The legend of Vera Cruz in art

The legend of Vera Cruz in art

The legend of Vera Cruz in art

It is one of the favorite themes of popular religiosity and of the Franciscan lay confraternities. Coming from medieval hagiographic sources...
Comments Monday, May 04, 2020
The legend of Vera Cruz in art
It is one of the favorite themes of popular religiosity and of the Franciscan lay confraternities. Coming from medieval hagiographic sources, it was coded in the 13th century by Jacobo de la Vorágine in the Golden Legend. The cross as a center of spiritual life, is designed by Taddeo Gaddi, in a painting that we can find in the refectory of the Church of Santa Croce in Florence "The tree of the cross", a composition made in 1333 and which according to tradition represents the Lignum Vitae.

Taddeo Gaddi: The Tree of the Cross or Lignum Vitae. Basilica of Santa Croce. Florence

Previous it is even a plaque belonging to a double-sided cross that belonged to the old Révoil collection and was acquired by the Louvre Museum in 1828, it is "Cherubim, Heraclius and Cosroes", belonging to Vallée de la Mouse and is dated around 1160-1170 and therefore dated before the golden legend.

Louvre Museum. Enamel on gilded copper. Art objects department.


But the first cycle of frescoes dedicated to the legend of the Vera Cruz is due to Agnolo Gaddi, being in the main chapel of the church of Santa Croce in Florence and composed between the years 1388 and 1393, being financed by the Alberti family. It is a set of 8 frescoes, among which we can highlight:

The dream of Constantine, divided into three parts, from left to right, the worship of Cosroe, the dream of Constantine and the march to battle.

Vera Cruz history. Agnolo Gaddi. Santa Croce Church. Florence

Constantine's dream (detail). Agnolo Gaddi. Basilica of Santa Croce. Florence

The discovery and verification of the Vera Cruz.
The preparation of the cross: It shows two scenes. While on the left the wood is removed from the place where it was, in the second the cross is “built” and it is prepared for the crucifixion.

The preparation of the cross. Agnolo Gaddi. Basilica of Santa Croce. Florence

Cosroe's beheading and Heraclius' entry into Jerusalem, which simultaneously narrates three scenes. In the lower left part of the picture, we can see the beheading of Cosroe, towards the center and in the upper part, Heraclius cannot enter Jerusalem and to the right, the entrance refers to the emperor already on foot and without the clothes and pomp with which he intended to do so.

Beheading of Cosroe and entry of Heraclius into Jerusalem. Agnolo Gaddi. Basilica of Santa Croce. Florence

Also in Italy, specifically in Volterra, Cenni di Francesco, a disciple of the previous one, performs a new cycle dedicated to the legend of the Vera Cruz.

Detalle de “La matanza de los inocentes” por Cenni di Francesco. Capilla de la Vera Cruz. Volterra
Piero De Benedetto Dei Franceschi, better known as Piero della Francesca, owes a masterpiece: the frescoes in San Francisco de Arezzo, in them the legend of the Vera Cruz is recreated, also in these Piero introduces precise references along with the sacred theme to political-religious events that undermined the church, called to react to the Turkish advance with a crusade that reaffirmed its unity and superiority.

In fact, Cardinal Bessarione, the greatest defender of the crusade against the Turks, appears as Solomon in Solomon's encounter with the Queen of Sheba, thus the story also reaches a propaganda value.

Initially commissioned by the Bacci family, the richest in Arezzo, to the Florentine Bicci di Lorenzo, he died shortly after the work began. Probably Piero begins with the first window and had the first vault completed by an assistant, later he would carry out the entire chapel assisted by two groups of assistants. In the composition of the cycle it is necessary to emphasize Giovanni de Piedmont, taking place between the years 1452 and 1459.

It is considered his capital work, as was usual in the Tuscan mural decoration since the time of Giotto, the frescoes are placed in the presbytery, completely filling it, based on long horizontal scenes that are placed one above the other, in all he uses enormous static figures, with the volumes underlined by light and with great mastery of foreshortening, as evidenced in the horses he makes for battles. Due to the use of night light, it is necessary to highlight the fresco "The dream of Constantine", considered by many to be a precursor of tenebrism.

