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Agnolo Gaddi | The Legend of the True Cross

Agnolo Gaddi was a florentine painter and the son of Taddeo Gaddi, one of the foremost pupils of Giotto di Bondone. He continued the Giotto tradition but modified it still further in the direction of decorative elegance. He is particularly notable for his cool pale colours, which influenced the refined late Gothic art of artists of the next generation such as Lorenzo Monaco. Agnolo’s works include frescos on The Story of the Cross in the chancel of Sta Croce (after 1374) and on The Story of the Virgin and her Girdle in the Chapel of the Holy Girdle in Prato Cathedral (1392-5).

Agnolo Gaddi is known for his ability to fuse the techniques of Giotto with newer compositional and expressive devices of other artists who painted in the middle of the fourteenth century. Gaddi’s pictorial style was influential in that he was able to blend elements of the entire Trecento tradition. It has also been suggested that Gaddi may deserve some credit for bringing the International Gothic style to the city of Florence, and for combining that technique with the local traditions of that city, as Gaddi combines all those elements in his monumental work of the Legend of the True Cross cycle in Santa Croce. Gaddi’s cycle is the earliest and most complete representation of the Legend of the True Cross. It was begun around 1388 and completed around 1393, although no documents record the exact date of its creation.

La Leggenda della Vera Croce | The Legend of the True Cross

Agnolo Gaddi’s portrayal of the Legend of the True Cross was derived from a collection of the thirteenth-century religious writings by Jacopo da Voragine known as the Golden Legend. The frescoes provided the pictorial model which the Franciscans followed for the next century (see the fresco cycle of Piero della Francesca in Arezzo.) Gaddi was considered a progressive painter. In Cole’s opinion Gaddi greatly influenced the generation of artists who came after him. Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle is one of the most important monuments of Early Renaissance Italian painting.

Cappella Maggiore, Basilica
di Santa Croce, Firenze, view of the Interior

The narrative tells the story of Christ’s cross which, according to tradition, was made from a tree planted over Adam’s grave by his son Seth.

Agnolo’s figures derive their essentially static style

from Taddeo Gaddi’s (his father’s) frescoes in the Baroncelli Chapel, although his own hand is evident in their elongated,elegant poses, their grouping to suggest volumes in the landscape, and their placement in full, open spaces. Throughout the frescoes there are examples of compellingly individualized facial features which suggest that they were drawn from life. The individual scenes are suffused with light which enhances the solidity of buildings and landscape features against the dark background. The colours of the costumes are lighter than in earlier frescoes, lending the entire cycle a vivacity commensurate with the animation of its figures. These frescoes mark the end of a long development of fourteenth-century painting in Santa Croce which, beginning with Giotto’s frescoes for the Bardi Chapel, established new ways of realizing narrative.

Schema degli affreschi

Agnolo Gaddi, La leggenda della Vera Croce, Diagram of the frescoes in the Cappella Maggiore, Basilica di Santa Croce

The inspiration for the mural cycle in the apse derived from the dedication of the church to the True Cross and from the celebration of Santa Croce’s most sacred relic, a splinter of the True Cross, which was housed in a reliquary built by the Venetian goldsmith Bertucci in 1258. The Gaddi paintings are located on the two single bay walls that face each other flanking the altar . Santa Croce possesses a relic of the True Cross, and the church was dedicated to the Holy Cross. The monumental cycle illustrates stories recalled on the two annual feast days celebrating the relic of Christ’s crucifixion.

The legend was based on apocryphal tales that developed during the Middle Ages. The illustrations trace the story of the cross used for Christ’s crucifixion from Seth planting the seed on Adam’s grave, to the seventh century story in which the cross plays a part in the victory of Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor, over Chosroes, the Persian king, who had stolen the cross in Jerusalem.

The scenes on the right wall depictthe Finding of the True Cross, the feast which is celebrated on May 3. The scenes on the left wall depict the Exaltation of the Cross, the feast which is celebrated on September 14.

The cycle is composed of eight mostly rectangular panels, each about seven meters wide and four meters high. Each separate register contains one to three scenes from the legend; the episodes are narrated in great detail, with some scenes overlapping.

The scenes include: The Death of Adam (Fig. 2), Adoration and Burial of the Wood (Fig. 3), Retrieval of the Wood at the Probatic Pool, and Fabrication of the Cross (Fig. 4), and The Discovery and Testing of the True Cross (Fig. 5). The four scenes on the altar’s left (Fig. lb) refer to the events connected to the Exaltation of the Cross. The scenes include St. Helena Returning the Cross to the Jerusalem (Fig. 7), Theft of the Cross (Fig. 8), Chosroes Adored, Dream of Heraclius, Battle of Heraclius and Son of Chosroes (Fig. 9), Execution of Ch osroes, Heraclius Tries to Enter Jerusalem, and Exaltation of the Cross (Fig. 10). The landscape and architectural elements serve only as dividers for the narrative. The decorative beauty of Gaddi’s paintings resembles the work of a tapestry.

The four scenes to the right of the altar (Fig. lc) are connected to the Feast of the Invention of the Cross.

