Cardinal Oliviero Carafa (Ceasre da Sesto ca. 1511) was a supporter of the observers. This was a reform movement within the church that wanted to return to the source of faith. They wanted to live frugally according to the rules of the monastic order. An important centre of the observers in Rome was the Dominican church: Santa Maria sopra Minerva. In this church, famous Dominican observers like Fra Angelico lie buried, as well as the Dominican Catharine of Siena, who lies under the main altar.
At the right of the altar in the transept is the Cappella Carafa. These frescoes can be seen at Web Gallery of Art. The scheme of the fresco cycle and the floor plan of the church. The text is largely based on Roetten, Steffi ‘The Flowering of the Renaissance 1470-1510′ Abbeville Press Publishers, New York London Paris Original 1944 (English translation 1996) pp. 202-229
The wall at the altar: frescos and the altarpiece
In a church dedicated to Mary it is obvious that Carafa chose Mary’s Assumption. Moreover, this theme fits well with this chapel where Oliviero later wanted to be buried.
The way in which Filippino shapes the Assumption is highly unusual. Next to and above the altarpiece is a landscape depicted with the apostles at the bottom of the image, some of them looking upwards.
In the sky we can see Mary in prayer standing on a cloud ascending to heaven. She is surrounded by angels with musical instruments. Lippi’s design was influenced by his father, Fra Lippi, who had painted a Coronation of Mary.
” [..] One day while he [Fra Filippo Lippi Self-portrait] was at work on it, he caught sight of the younger daughter of Francesco Buti, a Florentine citizen, who was living there either as a ward or as a nun. Once Fra Filippo cast his eye on Lucrezia (for that was the girl’s name), who had the most beautiful grace and bearing, he was so persistent with the nuns that they allowed him to paint her portrait in order to use it in a figure of the Madonna for the work he was completing for them. This opportunity caused him to fall even more deeply in love, and he then made arrangements, using various means, to steal Lucrezia away from the nuns […] she [Lucrezia] never wanted to return, and, instead, she stayed with Filippo, for whom she bore a male child who was also called Filippo [Filippino] and later became, like his father, a most excellent and famous painter.” Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Lives of the Artists’, trans. J.C. Bondanella and P.E. B
In the apse of the Spoleto Cathedral there is a ‘Coronation of Mary‘ (painted between 1467 and 1469). Filippino saw this fresco painted by his father in 1488. A second source is the fresco, ‘Assumption of Mary‘ by Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. Ghirlandaio’s Virgin Mary is also accompanied by angels. Filippino is well aware that with his composition, in which the altarpiece covers part of the landscape, the Assumption will appear much closer to the viewer. The frame around the altarpiece is made of marble, so it becomes part of the viewer’s world. The painted space suggests another higher world which is beyond the reach of our senses. Vasari, who owned some drawings (The Triumph of Saint Thomas) by Filippino, was fascinated by such innovations.
Because of the expressive attitude of the spectators (eleven apostles and Thomas Aquinas) it seems as if the event is taking place before your eyes. Aquinas at the right of the altarpiece is put in the background with his arms outstretched as if he is receiving the belt of Mary. This is the traditional proof of her Assumption. Originally the apostles had halos with their names (could be a later addition?). These were removed during the last restoration.
The two Putti above the marble frame of the altarpiece are heavily damaged. They used to hold a red ribbon. These ribbons held a stick in place from which a drapery was hung. Two other putti (almost completely disappeared) were keeping the sumptuous drapery slightly upwards. This suggests that the altarpiece was only temporarily visible.
The reason why an annunciation was chosen is obvious. Before Carafa was given the right to the chapel, the chapel was already dedicated to the Annunciation of Mary and the Assumption of Mary.
By depicting the annunciation as a picture within a picture, Filippino creates a theological link between the incarnation and the crucifixion. Masolino had already done this in the chapel of Cardinal Branda in the San Clemente in Rome. In this regard, the gift of the belt resembles the Assumption in the chapel of Baroncelli (S. Croce) by Sebastiano Mainardi. This fresco was based on preliminary studies and cartons by Ghirlandaio.
What makes Filippino’s depiction so innovative is the enormous depth and grandeur of the landscape.
Like the patriarchs in the Strozzi Chapel, the sibyls in the Carafa Chapel are a break with tradition in that they almost burst out of the vaults. These sibyls do not sit on a throne like Pinturicchio or Ghirlandaio, but are in full motion and stand on the ground. The accompanying angels are also in motion. Filippino used Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s tomb (the Philosophy) of Sixtus IV as a source for this.
Lippi rejected the style, formulas and tradition of the 15th century. Lippi returned more to Donatello. This artist used principles such as chaotic disorder and disruption. Both the sibyls and the patriarchs in the Strozzi Chapel are new. The inner agitation is translated and shaped by powerful and dynamic movements as seen in the Carafa Chapel.
The sibyls on the vault are related to the Assumption of Mary. Directly above the Assumption in the vault is the Cumaean Sibyl. She foretold the coming of Christ. This is shown again in the altarpiece where the annunciation takes place. Above Thomas Aquinas there is the Sibyl of the Hellespont. She predicted the Crucifixion of Christ. The other two sibyls refer to the birth of Christ.
