1 Luglio 2018

Giorgio Vasari’s Moral Virtues in the Oratory of the Compagnia del Gesù at Cortona: Physical and Metaphysical Power


Iconocrazia 13/2018 - "Iconocrazia: Art, Astronomy, Politics and Religion", Saggi

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This essay consists of three parts. The first section deals with the history of the commission and layout of the Oratory of the Compagnia del Gesù in Cortona. The second section considers the thanksgiving sacrifices from the twelve prophets of the Old Testament. And the third section focuses on one aspect of the Oratory’s decoration, viz., the iconography of the moral virtues located in the spandrels of the walls framing the Old Testament’s prophets. In an earlier study I discussed the symbolism of the ceiling with New Testament scenes about redemption and salvation and the walls with Old Testament stories about sacrificial offerings.[1]

Part I. History of the Commission

The lay brothers of the Compagnia del Buon Gesù (Companions or Friends of Good Jesus) of Cortona decided to commission a new church and an oratory in 1498. They contracted the well-known Florentine architect, Giuliano da Sangallo (1443–1516), for the religious construction. The new church was called the Church of Good Jesus, dedicated to Jesus, and it faced the recently renovated Church of Saint Mary, by Sangallo as well.

The simple construction and design of the Church of Good Jesus is reminiscent of early Christian churches. The exterior is composed of red bricks. The interior is built on a basilica plan consisting of two rectangular floors. The upper floor contains three altars, one central and two laterals. The lower floor houses an oratory. The inclusion of an oratory is most original. According to ancient tradition, an oratory (from the Latin oratorium) was a private place for prayer. This type of small chapel was set apart for private devotion, usually furnished with an altar and a crucifix.[2] To directly access the Cortona oratory, which is the lower part of the church, a doorway was added at street level. This entrance adjacent to the church was intended for easy access to the oratory so that the activities of the members of the lay brothers would not interfere with the church liturgy and performances (Figure 1). Still visible in the pedimental area of the church’s exterior is Saint Bernardine’s monogram, J.H.S., which attests to the dedication of the Church of Good Jesus in 1505.[3]

Figure 1

After many requests, finally on September 27, 1540, the lay brothers of the Companions of Good Jesus received the official imprimatur from Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese, 1534–49) as a confraternity with the name of Compagnia del Gesù (Company of Jesus) in a papal bull of Regimini militantis ecclesiae. This event marks the foundation of the significant Jesuit Order, which would be led by the Spaniard mystic, Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1596).[4]

The Confraternity of the Compagnia del Gesù, wishing to commemorate this historical event, decided to renovate their oratory. Under the advice of Pope Paul III, they contacted Giorgio Vasari (1511–74) for the work. Between 1554 and 1555, Vasari received the commission from the confraternity to remodel as well as to decorate their oratory. At that time, the interior decoration of the oratory contained a carved wooden choir by Vincenzo di Pietropaolo of Cortona of 1517; an altarpiece by Luca Signorelli, Institution of the Eucharist of 1512 (now in the Museo Diocesano); and a stained-glass window by Guglielmo Marcillat, Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine of 1517, now lost.[5] With his collaborator and friend Cristofano Gherardi, Il Doceno (1508–60), Vasari began decorating with fresco paintings the ceiling and walls of the oratory.[6]

Vasari described this commission in the vita (autobiography) of Cristofano Gherardi.[7]

Ebbe licenza esso Vasari d’andare a starsi in Arezzo due mesi insieme con Cristofano. Ma non gli venne fatto di potere in detto tempo riposarsi, con ciò sia che non poté mancare di non andare in detto tempo a Cortona, dove nella Compagnia del Gesù dipinse la volta e le facciate in fresco insieme con Cristofano, che si portò molto bene, e massimamente in dodici sacrificii variati del Testamento Vecchio, i quali fecero nelle lunette fra i peducci delle volte. Anzi, per meglio dire, fu quasi tutta questa opera di mano di Cristofano, non avendovi fatto il Vasari che certi schizzi, disegnato alcune cose sopra la calcina e poi ritocco talvolta alcuni luoghi, secondo che bisognava. Fornita quest’opera, che non è se non grande, lodevole e molto ben condotta per la molta varietà delle cose che vi sono, se ne tornarono ambi due a Fiorenza del mese di gennaio, l’anno 1555.