Sant’ Elena, mother of Constantino

 

Right wall: The Death of Adam

The lunette includes two narratives: Seth receiving the branch from heaven and the burial of Adam. The panel includes the oversized figure of Seth, Adam’s son, kneeling and haloed in a heavenly setting, taking the magical branch, or symbol of knowledge of the branch in the form of a scroll, from the archangel Michael, who rises above the rnountaintop.ss Seth rests on a winding road leading back into a deep landscape containing an earthly city scene, possibly Jerusalem. Below the landscape we see the burial of Adam. Adam and Seth are both proportionately smaller in comparison to Seth in the scene above; the body of Adam lies unburied in a shallow grave. Seth, plants the branch or seed from the tree of knowledge over the grave of Adam, from which the tree blossoms, while onlookers gather around the burial site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adoration and Burial of the Wood

Below the Adam scene, the story continues with the Adoration and Burial of the Wood , showing King Solomon burying the wood after hearing ofthe prophecy made by the Queen of Sheba, who recognized its miraculous powers. The narrative contains two separate stories. To the left, the Queen of Sheba, recognizable by her crown, pauses on her way to meet King Solomon. Sheba recognizes the importance of the wood and its relationship to God’s covenant and kneels in prayer before the wood of the cross that has been used to build a bridge over the Kendron River. The queen prophesies that the wood will cause the downfall ofthe Jewish kingdom. The two scenes are separated by the stream, but are connected by the wood. On the right, the cross is being buried by a group of men under the orders of Solomon who, after hearing Sheba’s story, fears for the future of his people. Again included by Gaddi are the deep landscape and a domed city scene in the background, perhaps an allusion to the Temple of Jerusalem or Constantine’s Church ofthe Holy Sepulchre.

Two representatives of the Alberti family

 

Retrieval of the Wood at the Probatic Pool, and Fabrication of the Cross

The third fresco shows the making of the cross thousands of years after Adam’s death. In Retrieval of the Wood at the Probatic Pool, and Fabrication of the Cross (Fig. 4), the two stories share the same time frame. This is the scene set in Jerusalem, in which the Jews extract the wood from the pond and fashion the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The wood appears to be floating to the surface of the pool; men are using ropes to drag the wood from the pool. The male figure pointing to the wood is thought to be Caiaphas, the Roman-appointed Jewish high priest who is said to have organized the plot to kill Jesus. He is identifiable by the horns on his forehead. In the background, sickbeds illustrate the healing power associated with the Piscina Probatica. On the right-hand side of the panels carpenters are building the cross. According to the Golden Legend, the cross was made of four different types of wood: palm, cedar, cypress, and olive. The invention story continues three hundred years later in the fourth century as St. Helena, mother ofthe Roman emperor Constantine, searches Jerusalem for the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The legend came from historical details, religious literature of the Middle Ages, and the stories of the lives of the saints.

The Discovery and Testing of the True Cross.

Left wall | Scenes from the Exaltation of the Cross

On the left side the four frescoes are connected to the September 14 Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The Exaltation scenes include stories that focus on the elevation or praising of the cross. They begin with the left lunette, St. Helena Returning the Cross to Jerusalem. Like the Adam lunette, the scenes are shaped to fit inside the lunette. St. Helena is pictured in a pointed hat holding her attribute, the True Cross, and presenting itto the people of Jerusalem. A group of kneeling dignitaries awaits her at the city gate. The ceremonial conveying of the cross into Jerusalem is rarely depicted. In the background, the landscape recedes into the symbolic city of Jerusalem on the right.

Dream of Emperor Heraclius (detail),1385-87, fresco, Chancel Chapel, Santa Croce

The other three scenes of the Exaltation of the cross tell the story of the seventh­ century battle between the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius and the Persian King Chosroes. The first scene containing the story of Chosroes and Heraclius is The Flight of Chosroes (Fig. 8). The paintings follow Chosroes’ arrival in Jerusalem, his capturing and pillaging of the city, and his removal ofthe cross. Chosroes carries off part ofthe cross as plunder. The city of Jerusalem is pictured in the background. A group of horse riders burst out of the city gate. The central figure holds a wrapped package, the stolen piece of the cross.

 

 

St. Helena Returning the Cross to the Jerusalem

Theft of the Cross Chosroes Adored, Dream of Heraclius, Battle of Heraclius and Son of Chosroes

The panel depicting Chosroes Worshipped by His Subjects, The Dream of Heraclius, and The Defeat of the Son of Chosroes contains three separate parts of the story. To the left Chosroes is exalted by the people in a basilica of gold and silver with the cross; he has chosen to be worshipped as a god. Chosroes holds a scepter, and men kneel before him. In the center, Heraclius has a dream wherein he receives a vision from an angel above the tent holding a wooden cross before battle that signifies his devotion to God; he is pictured reclining in his tent, leaning on his elbow, and gazing up at the vision; above the tent floats the cross and an angel. And on the far right is the climax in which Heraclius administers the final blow to defeat Chosroes’ son in single combat on the bridge over the Danube.