“Thomas Aquinas was known to be very corpulent. This caused him to take two places in the choir stalls. The separation between the two was removed for this purpose. Dante thus described him as sitting in paradise, namely the sky of the sun (canto 10-11 & 13). For this he gave him his nickname: bos aquinatis (the cow of Aquino)” Source Wikipedia (Dutch)
Oliviero Carafa was still a distant relative of the great scholastic from the 13th century: Thomas Aquinas. In the altarpiece Aquinas presents Carafa to Mary. The chapel was originally intended as a burial chapel for Oliviero. The frescoes on the right wall depict Thomas Aquinas.
According to Vasari, the scene in the lunette is about ‘The Miracle of the Speaking Cross.’ The story goes that when Thomas is praying at a cross, Christ bends down on the cross and says, “You have written positively about me, Thomas. What reward would you like to receive?” Aquinas said in reply, “Nothing but yourself LORD.” Vasari quotes the Latin text from “Bene scripsisti de me Thomas (Quam mercedem recipies? Domine, non aliam nisi te ipsum)”. This spell often appears in the open book which Thomas holds in his hand.
In the chapel you can’t see this, it’s possible this spell is gone. A monk flees because he hears two voices while Thomas is really alone. The miracle of the cross took place in the family chapel of the Carafa’s in the San Domenico Maggiore in Naples (Velázquez’s ‘Thomas Aquinas’ 1632)
The two women on the other side are probably the mother of the saint and his sister Marotta. She was so impressed by her brother that she entered the monastery in Capua. The other two figures probably give comments. The little boy with the dog tearing off a piece of his robe might be an allusion to the chastity belt that caused pain. Which relates to a second miracle: the Miracle of Chastity. This miracle was often cited by preachers and reformers in the 15th century. Often as a critique of the dissolute behaviour in church circles. Respected humanists preached on the feast day of Thomas Aquinas on March 7th in the chapel of Carafa. These sermons were based on the painted scenes. The adjoining room was for the Cardinal’s sarcophagus. The two rooms were likely to be connected by a door. In the burial chapel the story Virginia of Rome is painted on the barrel vault in classical frames. She chose not to be tarnished and chose to remain a virgin, thus signing her own death warrant.
Under the lunette we see Thomas Aquinas debating with thinkers from the 14th and 15th century, such as Apollinaris, Plotinus, Arius, Sabellius, Eutyches and Mani who opposed the dogma of Trinity. Thomas defended the true faith against the infidels.
This debate is combined with the triumph of faith over reason. It should be kept in mind that it was Aquinas’s teacher, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas himself, who took the view that reason could never conflict with faith. In addition to Plato, the more earthly Aristotle was now also accepted in the church. Thus, in his ‘Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Gozzoli gave Aristotle the place of honour on the right side of Aquinas while Plato can be seen on the left. It was common, as can be seen at Rafael’s ‘School of Athens‘, to give Plato the place of honour.
“The inscription [Gozzoli ‘Triumph of Thomas Aquinas’] beneath the glory containing Christ expresses his agreement with the theological writings of St Thomas Aquinas: BENE SCPSISTI DE ME, THOMMA (“You have written well about me, Thomas”). The saint is enthroned in the centre between Aristotle and Plato. At his feet lies the Arabic scholar Averroes, whose writings he refuted. In the lower part of the picture a group of clergymen can be seen on either side of the pope, who according to Vasari is Sixtus IV [Titian 1545-1546, Uffizi].” Source: Web Gallery of Art
Thomas is under a baldachin. Two putti are holding an inscription from psalm 119:130. ‘As your words are taught, they give light and insight for the simple.’ The book in the tondo says: ‘My mouth will utter truth, my lips detest wickedness.’ Proverbs 8:7. In the book Thomas holds in his hands it says, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,’ and on the banderolle it says, ‘For after this comes night, but no evil can overcome wisdom.’ Book of Wisdom 7:30.
Some figures look down at a square in front of them. Two townscapes are depicted in the background. A motif inspired by Ghirlandaio in the Sassetti chapel and the chapel of St. Fina in San Gimignano. They are predecessors of the School of Rafael. The two city views to the right and left of the baldachin are remarkable.
In 1538, Pope Paul III moved the equestrian statue to the Campidoglio. It never melted because it was thought to be Constantine, the first Christian emperor. At the time it was painted, it was commissioned by Sixtus IV for the holy year 1475, on a pedestal next to the Lateran Palace and the San Giovanni in Laterano.
It was thought that Constantine lived in the palace of Laterans. It was also the Pope’s church for the city of Rome. Moreover, the founders of the mendicant orders, Dominicus and Francis (Fra Angelico c. 1430), met here.
The view on the right also has a specific meaning. The Ripa Grande (Wittel c. 1711) can be seen here. It was from this port that Oliviero Carafa as a fleet leader sailed out to fight the Turks. Defeating the Turks is another victory.
Left wall: Paul IV or Gian Pietro Carafa’s funerary monument
Pius IV (1566-72) had appointed Gian Pietro Carafa, a nephew of Oliviero Carafa, cardinal of the Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Pietro Carafa admired Thomas Aquinas.
In 1555, this cardinal became Pope under the name Paul IV (Wikipedia). As pope he established the Inquisition in Rome, a powerful instrument to let truth prevail. After all, opponents could be condemned by the Inquisition.
The frescoes of the virtues and vices on the left wall (east wall) related at that time that the to the things in the Catholic Church that observers wanted to change. The church had to become virtuous again. When Paul IV installed a funerary monument on the east wall of the chapel in 1566, the frescoes disappeared.
One year later, in 1567, Thomas Aquinas was declared to be a teacher of the Church. Therefore the monument fits very well with the fresco cycle. It is a logical extension of the theological story that expresses the message of the fresco cycle.