simpering, gaze. (More on this below.) By comparison, the figures on the front of the monument seem to be more in-concert and symmetric--the outer figures turn significantly inward toward the two in the middle, and those in the middle turn slightly toward each other. (I guess this is complicated somewhat by Prudence having three faces, but you can stand in front of the four figures and not really notice her other two countenances.)

Charity (Caritas), nursing two adult figures

The virtue of charity depicts the female figure gazing up as two small, adult figures vie to nurse at her left breast. At the base of her pedestals are two whippet-like dogs who rest on a crushed serpent (damaged, better-discerned in the photo above). Such dogs were frequently placed at the feet of female effigies on noble women's sarcophagi in the medieval through 17th century periods in Europe. The dogs represent the virtue of fidelity or devotion--a prized and encouraged virtue for wives.

Charity, close-up

The nursing scene is a bit disconcerting--two men compete for a strange, flaming breast. This is a variation on the medieval theme of Madonna Lactans. Medieval religious art seems to have prized a profound ignorance or willful misrepresentation of female anatomy, to which this 13th century example from the Aylesbury Psalter attests. This was playfully satirized by photographer Cindy Sherman in her Untitled #216 in her History Portraits series from 1989.

Aylesbury Psalter, 13th C. (note lion and dragon at feet of the Virgin)

The medieval aesthetic for depicting the human form was a rebuke of the Ancient Greek and Roman heroic nudity. With the body believed to be an incarnation of Original Sin, a prison for the soul, and the means by which people commit sins, medieval artists developed a convention of representing holy persons so covered by rich cloth that the barest outlines of their bodies were scarcely discernible. So, using the powerful metaphor of nursing as nurturance was quite problematic, with the female breast rather grudgingly acknowledged as the means of nursing.

So, the flaming breast of Charity here (which I've found no other example in any period) seems to be signaling that this is no ordinary milk being dispersed. In contrast to the cliche' of the milk of human kindness, this appears to be nourishment of divine origin. Charity appears to have her mind and eyes elsewhere in this scene, perhaps receiving the divine inspiration which transforms her milk. She's holding the handle or hilt of something (apparently broken off) in her right hand.

Faith (Fides), holding a cross and a communion chalice

Like Charity, Faith's gaze is upward, but a bit more meek. She holds (damaged) cross in her right hand, against her breast, and in her left hand is a lowered Communion chalice, which may have been decorated with colored beads originally.

Close-up of Faith

Faith and Charity both seem to be wearing veils held in place by a wreath of the same kind of flower, arranged as a chain, or circlet. Perhaps it is some sort of lily, which would communicate purity. All four of the virtues on this side of the monument wear flower crowns, which places them in contrast with the pagan virtues on the front of the monument.

Close-up of Dragons below Faith's Pedestal, left-side view

The dragons at the base of Faith's pedestal are noteworthy for their details. The whimsical small wings are webbed, and were perhaps studded with ornaments originally. The tails have scales and curl as they might in a manuscript illustration. The faces and paws are more rodent-like, with fur at the neck and on the arms. A small snake seems to twist itself within their clutches.

Close-up of Dragons below Faith's Pedestal, right-side view

Dragons occur frequently in medieval religious art, usually as symbols of paganism to be stamped out. It's quite common to find them being crushed under the feet of an image of Mary or the archangel Michael (see the manuscript page above). So, it is understandable why the artist placed dragons beneath the sculpture of Faith, but it is distinctive that this sculpture base is paired with Temperance as having mascots which might be interpreted as enemies, rather than as aides.

Close-up of Hope, with Cornucopia

Hope gazes upwards. Her head is uncovered, though she does have two rows of chained daisies decorating the back of her hair. Her cornucopia is made up of flowers. I can see daisies and roses, but can't identify the others. Her unbound hair and open face make her seem the most childlike of the eight sculptures, perhaps emphasizing innocence. Her gaze arches her neck even higher than Charity's gaze does.

Close-up of Griffins at the base of Hope's pedestal

The griffins at the base of Hope's sculpture, as I noted in the introduction above, represent Christ's dual nature as king of Earth (the lion), and Heaven (the eagle). In their clutches are a monkey's head (on the left) and a rat (on the right). The monkey can have negative connotations of lust, greed, malice in Christian iconography. The rat, well, they were seen as vermin then as now. What I find really artistically fabulous about these are their wings and their ears. The wings are quite improbable anatomically, but the etchings of the feathers are so lovingly done, and work well with the mane. The ears...I am not sure what those ears are about. Eagles don't really have them, and lions are not like that. Still, they work with the irritable, beaky head and are nice neighbors for the similarly-headed dragons on Faith's pedestal. The lion haunches are great, but resemble those of a floppy bulldog more than a lion.

Full view of Obedience, with yoke around her neck

At last, we come to Obedience, the virtue emphasized by the Dominican order which dwelt in Sant'Eustorgio and commissioned the piece. Her posture and gaze make her seem older and more tentative than her sisters, but I think that, as with Faith, it gives her a strong air of humility, rather than humiliation. Her head is adorned with a veil and a wreath of flowers, bound by a ribbon. She is also wearing a wimple.

Close up of Obedience

Obedience's chief attribute is the yoke placed on her shoulders. In this instance, the yoke is broken on the left, giving an unintentional and ironic suggestion of liberation, but as sculpted, this yoke declares her to be in service to a greater power. Her pronounced gaze to her left suggests that she is attuned to the other Christian virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.

The similarity of Obedience's gaze to that of Prudence (on the front of the monument) was so strong that I went back to do a closer look at connections between all the virtues and have concluded that all of the sculptures are of the same woman, with different expressions and postures. What to make of this? Is she an ideal embodiment of all virtues, like Dante's Beatrice?

Frontal view of Obedience's Lions, at base of her Pedestal

These lions are very much in the trope used at the entrances of many medieval Italian churches, and interior furnishings, such as baptismal font and ambo bases: protectors who devour enemies of the church. I'm not sure if these vanquished prey are symbolic enemies of Obedience. Here's one from a 14th-century Italian workshop:

Church Entrance Guardian, 14th c., Italy, now in Minneapolis Institute of the Arts

Obedience's lions have a rabbit and a ram in their paws. I couldn't find much in the way of negative symbolism for rabbits or rams, in any medieval bestiary . The only guess I can make is that both creatures are known for their capriciousness, and are difficult to control.

Right-side View of Obedience's Lion

What's nice in looking at this lion close-up, is that you can see the similarities in design to that of haunches in the griffins next sculpture over.

Dome in Portinari Chapel, above the Monument

I thought I'd add a little color to this post by finishing with the beautiful dome above the monument in the Portinari Chapel. In my third (and final) post on the monument, I'll describe the amazing bas-relief scenes from the life of St. Peter of Verona on the sarcophagus section.


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