(Vasari himself obtained leave to go to Arezzo to spend two months there together with Cristofano. However, he did not succeed in being able to rest during that time, for the reason that he could not refuse to go in those days to Cortona, where he painted in fresco the vaulting and the walls of the Company of Jesus with the assistance of Cristofano, who acquitted himself very well, and particularly in the twelve different sacrifices from the Old Testament, which they executed in the lunettes between the spandrels of the vaulting. Indeed, to speak more exactly, almost the whole of this work was by the hand of Cristofano, Vasari having done nothing therein beyond making certain sketches, designing some parts on the plaster, and then retouching it at times in various places, according as it was necessary. This work finished, which is not otherwise than grand, worthy of praise, and very well executed, by reason of the great variety of things that are in it, they both returned to Florence in the month of January of the year 1555.)[8]

On December 13, 1555, Vasari completed the commission for the Compagnia del Gesù (Figure 1). Undoubtedly, he was awarded this commission through his contact with Pope Paul III, for whom years earlier, in 1546, he had painted the Sala dei Cento Giorni in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, the pontiff’s residence.[9] Vasari’s further affinity with and allegiance to Cortona was through his distant relative Luca Signorelli (1450–1523) and his teacher Guglielmo Marcillat (1467–1529), who had decorated the palace of Cardinal Silvio Passerini in Cortona in 1520.[10] The cardinal was instrumental in introducing Vasari to the Medici family and guiding his artistic training in the workshops of Andrea del Sarto (1486–1531) and Michelangelo (1475–1564). In his vita Vasari recounted how Cardinal Passerini, tutor of Alessandro (1510–37) and Ippolito de’ Medici (1511–35), visited Arezzo in 1524 on his way to Florence.[11] During this sojourn, Vasari attracted the cardinal’s attention, not by any artistic ability but by his attainments in humanistic studies, especially a recitation of a Latin passage from the Aeneid. Favorably impressed, Passerini invited Vasari to the Florentine court, where he was tutored along with the children of the Medici family.

These fortuitous connections benefited Vasari for receiving the commission to renovate and restore the oratory in Cortona. The oratory measures 20 meters by 8 meters. The decoration for the rectangular plan of the oratory covers a ceiling and three walls. The ceiling fresco decoration contains scenes from the New Testament: The Conversion of Saul, The Transfiguration of Christ, and Christ in Limbo; in the walls are represented sacrificial scenes from the Old Testament with Isaac, Abraham, Enoch, Melchizedek, Noah, Nehemiah, Samuel, Aaron, Moses, Jacob, Cain, and Abel; and in the spandrels are moral virtues of some Christian personifications from the theological virtues (Faith, Charity, and Hope), cardinal virtues (Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance), and blessed virtues or the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Concord, Fear of God, Patience, Peace, Perseverance, and Vigilance). Vasari and Gherardi completed the decoration of the oratory by embellishing the ceiling and walls with lavish ornaments containing garlands, caryatides, masks, and theatrical curtains as well as Latin inscriptions, which unfortunately today are hardly legible (Figures 2 and 3).[12]

Figure 2

Figure 3

Part II: Old Testament Offerings

Presently, there are no records of the programmer and program for the oratory’s iconography. This unusual program was probably selected by a theological teacher of the confraternity, or members of the confraternity may have suggested this remarkable theme to Vasari. With the inclusion of Old Testament and New Testament scenes in the same program, Vasari followed the Christian typology employing Old Testament events as prefiguring New Testament events, thus connecting Hebraic traditions with Christian significations. Vasari was also relying on the confraternity’s aims and pedagogical activities in view of the Christian reformation and liturgical practices of the time.[13]

The frescoed wall decorations are assembled in two parts: twelve niches or tabernacles; and twelve spandrels (Figure 2). The simulated niches are also composed of two sections: round arched areas containing the Old Testament figures; and triangular formats enclosing roundels with Latin mottoes. The niches are separated by female hermes supporting the spandrels. The Old Testament figures portray prophets of various ages, young and old. They are dressed in ancient costumes, some wearing royal tunics and some crowned with various types of coronets, according to their role as prophet-judge, prophet-king, or prophet-patriarch. These prophets with their respective attributes offer their sacrifices to God in front of an ara or stoned altar in a landscape. All the Old Testament figures kneel and face the central altar, where the ultimate Christian sacrifice is offered through the liturgy of the mass. In the triangular formats, above the prophets’ sacrifices, the roundels contain Latin mottoes (now mostly discolored) that convey Christian messages. The Old Testament sacrifices are depicted in a natural setting, including offerings at altars from Isaac, Abraham, Enoch, Melchizedek, and Noah (severely damaged) on the left side of the wall; Nehemiah, Samuel, Aaron, Moses, and Jacob on the right side; and Abel’s sacrifice paired with Cain’s unusual offering, both severely damaged, in the central wall or the wall of the altar (Figure 3).

