Glencairn Museum News | Number 10, 2018
“Am in a state of consternation
Condition over fact that because fresco due to its width will not possibly go under arch which is at end of hall our house. Will be several years before Intended hanging it there for several years pending proposed special building. I have no other place where it can possibly go. If you would be gracious enough to help me by substituting annunciation
your New York fresco at your price named in your letter therefor I should be very grateful to you.”1
Nevertheless, Pitcairn purchased both frescoes—the larger one a scene of the Second Coming of Jesus and, what he referred to as the “New York fresco,” an Annunciation. For a time, he solved the issue of display by lending the Second Coming to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to hang in their spacious galleries.2 Ultimately, Raymond Pitcairn built his “proposed special building” —Glencairn—and provided suitable spaces for the permanent display of both frescoes. The Second Coming is mounted high on the south wall of Glencairn’s Great Hall, to the right of the magnificent arch that leads from the Great to the Upper Hall (Figure 1). The Annunciation fresco, which is slightly smaller than the other, hangs on the same wall to the left of the great arch, just beside the second-floor balcony.
Given his consternation over the acquisition of the larger fresco and the problem of its display, it seems likely that he had this painting in mind when he designed the Great Hall, that he purposefully included there a space that would hold a work of such scale. If that is the case, we may perhaps view this piece as fundamental to the decorative scheme that is the larger assembly of old and new works in that space. The Second Coming fresco may have helped to define the aesthetic of Glencairn’s Great Hall and may even have been fundamental in Raymond Pitcairn’s decision to build such a “special building.” Pitcairn said as much, in a later letter to René Gimpel, written after he had purchased both of the two frescoes:
“I want you to know that the frescoes have given me a great deal of pleasure. Neither of them fit the spaces which I had intended for them, but I feel very happy over their acquisition. Indeed, I think that their acquisition will be an additional inducement to building the little castle with its cloister, which I have so long desired to undertake.”3
Quality, Character, and Peculiarities of Iconography
As they are currently displayed, both panels hung high on the wall of the Great Hall, it is difficult to make out the details represented in either scene. A closer view—as in the photographs that accompany this article, taken from Glencairn’s balcony with a telephoto lens and low-light sensor—reveals the exceptional quality and character of these two works of art, together with certain peculiarities of their iconography.
The Second Coming fresco is a unique and novel representation of events described in the Book of Revelation, together with additional elements that are drawn from developing beliefs on the role of Mary at the return of Christ and time of Judgment (Figure 2). The resurrected Jesus appears in the center of the scene, hovering above a cluster of newly opened sarcophagi and the recent inhabitants of those graves, themselves newly resurrected. A great assembly of bust-length saints and angels populate two registers at the top of the scene and to either side of Jesus. Just below these, seven trumpeters sound their trumpets (Figure 3). These would seem to be the seven angels of Revelation 8:2—“And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets.” Curiously, though, these seven figures are dressed somewhat differently from the angels appearing in the registers, above, and their wings—if, indeed, they have wings—are not as clearly delineated as some of that other population. Moreover, in the fresco all seven of the heavenly trumpeters blow at once, which would seem to deviate from the actual text of Revelation, in which the seven angels sound their trumpets in sequence over an extended period, from Revelation chapter 8, verse 7, through chapter 11, verse 15, during which the various results of their soundings are described: hail and fire fall from heaven, a flaming mountain is thrown into the sea, the star Wormwood falls to earth, and so forth. None of these things are depicted in the fresco. It may be safe to say that its representation does not adhere closely to the Revelation text. It is clearly not intended to be an illustration of any particular portion of the Book of Revelation, any specific moment or event described therein, but conflates persons and events from the greater text of Revelation in a representation of Jesus’ return, accompanied by angels, saints, trumpeters, and his mother, Mary.4