ISan Francisco church in Arezzo. General view, in the background, the paintings belonging to the Vera Cruz cycle can be seen.

The fresco cycle is enriched with other contributions that do not belong to the golden legend, but that relate to the true cross, thus we find:

Adam's death:
Adam, who has reached the age of nine hundred and thirty, is about to die and begs his son Seth to go before the archangel Saint Michael and ask him for "the oil of mercy", the archangel denies it and instead it gives him the seeds of the tree of sin, which he must deposit in the mouth of Adam. Seth at his death deposits the grains under his tongue and from there the Vera Cruz tree will be born. At his death his offspring is placed around his corpse.
The adoration of the sacred wood and the meeting of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba:
The tree born on the grave of Adam, has reached the time of Solomon, the king orders it to be cut, but its wood does not fit any use, always being too big or too small, the angry craftsmen decide to place the wood in a place where there is a pond called Siloé, to serve as a bridge for passers-by.
The queen of Sheba, has a vision and then makes a prophecy indicating that the Redeemer will be crucified on that wood, refuses to step on it and prostrates herself to pray before him. The meeting with Solomon immediately takes place.
The two main episodes are separated by the tree and this carries with it a subtle message: the allegory of the reconciliation of the two Churches, the East and the West.
The transfer of the sacred wood:
Solomon buries the tree in the deepest bowels of the earth when he finds out from the queen of Sheba, because he sees in it the disappearance of the kingdom of Israel.
The rest of the episodes treated by Piero, have already been commented previously:

Constantine's dream.
The battle between Constantine and Maxentius or The victory of Constantine.
The torture of the Hebrew
  • Finding of the three crosses and verification of the Vera Cruz
  • The battle of Heraclio and Cosroe

  • The exaltation of the cross.
Another cycle of representations of the True Cross can be found in Venice, but these depart from the history of the golden legend:

The brotherhood of the Great School of Saint John the Evangelist of Venice, called the most renowned Venetian painters of the period in order to make nine paintings to be placed in the Great Hall of entry, on the miracles of the true cross, or rather of fragments of the true cross. The fragment in question referred to was donated by a brother, Philip de Mezieres, Chancellor of the King of Cyprus and Jerusalem in 1369. These artists were: Pietro Perusino, Vittore Carpaccio, Gentile Bellini, Giovanni Mansueti, Lazaro Bastiani and Benedetto Diana .

The oil painted by Perugino is lost, however those executed between 1496 and 1501, known as "teleri", are found in the Venetian Academy

In 1474, the oil Miracle of the relic of the true cross is executed in the field of San Lio, by Giovanni Mansueti, today in the Accademia Gallery. The event he relates takes place during the funeral of the member of the brotherhood in charge of the relic throughout his life.
  • Vittore Carpaccio receives an important commission, within his decorative cycles, that of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista for which he painted The Miracle of the Relic of the Holy Cross, today in the Venetian Galleria dell’Accademia.
In a Venetian atmosphere, this painting by Carpaccio is developed, today at the Academy.

The most famous work of Gentille Bellini is the miracle of the cross, commissioned by the Scuola of San Juan Evangelista and was part of a series dedicated to the exaltation of the Holy Cross kept by the brotherhood. Bellini presents the moment of the discovery, the monks collecting the relic in a canal. They emphasize the architectural setting and the characters on the central theme, which has become secondary. The internal work to the viewer in the Quattrocento environment. Highlights the lighting that will serve as the basis for the next generation, led by Titian.

Gentille Bellini compuso este Milagro de la Santa Cruz

Within the aforementioned cycle we also find the work of Benedetto Diana, Miracle of the relic of the true cross.
But within the Spanish borders there are certain important works, among which it is worth mentioning "The triptych of the true cross", from the Museum of Fine Arts in Valencia and The invention of the Holy Cross, by Pedro Berruguete in the Paredes altarpiece of Nava.
Pedro Berruguete: La verificación de la cruz. Paredes de Nava
More important is a cycle dedicated to Vera Cruz, which for reasons of artistic interest and proximity should be studied, it is the cycle of paintings of Vera Cruz, made by the master Francisco de Herrera el Viejo for the brotherhood of the Vera Cruz of Seville.

