Sunday, February 1, 2009

Christian Heathens in Siena

Some of the art in the Siena Cathedral ties into both the Stoic-Christian theme of this series of posts and also the connotations of Tarot's Old Man card. One of these works, Hermes Trismegistus, also provides another example of the importance of context in assessing a figure's meaning. Patron of the city, the Virgin was the de-facto "Queen of Siena" and "a special kind of civic monarch". This image (right) is from the cover of an account book, 1482, depicting the keys to the city being given to her in the Cathedral. The Duomo itself was "dedicated from its earliest days as a Roman Catholic Marian church and now to Santa Maria Assunta (Most Holy Mary of Assumption)", and yet the floor is covered with non-Christian figures, even giving a place of honor to the legendary magus Hermes. WTF?

Inside the church, the marble pavement bears no image of her divine son, whose rightful place is high above on walls and ceiling. The floor is the bottom of the church, too low a place for real divinity, but it is also the whole building's foundation and therefore an honorable location for the Gentile and Jewish subjects that fill the pavement through the transept. Like the Marian prophecies outside the church, these marbles on the floor inside tell a sacred future, but now it points toward Mary's son.

The Hermes inlay is the first of five in the nave, flanked by two other groups of five in the aisles; the subjects of all fifteen are non-Christian. Most of the named figures on this rear part of the floor are women, as the holiest of all women reigns on the facade. The four images that follow Hermes in the nave are mythological or secular however; first the she-wolf suckling Ascius and Senius, sons of Remus and eponymous heroes of Siena; then the Roman eagle as center of the world. The originals of these two marbles were in place more than a century before Hermes, but the next came almost twenty years after him, Pinturicchio's memorable allegory of the hill of knowledge, showing at the op of an island a chastely clothed Scientia awarding a palm to Socrates and a book to Crates, at the bottom a striking nude Fortuna with sail, shipwreck, sphere, and horn of plenty. Last of the central five, and closet to the alter, is the oldest marble, dating originally to 1372, a wheel of fortune with portraits of Aristotle, Euripides, Seneca, and Epictetis. In the side aisles are ten Sibyls, carved a few years before Hermes in 1482-1483 and bearing prophecies of Christ's divine sonship, incarnation, miracles, passion, resurrection, and second coming in judgment....

Hermes is farthest from the altar in the center of the church, guarded by the Sibyls of Delphi and Libya. He is the first pagan to announce the Christian future, and his panel identifies him as a contemporary of Moses. From Hermetic Egypt, through Socratic Greece, the Rome of Remus, and the scattered African, Asian, and European lands of the sibyls, the floor of the nave sweeps through great reaches of heathen time and space as pagans make straight the way of the Lord. This is the role of the splendid Sienese Hermes. He is a heathen prophet of Christian truth well placed in a thoughtful iconic program of pre-biblical scripture. He is an ancient theologian, not a magus.
Brian P. Copenhaver, "Hermes Theologus", in the 1993 Humanity and Divinity in Renaissance and Reformation: Essays in Honor of Charles Trinkaus.

The five scenes highlighted in the floorplan (above-right) represent 1) Hermes, 2) Siena and the "Allied Cities" of ancient Etruria (Arezzo, Florence, Lucca, Pisa, Viterbo, Perugia, Rome, and Orvieto), 3) Rome itself, 4) a complex allegory of Fortune, Renunciation, and Wisdom, and 5) the Wheel of Fortune and four ancient commentators on Fortune's significance. The latter two deserve some commentary in the current context.

The fourth scene, swarming with figures, has many colors of the many types of marble employed in the inlay. It was commissioned by Alberto Aringhieri, the rector most involved in the pavement decoration, and designed by Bernardino di Betto da Perugia, known as Pintoricchio, who was paid for his Allegory of the Hill of Knowledge on March 13h (or 15th), 1505. ... The panel, in which the massive bulk of the hill predominates, depicts Fortune leading a group of wise men to an island. Fortune is naked and holds a wind-blown sail above her head with one hand, and a cornucopia, the horn of plenty, in her other. She has one foot resting upon a sphere, in accordance with traditional iconography, and the other on the small shipwrecked boat that served to carry the wise men to the island. The wise men ascend a pathway strewn with stones, snakes, and weeds to the top of the rocky cliff, where Knowledge sits, with a palm in one hand and a book in the other. To either side of her are the philosophers, Socrates, to whom she offers the palm, and Crates, shown emptying a basketful of jewels symbolizing the vanity of wealth into the sea below, who will receive the book. All around the island is a stormy sea. The meaning of the allegory is clear: virtue may be attained, but with great labor. The call to virtue and her rewards are described in the couplet inscribed on the scroll above the figure of Knowledge: Huc properate viri: salebrosum scandite montem Pulchra laboris erunt premia palma quies. Thus, the wise man who has attained virtue will receive serenity as his prize.
Bruno Santi, The Marble Pavement of the Cathedral of Siena.

The figure of Crates symbolizes ascetic renunciation of worldly goods, the rejection of Fortune's gifts, and is an embodiment of contemptu mundi. We'll return to him in the next post.

The series of allegories in the nave ends with the Wheel of Fortune, for which—according to Ohly—the previous panel served as "a commentary of sorts." Its present appearance dates back to the total restoration of 1864-65, by Leopoldo Maccari, which may have been preceded by an even earlier, 18th-century reconstruction, mentioned by Faluschi, who, however, probably confused the Pintoricchio panel with this one. The Sienese historian, Tizio, notes that a Wheel of Fortune was executed in November of 1372. This would make it one of the oldest designs of the entire Cathedral pavement. Closely bound up with medieval tradition, which used the roundel shape in windows set in church facades, the Whee, in this portrait, has a dignified, puristic form, with the King enthroned at its summit, and three other figures clasping it at opposing points. Four philosophers of antiquity are portrayed in hexagons placed at the four corners of the panel: Epictetis, Aristotle, Euripides, and Seneca, each with an unwound scroll inscribed with sayings about fortune.
Bruno Santi, The Marble Pavement of the Cathedral of Siena.

The line from Seneca may seem familiar from the previous post. Magna servitus est magna fortuna: great fortune entails great obligation. Some translate servitus in this passage as burden, servitude, or even slavery, but the essential meaning is that good fortune is not all it's cracked up to be. This comes from Ad Polybium de Consolatione. It is reminiscent of sidunt ipso pondere magna ceditque oneri fortuna suo: greatness sinks by its very weight, good fortune is a burden that crushes itself. Another way of saying this is to note that Fortuna's Wheel isn't going to stop just because you get to the top.

A good map of the floorplan is at Planetware. A lot more descriptive detail is provided by Robert Henry Hobart Cust's 1906 The Pavement Masters of Siena (1369-1562). It is available on Google Books either to read online or download as a PDF file. It has (marginally) adequate images of quite a few works.


  1. good stuff, I live near Siena, very interested .

  2. how might i find a photo of the allegory of the hill of knowledge without purchasing the book? thank you.

  3. It really is a great allegory, isn't it?!
    I just uploaded a larger JPEG.

  4. it is and I really appreciate your help! thank you.