Mary, of course, does not feature in the Book of Revelation. Her appearance in the fresco is not based on that text, but on medieval devotion to the Mother of God and developing belief in her ability to act as intercessor to her son and protectress of those who invoke her aid. In the fresco, she stands prominently to the left of the scene. She is larger, even, than Jesus, and stands towering over a multitude of resurrected souls (Figure 4). Safe in the shelter of her mantle are nuns and monks, to the left, a bishop with the laity of his flock, to the right. In stark contrast, another group stands to the far right of the scene—a crowd of resurrected souls who are worried and weeping, one even tearing her clothing in her distress (Figure 5). These wretched figures are quite literally bound. It is difficult to see from a distance or in reproduction, but a great chain surrounds them. This detail is not without precedent—groups of chained sinners can be found in frescoes in Deir Mar Musa, the Monastery of St. Moses, in Syria, and in the Italian church of San Michele al Posso Bianco, Bergamo, among other examples. The representation of Mary sheltering souls beneath her mantle, however, is almost without precedent. This image, referred to as the Madonna della Misericordia, or Madonna of Mercy, would become popular in later works, but appears here in a very early example of the type. For this feature, alone, the fresco has garnered some degree of scholarly interest.5
The essential meaning of the work rests on these and on the remaining few figures. In the center of the scene, two saints lead a group of resurrected souls who are not yet under the protection of the Virgin, nor among the chained sinners (Figure 6). The saints can be known from their clothing and crowns and from the inscriptions on the sarcophagi represented below them. These are most likely Ursula and St. Agnes of Assisi.6 They are depicted, here, without haloes—perhaps the artist felt that haloes would have eclipsed the faces or heads of people behind them and compromised the depiction of a following crowd. The message of the fresco, then, is revealed: at the Second Coming, when the graves are opened and the dead come forth, the saints will lead those who are worthy to the sheltering mantle of Mary, Mother of God, who provides protection and mercy on behalf of her Son. To be sure, it is an extra-biblical belief, founded in medieval devotion to the Madonna, but very much representative of its time, nonetheless.
The Annunciation fresco adheres more closely to its source text and to artistic precedent. The fresco shows the angel Gabriel appearing before Mary to announce the birth of Jesus and her role in the incarnation of the Messiah (Figure 7). Mary stands to the left, before a cushioned bench or throne. Gabriel strides into the scene from the right. He is distinguished by wings and a halo and holds both hands in a stylized gesture of blessing. A small remnant of architecture frames the scene to the upper left, but otherwise the scene is without setting.
What sets the Annunciation apart, perhaps, is the character of its representation. There is a certain tenderness in the interaction of the two figures (Figure 8). Gabriel reaches upward to both greet and bless Mary, but bows his head and does not meet her gaze, looking, perhaps, to her womb, instead. Mary, in turn, inclines her own head and looks to Gabriel’s outstretched hand, as if to acknowledge his greeting, to wonder on the manner of his greeting (Luke 1:29), or, as servant of the Lord, to accept what he has spoken (Luke 1:38). Both figures exude a quiet grace that epitomizes the work of this artist, whether in this fresco or in any of the others from the same site. At this point, however, we must introduce a word of caution: it is possible, even likely that the faces of both figures in the Annunciation have been retouched—painted over, to a degree, to restore details or features in places where damage had removed or obscured portions of the original. We can still appreciate this work, even the artist’s hand in color, composition, and certain details including the tender emotion that is shared between Mary and the Angel, but we must also recognize that the fresco, as we see it, is not entirely the same as it was when painted or when viewed by its original audience.
The Frescoes and their Original Setting
It so happens that in the particular case of these two works of art, we do know the original setting from which they come and thus, also, the audience for whom these frescoes were painted. Both frescoes come from the monastery of Santa Maria inter Angelos, also known in Italy and to Italian scholars as le Palazze, or “the Palace.” Hardly a palace, but neither an altogether humble building, Santa Maria inter Angelos is a two-story building perched on the side of a hill, across a deep valley from the city of Spoleto, almost 60 miles north of Rome (Figure 9). Built early in the thirteenth century, it was originally a home to an order of Clarissan nuns—followers of St. Clare of Assisi, who was, herself, a companion to St. Francis of Assisi. At the end of that century, c. 1300, an artist decorated at least two of the rooms of the monastery. The unknown painter left two scenes in a room on the first floor—a Crucifixion and a Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Clare (Figure 10). Both of these are now detached from the wall and on display at the nearby Museo Nazionale del Ducato, in Spoleto. It was apparently the same artist who painted an extensive series of scenes in a large second-floor room (Figure 11). There, there were two scenes of the Crucifixion, a depiction of the Last Supper, a scene of the Mocking of Christ before the Crucifixion, a Nativity, and the Annunciation and Second Coming that are now in Glencairn. These were arranged somewhat thematically around the room, but covering only a portion of the total wall space. It is possible that other scenes filled out a larger program of decoration.