Execution of Chosroes, Heraclius Tries to Enter Jerusalem, and Exaltation of the Cross

The final scene contains The Beheading of Chosroes, The Angel Appearing to Heraclius, and the Entry of Heraclius into Jerusalem. The beheading of Chosroes for denouncing the Christian faith takes place on the left-hand side, in front of his palace and a group of men. The tiny bridge in the foreground alludes to the battle at the Danube. In the top center, Heraclius, Emperor of the Byzantines, arrives in splendor on horseback with the rescued relic of the cross at the gates of Jerusalem. An angel appears to Heraclius and reminds him of his need for humility. The city gate is walled up against him. The stones crumble away when Heraclius humbly strips himself of jewels. He is still crowned, but he is barefoot and wears only a simple white shirt. It is only then that he carries the cross upright to the gate and enters Jerusalem to celebrate the Exaltation ofthe cross. The entire story, taken from the Golden Legend, shows the mystical power of the holy wood to persevere throughout the entire span of human history.

Agnolo Gaddi, The Legend of the True Cross, The Beheading of Chosroes, The Angel Appearing to Heraclius, and the Entry of Heraclius into Jerusalem, Cappella Maggiore, Basilica di Santa Croce, Firenze

 

On the two side walls the story of the Saint Cross is depicted, the Triumph of the Cross being the final and most significant scene of the cycle. There are three scenes depicted beside and above each other. On the left side the beheading of Chosroes, King of Persia, for the occupation of Jerusalem and robbing the Cross; behind and above Heraclios arriving to Jerusalem with the regained Cross; on the right side Heraclios bringing the Cross barefooted into Jerusalem.

The Beheading of Chosroes

The beheading of Chosroes for denouncing the Christian faith takes place on the leftehand side, in front of his palace and a group of men. The tiny bridge in the foreground alludes to the battle at the Danube. In the top center, Heraclius, Emperor of the Byzantines, arrives in splendor on horseback with the rescued relic of the cross at the gates of Jerusalem. An angel appears to Heraclius and reminds him of his need for humility. The city gate is walled up against him. The stones crumble away when Heraclius humbly strips himself of jewels. He is still crowned, but he is barefoot and wears only a simple white shirt. It is only then that he carries the cross upright to the gate and enters Jerusalem to celebrate the Exaltation ofthe cross. The entire story, taken from the Golden Legend, shows the mystical power of the holy wood to persevere throughout the entire span of human history.

There is no difference in the size of the figures, thus no spatial perspective.The majority of the figures are illustrated in profile. Traditionally it is believed that the man standing beside the executioner is the painter himself.

Agnolo Gaddi, The Legend of the True Cross, the Entry of Heraclius into Jerusalem (detail)

Scenes from the Exaltation of the Cross

On the left side the four frescoes are connected to the September 14 Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The Exaltation scenes include stories that focus on the elevation or praising of the cross. They begin with the left lunette, St. Helena Returning the Cross to Jerusalem. Like the Adam lunette, the scenes are shaped to fit inside the lunette. St. Helena is pictured in a pointed hat holding her attribute, the True Cross, and presenting it to the people of Jerusalem. A group of kneeling dignitaries awaits her at the city gate. The ceremonial conveying of the cross into Jerusalem is rarely depicted. In the background, the landscape recedes into the symbolic city of Jerusalem on the right.

Chosroes Worshipped by His Subjects, The Dream of Heraclius, and The Defeat of the Son of Chosroes

The panel depicting Chosroes Worshipped by His Subjects, The Dream of Heraclius, and The Defeat of the Son of Chosroes contains three separate parts of the story. To the left Chosroes is exalted by the people in a basilica of gold and silver with the cross; he has chosen to be worshipped as a god. Chosroes holds a scepter, and men kneel before him. In the center, Heraclius has a dream wherein he receives a vision from an angel above the tent holding a wooden cross before battle that signifies his devotion to God; he is pictured reclining in his tent, leaning on his elbow, and gazing up at the vision; above the tent floats the cross and an angel. And on the far right is the climax in which Heraclius administers the final blow to defeat Chosroes’ son in single combat on the bridge over the Danube.

Agnolo Gaddi, The Legend of the True Cross, Chosroes Worshipped by His Subjects, The Dream of Heraclius, and The Defeat of the Son of Chosroes

Retrieval of the Wood at the Probatic Pool, and Fabrication of the Cross

Agnolo Gaddi, The Legend of the True Cross, Agnolo Gaddi, La Leggenda della Vera Croce, Retrieval of the Wood at the Probatic Pool, and Fabrication of the Cross

The Discovery and Testing of the True Cross

Agnolo Gaddi, La Leggenda della Vera Croce, The Discovery and Testing of the True Cross
Detail from The Discovery and Testing of the True Cross, after the restauration

The background scene of The Discovery and Testing of the True Cross appears to depart from the legend established in at the end of the fourth century and beginning of the fifth century of St. Helena’s discovery of the True Cross.v It is a scene from the Life of St. Francis. Francis can be seen in the background landscape and town scene. It is the background scene that is of greatest importance to the Franciscan connection discussed in Chapter Three. There is a river and a well. Two monks can be seen performing simple, everyday tasks: one appears to be fishing and another draws water from the well. Looming above, a lion rests in a cave.