Francisco de Herrera was about 25 years old, when he received what would be his first independent and large commission, it was about the narrative cycle and exaltation of the cross for the chapel of the Sevillian brotherhood of Vera Cruz, erected in the Casa Convent Grande de San Francisco of that city. The butlers of the aforementioned corporation request it on June 8, 1614 and it is indicated that the cycle must consist of 12 canvases. The work will be completed in 1616, although it is known that the artist received amounts on account even in 1617 and 1618.

Francisco de Herrera, even contravening clauses of the contract, decided for himself the size of the canvases, since he was an artist who cultivated many techniques (painting, engraving, altarpiece, architecture, carving ...) and probably took both their location into account. the chapel, as the lighting they would have, detail the latter that would come from his father who was an illuminator. The motifs on the canvases were possibly devised by the Franciscans themselves and included representations alluding to the invention and exaltation of the cross after the crucifixion of Christ, so that the episodes of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had been eliminated. On the other hand, the episode of the reconquest of the true cross by Heraclio before Cosroe, was suppressed and in its place were two Spanish stories connected with the Holy Cross: "The appearance of the Cross of Caravaca" and "Cardinal Cisneros in the battle of Oran ", three more canvases completed the cycle:" "The doctors and Fathers of the Church who defended and wrote about the mystery of the Most Pure Conception of Mary", "Christ risen carrying the cross" and a "Our Lady".

But when the Napoleonic troops invade Seville, the paintings are lost, ignoring their final destination, as they were requisitioned by Napoleon's army in 1810, they passed to the warehouses of the Reales Alcázares Sevillanos. Apparently afterwards the paintings return to their usual location, but in 1841 with the demolition of the convent and the confraternity being extinguished, their possessions are distributed, passing a large part of their assets to the Archbishop's Palace, a place where in the reception office , the canvas of Our Lady was found years ago. In 1960, a brother of the Holy Charity donated to it an important canvas that belongs to the cycle, it is "In hoc Signo vinces", which we describe below, this and the one indicated above are the only fabrics to date preserved from the significant cycle.

The complete cycle, whose subjects can be known through a description - inventory, written in s. XVII and copied by Count La Viñaza in the XIX century, it was made up of:

Our Lady with the gifted ones at her feet: It is one of the two preserved canvases, it is located in the Hispano Archbishop's palace and it measures 189 x 147 cm. Of triangular composition, it represents Our Lady and at her feet nuns and orphans helped by the brotherhood and who carry the shield of it: a cross and the five wounds. It refers then to one of the institutions of which the brotherhood was depositary.
The Risen Christ: A canvas similar to the one found in the Archbishop's Palace and which showed "The risen Christ with the cross and its captive feet that this Chapel with its alms redeemed"
Constantino's dream tells a story, according to the version of Dr. Don Martín Carrillo: Constantino suffered from leprosy to a high degree and his doctors told him that to heal he had to bathe with the blood of several children, for what he had in his palace 30 , but Constantino, feeling sorry for the laments of his mothers and the children themselves, decides not to follow the advice of the doctors and distributes a large amount of money among the mothers, sending them to go. The following night he had a dream in which Saint Paul and Saint Peter tell him to go and look for Saint Silvestre at Mount Sorait. Once San Silvestre arrived, he proceeded to wash it and the leprosy disappeared. Constantine is baptized and dedicates his palace to the temple of God.
Doctors and Fathers of the Church: apparently he was paired with the previous one, the two being half point and represented the people, professors and doctors, who wrote about the mystery of the Immaculate Conception.
In hoc vinces sign: Under this sign you will win, it represented the aforementioned episode of the dream had on the eve of the battle against Maxentius, this 270 x 240 cm canvas, is found today in the hallway of the Hospital de la Santa Caridad in Seville. Herrera uses a column to divide the pictorial space into two scenes, on the right Constantino is kneeling, while in the background he is left



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