Relatively little remains of the original fresco series on site at Santa Maria inter Angelos. The Clarissan nuns may have been relocated as early as 1395.7 The building, itself, appears to have deteriorated over the course of centuries. It passed into private ownership in the 1860s. Photographs from around the turn of the century show it to have been little more than a ruin. (See online photographs†) The frescoes of the second floor remained, in exceedingly poor condition, until 1921, when they were stripped from the walls, exported from Italy, and sold, piecemeal, by dealers in France.8 The remaining structure survived, however, and has since been restored, though without the frescoes. It is today privately owned and operated as a small hotel. The second-floor room can be rented for events or visited privately when all is quiet, and, still, a visitor can glean some sense of what was there even centuries ago.
The process used to remove the frescoes detached only a very thin layer of plaster and pigment, which was then remounted on canvas to produce something like a portable painting. At Santa Maria inter Angelos, this was done to most of the frescoes remaining in situ in 1921. As a result, the Annunciation and Second Coming are now at Glencairn, the Last Supper, a Crucifixion, and portions from the second Crucifixion and the Nativity are in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the Worcester Art Museum. Other pieces from the Nativity are scattered among other New England Museums—the Worcester Art Museum, the Fogg at Harvard, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.9 For a time, the walls of the monastery still showed pigment, where the colors had penetrated the plaster of the wall deeply enough to remain even after a layer had been removed. Even these layers of plaster have been removed, however, and taken to the state collection at the Museo Nazionale del Ducato. There, a visitor might see a faint or seemingly-faded version of Glencairn’s Second Coming, which is actually the layer of plaster that was left on the wall in 1921 when most of the pigment was removed to produce a portable “painting” (Figure 12). There are scant remains, then, in the monastery, itself. Some plaster—the preparatory arriccio layer, which provided a ground for the intonaco, on which the artist painted directly—still graces the wall where the Second Coming was painted (Figure 13). One can see the ghostly image of Jesus’ full-body halo, an outline of Mary, and impressions made to mark Mary’s halo. Visible, also, are the borders of the scene and figures from the Crucifixion, painted immediately to the left of the Second Coming, and Last Supper, painted to its right.
New Conclusions drawn from an Old Context
Important information may be gleaned, nevertheless, from what does remain on site at le Palazze. A visitor can gain a sense of the space in which the frescoes were painted and in which they were viewed and may begin to understand what they might have meant to the Clarissan nuns of Santa Maria inter Angelos in that original context. The order of scenes is apparent, and one may begin to appreciate the significance of architectural elements visible on site, and otherwise impossible to know. One may notice, for example, that a series of niches are set into the walls of the room and are actually incorporated into a decorative band that is part of the frescoed decoration (See, again, Figure 11). This band ran beneath the Last Supper fresco, the Mocking of Christ, and one of the two Crucifixion scenes, but not beneath the Second Coming or the Crucifixion painted adjacent to it, to the left. These two scenes, painted in the middle of the room’s north wall, differed from the others in scale and, significantly, in that they faced a door cut into the middle of the south wall, directly opposite.
