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What Becomes a Martyr Most? Part 3 of the di Balduccio Monument of Milan


di Balduccio monument for Saint Peter of Verona, 1339



After having examined the larger sculptures at the base of this monument, we arrive at the top, where the sarcophagus holds the body of Saint Peter of Verona. It is worth noting that the monument does not contain his head, which became an important relic for the Basilica of Sant'Eustorgio. The sarcophagus attests to the mastery of di Balduccio by showcasing sculpture quite different from the base figures. While the sarcophagus has more semi-engaged sculptures like the Virtues below it (five church fathers, two apostles, and a local saint), it changes things up by presenting eight narrative panels of bas relief. The carvings decrease in scale, but increase in complexity.


The sarcophagus presents scenes of Peter of Verona's miracles, martyrdom, and beatification.



Papal decree of Peter's beatification


Front-and-center on the sarcophagus is the announcement of beatification. I'm intrigued by how the carver filled the panel with figures. As would be expected in a manuscript illustration or a fresco, the more prestigious figures are larger and central. Pope Innocent IV sits in the top-center, and he reads his announcement. Note how the document is so significant that it is rendered entirely in gold and red. The papal tiara and the bishops' mitres are elaborately carved and picked out in gold. I love the lower, smaller figures, though, who are more animated and expressive. Check out the upturned faces, spread in a circle at the pope's feet. The monks (probably representing the Dominicans order which commissioned the monument) appear to lean toward the document. One monk seems to be reaching up to support it. The smaller figures in front have detailed faces, even though their backs are to the viewer. Stealing the show, though, is the attendant to the (pope's?) horses, who seems annoyed at his assistant. The horses curve around them, and there are curly-tailed hounds at their feet. Perhaps the officials are planning a hunt after the ceremony?


The scene is flanked by the sculptures of the apostles Peter and Paul.


Martyrdom of Peter

On the upper-left, we see the murder of Friar Dominic, Peter's companion. In the center is the murder itself (by Carino Pietro, a heretic who later recants and becomes a holy man in his own right). You can see the falchion cleave Peter's head, and to the right you can see the band of heretics assault others in Peter's party. Apart from the expressive faces in the panel, the trees are so vibrant that they threaten to overwhelm the composition. They make the panel look very deeply carved by creating a foreground and a background to the action.

The saints flanking the scene are Augustine (left) and Ambrose, who was not only a Church Father, but also a native of Milan (The Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio is about a 20-minute walk from Sant'Eustorgio).


Closeup of Peter and his Soul

This closeup focuses on the final moments of Peter, where he dies reciting his creed. Note the prayer book at his feet. Also, don't miss the tiny bird in the tree to his left. Closer inspection (easier done in the photos than in person) answered one of my initial questions: yes, this monument was initially painted in lots of color, not just the gold ornaments of the headdresses and garments on the front.There are traces of green in the foliage, and there is a tiny remnant of red in the wound on the saint's head. My guess is that some time in the intervening centuries, perhaps when the chapel was redecorated in the Renaissance, someone in authority thought that the monument would look better scrubbed clean (keeping the gold bits, where they remained) rather than looking perhaps neglected with flaking paint.


Another great detail of this panel is the soul of the saint being carried to heaven by two angels (top-center). The soul is depicted as a boy, perhaps nude (to represent its innocence).



The Funeral of the Saint, with his mourners

On the front of the monument, to the left of the beatification scene, is the funeral of the saint. Peter of Verona's beatification (1253) was the fastest in Church history--less than a year after his death. Here we see the dead saint surrounded by monks and perhaps some novices and oblates. The arrangement of the figures and their gazes is similar to those in most of the other panels--the recurring theme seems to be that the man was beloved and central to his community. The different positions of the figures, with the convincing draping over their bodies, and the loving attention to facial expressions (and hair!) bring the scene to life. I also like the detail given the candles, the censer, the bowl of consecrating oil, and the drapery on the catafalque.

The funeral seems intimate, among his family of monks, rather than a great public affair. This may appeal to the Sant'Eustorgio monastery since the monument is a commission for their community of Dominicans, which would be the most frequent viewers of the monument. I believe that this scene is his final laying in state, with the initial wake in San Simpliciano (depicted in the scene on the right side).


The tall figures on either side of the bas-relief are Saint Ambrose (left) and Peter of Verona's name-saint--Peter the Apostle.


The Saint's Intercession at Sea

The composition here is distinctly different from the other panels. It's noticeable even when viewing the monument from the entry arch of the chapel. The panel seems to have a two-tone marble, while the others seem monochrome. di Balduccio went all-out carving this elegant ship, with its huge mast and the ropes with different levels of tension in them. In this posthumous miracle of the saint, there's a captain praying on the quarterdeck (top left), and the helmsman holds the tiller while holding a hand to his mouth, perhaps in anxiety. The crew are straining with the mast, but a giant, heavenly Peter of Verona stabilizes the gaff rig with his left hand, while blessing the crew with his right. Below, we see the turbulent sea.


The panel is flanked by Saint Paul on the left and Pope Gregory the Great on the right.


Translation of the Saint's corpse to Sant'Eustorgio

This panel, on the right side of the sarcophagus, depicts the movement of the saint's body from San Simpliciano to Sant'Eustorgio. The arrangement of mourners around the dead saint is more triangular than elliptical (as were panels described above)--with Peter as the hypoteneuse. The scene here stands in contrast to his funerary scene on the front of the monument. The mourners are more diverse--most notably, there are women present in the foreground, on their knees. There are two near-identical figures, one at the saint's feet, the other by his torso, who seem to be gazing at the viewers, as though presenting the saint to us. The trumpeters in the upper-right signal the pomp of the ceremony of translation.


