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The di Balduccio Tomb--the Pagan Virtues

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

As much as I love medieval art that strikes me as bizarre, I really love it when I come across works which are marvels of symbolic coherence. Last Judgment art is my favorite example of this: over the centuries a rather set program of ideas and images evolved, with fascinating variations on the theme across Europe. In June, I encountered an elaborate tomb as rich and complicated as any pattern of stained glass windows or fresco series. In the Basilica di Sant'Eustorgio, I was surprised by the ark sarcophagus carved by Giovanni di Balduccio in the early 14th century.

Portinari Chapel, 1468: Sant'Eustorgio Basilica, Milan, Italy

I'm not sure where the original placement of the monument was, but in 18th century it was moved into the Portinari Chapel (which was commissioned in the 15th century by a banker representing the Medici). You can see a beautiful Annunciation fresco in the arch behind the monument. There's also a spectacular dome in the chapel, which I'll show in my next blogpost on the ark.

Tomb Monument of Saint Peter Martyr (of Verona), by Giovanni di Balduccio, 1339

The ark contains the body (but not the head, which is in a reliquary elsewhere in the basilica) of Saint Peter of Verona. Saint Peter was an Inquisitor, and was assassinated by a heretic named Carino in 1252. The basilica had become the main house of the Dominican Order in the later 1200s, and in 1336 the order commissioned the ark from a sculptor named Giovanni di Balduccio (he may have been a student of Pisano, but some scholars dispute this). In any case, it's a truly stunning piece to look at: it plays with scale and style by mixing bas relief tableaux around the sarcophagus, and mounting nearly full-size sculptures as pseudo-caryatids as the base. The sarcophagus is capped with a tabernacle for the Madonna and two attendant saints. Along with the panels depicting the life of Peter Martyr, there are sculptures of the four pagan virtues (called the "moral virtues" in Catholic theology), the three Christian virtues (called the "theological virtues"--faith, hope, and charity), accompanied by a sculpture of the Domincans' chiefly-valued virtue, obedience. There are also sculptures of Church Fathers, some of the Orders of Angels. The effect is to frame Saint Peter's life as grounded in key religious principles, in harmony with the work of authoritative saints, and sanctioned by heaven itself.

di Balduccio Tomb, side-view featuring the Pagan Virtues

Because this piece is so complex and so densely populated with beautiful sculptures, I will break the description of the ark into a few blogposts. For starters, I want to focus on the personifications of the four pagan (moral) virtues, which front the piece.

Justice, with Scales and Sword (damaged/missing)

The (overall) eight virtues are represented much as the nine muses of classical antiquity would be. Justice is represented as a queen, the scales and spade which she would be holding as her attributes appear to have broken off at some point over the centuries, perhaps during the big move of the monument into the chapel. At the base of her pedestal are two hunting dogs, who have brought down what I think are miniature versions of wild boars. My interpretation here is that Justice hunts for and brings down the unjust. That hunting is a privilege reserved for nobility underscores the crown bestowed on the sculpture.

Justice, close-up

What I find stunning about the sculptures on this ark is how they are simultaneously consistent with how people are depicted in late-medieval manuscripts and frescoes, and also quite realistic in three-dimensional form. Her face is animated, with a very believable gaze, and she seems to be about to speak. Note the exquisite detail of the figure's draped wimple and embroidery on her robes--very like what a noble woman of di Balduccio's time would have worn.

Temperance, pouring water into wine

The figure of Temperance here has a very particular pouring of vials, which I had read in classical symbolism was pouring water between vessels, making them equals in volume. The details here make it clear that she's pouring water (in the humble-looking pitcher) into the wine (in an elaborate, perhaps once gem-studded decanter). The diluted wine is thereby made useful to drink, but not to lose one's clarity to drunkenness. This use of the attributes is common to Christian depictions.

Temperance, close-up

In this close-up, you can see that the figure is wearing a crown of ivy over an elegant netted snood. She is crowned with a wreath of ivy, which was often used in classical depictions of the god Dionysus, reputed to protect him from intoxication.

Fortitude, with image of Creation

"Fortitudo" is often translated into English as "strength" or "courage," and was frequently represented by the figure of Hercules from the Ancient Greek era through the Renaissance. di Balduccio was committed to the program of these virtues being represented like the muses, apparently, and so here we have a very rare (maybe even singular--I couldn't find another example) depiction of strength as a female.

Fortitude, close-up

In this close-up, you can see she is even wearing Hercules' armor--the skin of the Nemean Lion, but in a down-scaled, feminized version. I am rather impoverished for sources, but I am completely perplexed that the Italian wiki description of this sculpture asserts that the attribute she holds is the Shield of Achilles. It's not remotely like the shield in the way it's described in the Iliad. It does, however, look a lot like medieval representations of the Creation in Genesis. Here's a closeup of God creating the world in the 13th century stained glass of Sainte Chapelle, a reasonable predecessor for symbolism:

The First Day of Creation (obverse of window), Sainte Chapelle, 13th century, Paris

If you look at the disk in her hands, the four winds are blowing from the compass-points of the world, which were used in medieval art to address the nature of creation.

Prudence, regarding her looks and books

Finishing out the virtues supporting the front of the monument is Prudence. At first glance, she appears to be the most unassuming of the four. She is gazing down at an object in her right hand, probably a mirror, but the sculpture is damaged. The mirror suggests reflection, as opposed to vanity, which is another popular use of the mirror in medieval and Renaissance art.

Prudence, side-view (note head to left of her face)

As you look more closely, and walk around the sculpture, things get weird. While I was admiring the modest, but beautifully rendered, braid that wraps her head like a crown, I saw what at first I thought was a headdress, but it's actually a face. As the kids say, "WTH?" And I thought it was a mannish face, but looking at the other side of her head gave me a more complete image.

Prudence, with view of her backward-gazing female head

Another face?! I thought she must be a Janus-figure, with Prudence as the ability to look forward and backward, using the past to assess the present--but what to do with three faces? Taken all together, Prudence is shown as having the Three Ages of (wo) Man. I've seldom seen this as a woman, or in quite this way. The most familiar image like this I've seen has been of Hecate.

Hecate, with two of her three faces, 3rd century, C.E., Vatican Museums.

Actually, you can see the shadow of the third face of Hecate in the shadow on the wall. Like di Balduccio's sculpture, the three images in this sculpture appear to represent different ages of the goddess.

Attribute of Prudence: Sphinxes beneath pedestal

The finishing touch on the representation of Prudence is the creatures at the base of her sculpture: sphinxes (although one is badly damaged). These are very fashionable and proper sphinxes, covering their breasts with a demure drape, but you can see the lion's paws beneath in the back. The sphinxes are a harmonious and subtle choice here because the classical story of the sphinx is that her riddle is answered by describing the three ages of man, which echo the three faces in the personification above.

Attribute of Fortitude: Lions beneath pedestal

Both Prudence and Fortitude have lions as their attributes, and they are quite lovingly depicted as more like pets than fierce beasts. In my next post, I'll examine the Christian virtues on the back-side of the ark. They have pedestal creatures which are more fanciful and fun.


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