It is my hypothesis, formed on the basis of this evidence, that the Crucifixion and Second Coming were intended to greet a visitor to the room—someone entering through this door, from outside the monastery, via a staircase leading directly to the second floor—while the remaining frescoes performed a different function that is related to the niches set into the walls of that same room. On the whole, the decoration of the monastery shows a devotion to the Eucharist, following St. Clare’s own dedication to the consecrated Host. In other instances, as at the Franciscan monastery of San Damiano, where Clare herself was abbess, niches were used to hold and safeguard the consecrated Eucharist, which was preserved for extended devotion by the Clarissan nuns. If the niches at Santa Maria inter Angelos served the same purpose, then the scenes painted around the room may have been intended to accompany the Eucharist, even to illustrate the particular feast days on which the nuns participated in that sacrament. Clare’s own order stated that her followers were to take the Eucharist on seven specific days: Christmas Day, Holy Thursday, Easter, Pentecost, the Assumption of Mary, the Feast of St. Francis, and the Feast of All Saints. Each of these days or feasts may have been represented by scenes included in the original program of decoration, and each scene may have been accompanied by a niche used to hold the consecrated Eucharist for devotion and admiration on the day signified in the painted scene. Thus, for example, Glencairn’s Annunciation was painted adjacent to the Nativity over an inset niche on the south wall of the room. If, on Christmas Day, the nuns of Santa Maria inter Angelos placed the consecrated Eucharist in that niche, beneath two scenes of the incarnation of Jesus, they may have reflected on the significance of the juxtaposition of representation and substance and the similarity between Jesus’ body Incarnate at the Nativity and, according to contemporary Christian belief, his body present before them in the material of the Eucharist.
The Second Coming and the adjacent Crucifixion may have performed a different function in their original context. These two great paintings, larger than the others, met any who entered the second story room through the door set into its south wall. There, they may have functioned as introduction or frontispiece to the greater program, for one who entered from the south. The nuns, themselves, may have entered through other doors cut through the west and north walls of the room and leading to other portions of the monastery. The south door, however, opens out to the exterior of the building, which is also to say that it allows entrance to a visitor—i.e. an outsider, or someone who is not one of the Clarissan nuns—who might not otherwise access the large, decorated room from within the monastery. The door, and the frescoes facing the door, may have been provided for a Franciscan brother, whose presence would be necessary to provide the sacrament of the Eucharist to the nuns. The Crucifixion and Second Coming may have served to remind him that the Eucharist was the body and blood of Jesus, as in the Crucifixion, given to ensure the eventual salvation, at the time of the Second Coming and ever after, particularly of those who participated in that sacrament.
The frescoes of Santa Maria inter Angelos were the subject of a research project funded by the Fondazione Raniere di Sorbello and led by Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri and Grazia Maria Fachechi, both of the University of Urbino Carlo Bo. The results of their research were published, with contributions by other scholars, in the book Gli Affreschi delle Palazze / The Palazze Frescoes (not available on Amazon, but copies can be purchased from the publisher or read at Glencairn by arrangement). To celebrate the completion of the project and the publication, Professors Falconieri and Fachechi visited Glencairn in October, 2017. They are shown here with the author, Jonathan Kline, having just completed a symposium on the frescoes at Temple University, immediately before their visit to Glencairn (Figure 14).
Jonathan Kline, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Bryn Athyn College
1 Glencairn Museum, Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn Archives; Dealers’ Files: “René Gimpel.” Raymond Pitcairn to René Gimpel, undated (likely April 1925). The crossed-out words are here as in the original.
2 Benjamin Rowland, “A Fresco Cycle from Spoleto,” Art in America 19:6 (1931), p. 225: “In the Spring of 1931 this fresco was on exhibition in the Medieval Wing of the Pennsylvaia Museum in Philadelphia.” See also “Handbook of the Museum,” The Philadelphia Museum Bulletin 37:193 (1942), p. 6: “To the left is an important fresco of the 13th century from Spoleto, in Italy, lent by Raymond Pitcairn.”
3 Glencairn Museum, Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn Archives; Dealers’ Files: “René Gimpel.” Raymond Pitcairn to René Gimpel, May 5, 1925.
4 Grazia Maria Fachechi, “Dal monastero al museo e ritorno. Le Palazze di Spoleto tra frammentazione del contesto e riconstruzione virtuale / From the Monastery to the Museum and Back. Le Palazze at Spoleto, from Fragmentation to Virtual Reconstruction,” in Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri and Grazia Maria Fachechi, Gli Affreschi delle Palazze / The Palazze Frescoes. Una Storia tra Umbria e America / A Tale between Umbria and America (Roma: Gangemi Editore, 2017), p. 104: “The scene, usually considered a Last Judgment, is, actually, a Second Coming, given that there is no depiction of Hell or the damned; and Christ, not showing his wounds, does not present a hand in a sign of rejection, as in the scene of the Judgment.”