From this side of the sarcophagus, we can see that Gregory the Great has his dove (symbolizing divine inspiration) on his shoulder. Saint Jerome has his wide-brimmed hat (symbolizing his role as the first Cardinal in the Church).


Closeup of Mourners

I particularly love this closeup because of the details in the women's hair and headdresses, and the skeletal touches to the saint's chest and arms. Every figure in this scene is given individual attention for facial expression, gesture, posture, hair/head-covering, and state of the body. While it has the look of a manuscript page as you stand apart from it (where smaller figures would typically be generic), in closeup it gives an unusual degree of portraiture to the figures.



Reverse Side of the Sarcophagus

The reverse of the sarcophagus has scenes of three miracles of Peter--all three of which occurred in his lifetime. Notice that each panel has many an audience surrounding the saint. While the center panel is similar to the front and side panels in wrap the audience around or below Peter, the left panel has him at the downward point of a "V", and the right one has him appear of to the side and in scale with his fellow monks, with most figures up and beside him. The sculptor creates variety in these scenes not only with crowd placement, but with offering different touches through architectural features (the church, the pulpit, sarcophagi) and the cloud which is the miraculous occurrence noted in the middle panel.



Saint Eustorgio Himself

In the center-right of the back panels we find the name-saint of the basilica--a kind of tribute to the man's contributions which make the basilica famous. Eustorgio brought to the basilica relics of the three magi (there's a rather plain sarcophagus for them in the side-aisle of the main part of the building).



The Mute Young Man

According to the Golden Legend, one of Peter's miracles was restoring speech to a young man. This is a miracle which echoes one attributed to Christ. Apart from the elegant facade of church gables in the background, a distinguishing feature of this panel is that the figures seem to all share the same serious expression. The characters all are in the same scale, and there's no pathos, as found in the other panels.


The Cooling Cloud

This scene represents Peter in his role as Inquisitor, examining an Arian bishop. The bishop challenges Peter to do something about the heat beating down on the witnesses in the (apparently outdoor) trial. Demonstrating the power of his orthodoxy, Peter manifests a giant cloud to shield the audience from the sun's heat. The carving of the cloud breaks the frame of the panel, and looks to me like a different piece of marble from the panel itself. I think that the Arian bishop is the large figure in the gold-embroidered cape and headdress. His gestures appear challenging. The cloud seems to cover the faithful, but not the Arian entourage.


Closeup of the Shaded Faithful

It's worth the space here to add a photo focusing on the details of the faithful. Note the little stools, as well as the wonderful hair and headdresses.


The Worm and the Miraculous Cape

The final narrative panel contains two miracles of Peter. On the right, he is, if Italian wiki knows its stuff, the healing of a child with epilepsy. The figures on the far-right look like the child's wealthy parents. On the left side of the scene is something a little different: a representation of a man being healed of a devilish worm which blocked his breathing and speaking. The attendants laid the saint's cape over the man's chest, and the slug leapt out of his mouth.


The Expelled Worm Closeup

This scene is so bizarre that it's worthy of a closeup. I can't quite tell whether the slug is painted onto the bas-relief, or if it's an attached rock of a different color. Ewww. The ornate boxes beneath the beds in the panel are really spectacular, and my first take was that they were sarcophagi, not for the least reason of which is that beneath the middle box appear to be either lions or hounds, which are often symbols of noble mourning found beneath or on a sarcophagus. Upon closer inspection, I could see interpreting these boxes as chests for religious clothing (like the cape), or relics. The reason I think this is that the box on the left appears to be ajar. Perhaps it was opened to bring out the holy cape for curing the afflicted man.


The Tabernacle of the Madonna, flanked by saints and angels

We arrive at the crown of the monument, and find still more figures! There's a tabernacle sheltering the Virgin and Child, with Peter himself on her right side (he's holding his martyr's palm, and Saint Dominic (head of the Dominican order who commissioned the monument) on her left. Just below them are supplicating figures, which include di Balduccio himself. There is text declaring that di Balduccio is the sculptor.


I was really surprised to see that the free-standing figures surrounding the crown of the monument are eight of the nine orders of angels. Curiously, none of these figures have wings. Perhaps the ninth type of angel is represented in the two flanking Christ on the tippy-top of the cornice. I couldn't get a good enough shot to confirm.



Closeup of the Angel (left)

The lowest order of angel is here, and appears to be guarding a soul.



Closeup of the Dominion (right)

This sculpture of the order of Dominions has a crown and holds a small sphere, perhaps signifying their influence over terrestrial realms.



Closeup of the Power and the Principality

Finally, I have a rather unsatisfying shot of two of the most interesting angel carvings. On the left is one of the Powers--protectors against demonic influences. He restrains a chained, fabulous, satyr-like monster (human head and torso, a donkey's hind legs, and an eagle's or lizards claw-like forearms. And on the right is the personification of the Principalities, who at as guardians over rulers. He has a castle in his left hand, and something that looks, for lack of a better word, shrubby, in his right.


So, the overall theme of di Balduccio's monument seems to be to encapsulate the path to salvation. The virtues are the foundation, offering guidance for earthly conduct, at the next levels are the teachings and good leadership which the Church offers through its saints and officers, and which frame (literally here) the upright life which is the exemplum of the martyr himself. Through his martyrdom he rises to the heavenly order and the realm of the Queen of Heaven and her Child. At the summit is Christ, whom I think is depicted as small here to represent his zenith in the celestial realm, far from humans on the ground.


The monument is a incredible piece for the artistry of di Balduccio's realistic and beautiful embodiments of a lot of abstractions, and for his ability to organize all these ideas into a coherent and graceful composition.

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