5 For a partial bibliography of relevant studies on the topic, see Grazia Maria Fachechi, “Dal Monastero,” p. 108, note 93.
6 On the two figures, their possible identities, and the sarcophagus inscriptions, Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri, “La storia del monastero di S. Maria inter Angelos di Spoleto / The History of the Monastery of S. Maria inter Angelos in Spoleto,” in Tomasso di Carpegna Falconieri and Grazia Maria Fachechi, Gli Affreschi, p. 50.
7 Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri, “La storia del monastero,” p. 38.
8 On the history of the building, removal of the frescoes, and their sale, see Tommasso di Carpegna Falconieri, “La storia del monastero,” pp. 30-55; Christiano Giometti, ”La notifica non è stata mai fatta”. Il caso della vendita degli affreschi delle Palazze / “The Notice Was Never Issued.” The Sale of the Frescoes from Le Palazze,” in Tomasso di Carpegna Falconieri and Grazia Maria Fachechi, Gli Affreschi, pp. 196-209; Jonathan Kline, “Il racconto dei due Raymond. La storia recente degli affreschi di S. Maria inter Angelos in America / A Tale of Two Raymonds. The Later History of the Frescoes of S. Maria inter Angelos, in America,” in Tomasso di Carpegna Falconieri and Grazia Maria Fachechi, Gli Affreschi, pp. 212-247.
9 A Joseph from the Nativity is Worcester Art Museum accession number 1932.1. The Christ Child is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, accession number 24.115. A shepherd is at Harvard’s Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, n. 1928.151. An additional figure, possibly a magus, is in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
† One such image, showing remnants of the Crucifixion and Second Coming frescoes left on the wall of the monastery after 1921, is available here.
Fachechi, Gracia Maria. “Dal monastero al museo e ritorno. Le Palazze di Spoleto tra frammentazione del contesto e riconstruzione virtuale / From the Monastery to the Museum and Back. Le Palazze at Spoleto, from Fragmentation to Virtual Reconstruction,” in Falconieri, Tommaso di Carpegna and Fachechi, Grazia Maria. Gli Affreschi delle Palazze / The Palazze Frescoes. Una Storia tra Umbria e America / A Tale between Umbria and America (Roma: Gangemi Editore, 2017), pp. 58-131.
Falconieri, Tommaso di Carpegna. “La storia del monastero di S. Maria inter Angelos di Spoleto / The History of the Monastery of S. Maria inter Angelos in Spoleto,” in Falconieri, Tommaso di Carpegna and Fachechi, Grazia Maria. Gli Affreschi delle Palazze / The Palazze Frescoes. Una Storia tra Umbria e America / A Tale between Umbria and America (Roma: Gangemi Editore, 2017), pp. 30-55.
Giometti, Christiano. “”La notifica non è stata mai fatta”. Il caso della vendita degli affreschi delle Palazze / “The Notice Was Never Issued.” The Sale of the Frescoes from Le Palazze,” in Falconieri, Tommaso di Carpegna and Fachechi, Grazia Maria. Gli Affreschi delle Palazze / The Palazze Frescoes. Una Storia tra Umbria e America / A Tale between Umbria and America (Roma: Gangemi Editore, 2017), pp. 196-209.
“Handbook of the Museum,” in The Philadelphia Museum Bulletin 37:193 (1942), 1-64.
Kline, Jonathan Kline. “Il racconto dei due Raymond. La storia recente degli affreschi di S. Maria inter Angelos in America / A Tale of Two Raymonds. The Later History of the Frescoes of S. Maria inter Angelos, in America in Falconieri, Tommaso di Carpegna and Fachechi, Grazia Maria. Gli Affreschi delle Palazze / The Palazze Frescoes. Una Storia tra Umbria e America / A Tale between Umbria and America (Roma: Gangemi Editore, 2017), pp. 212-247.
Rowland, Benjamin. “A Fresco Cycle from Spoleto,” in Art in America 19:6 (1931), 225-30.
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