Vasari composed drawings for the ceiling and walls. Most of the ceiling’s designs are now lost, although a few recently became available at auction markets in London: The Conversion of Saul was acquired by Sotheby’s London in 1979;[14] and The Transfiguration of Christ was purchased by the British Museum in 1989.[15] The latter drawing was attributed to a follower of Vasari. In contrast, all drawings for the walls had the good fortune to survive and are presently located at the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe of the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Inv. 7083F–70994F) (Figure 4).[16]

Figure 4

Vasari with Gherardi designed twelve drawings of the Old Testament sacrifices in pen and ink and aquatint. These drawings assist in the identification of the damaged areas of the wall frescoes in the oratory.[17] Vasari’s type of ornamental and emblematic decoration is part of his artistic vocabulary employed from previous commissions in Bologna (1538–39), Arezzo (1542–48), Naples (1545), and Rome (1546).[18] Thus Vasari’s decoration and symbolism alludes to the ancient tradition of composing an oratorium as a small chapel for private devotion, including an altar for offerings. Vasari also anticipated the elaborate constructions of future oratories in Rome, e.g., The Oratory of Saint Phillip Neri.[19]

Furthermore, in the depiction of the Old Testament’s sacrificial scenes on the walls, Vasari was combining his assimilation of Michelangelo’s singular depiction of prophets from the Sistine ceiling and, in particular, Raphael’s Old Testament stories in the Vatican loggia, where biblical scenes of sacrifices are depicted.[20] In the spandrels of the walls in Cortona, the inclusion of the moral virtues indicate a divine or a spiritual guidance for the Old Testament figures in presenting thanksgiving gifts or offerings to God, similar to Michelangelo’s genii advising prophets and sibyls in the Sistine ceiling.

Since biblical times and Antiquity, humankind has expressed a desire to make offerings or sacrifices or to give gifts to God or gods for praise, supplication, and thanksgiving. In the Bible, for example, Moses related how God not only emphasized His worshiping but also requested sacrifices in His name for personal and collective forgiveness (Lev. 1–7); and in the Republic Plato wrote as well of making offers to gods.[21]

In the Cortona oratory, the Old Testament figures are making different types of offerings. Although all offerings contain material substances to be sacrificed—burnt offerings of animals, meals, or drinks—the intention of some of the offerings differs, e.g., some are gifts of love and thankfulness, while other are requests for peace or forgiveness of human sins. The burnt offerings are usually of a healthy male animal—a ram, a lamb, or a turtledove (Lev. 1:13–17)—as seen as in the oratory where Isaac is sacrificing a ram (Gen. 17:17), Abel is sacrificing a sheep, Samuel is sacrificing a lamb before the battle against the Philistines (1 Sam. 7:9–10), and Noah is sacrificing a dove as a thankful action for the survival of his family and flock.[22] However, the sacrifice requested of Abraham was unique: God asked Abraham to sacrifice his most precious male possession, his son Isaac, instead of a healthy male animal, thereby testing the prophet’s faith and obedience to Him. In the painting, Vasari followed the biblical account where Abraham tells Isaac to have faith that “God Himself will provide a lamb for the burnt offering” (Gen. 22:8; 24:12). Vasari depicted God’s intervention with the appearance of an angel to stop Abraham’s despicable action and with the provision of the lamb, which is seen next to Abraham’s sacrificial altar.

In the Uffizi drawings for the oratory, Cain is represented making a meal offering of the first fruits (Lev. 2:14–16 and Heb. 11:4). Vasari drew Cain holding a hoe, an agricultural instrument, with one hand and placing fruits in the open fire of the altar. In contrast, Melchizedek, in a dramatic orans posture, offers to God abundant loaves of bread and jugs of wine. Moses instead makes only a drink offering to God, presenting Him with his finest jugs of wine. Vasari enhanced Moses’ divinatory power by depicting numerous rays of light emerging from the prophet’s head.[23] Likewise Jacob pours a wine-drink offering on the altar to signify his consecrating himself to the house of God (Gen. 35:14).[24]

In addition, the allusion of forgiveness for human trespass or sin is demonstrated in Jacob’s offering. Unintentionally, he usurped his brother’s Esau governance right, and in his drink offering he requests forgiveness from God for his sinful deed (Lev. 4:1–27). In contrast, Noah’s sacrifice is a peace offering; it demonstrates his loving relationship with God and his thankfulness for the survival of his family (Gen. 15–22). Noah’s action restores peace with God and reconciles God with humankind (Gen. 29–30). Likewise Aaron restores peace. He is anointed to the priesthood, dedicating his life to caring for the ark, God’s dwelling place (Exod. 29:43–45). Nehemiah sacrifices his own governor’s allowance for the sake of peace and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 5:14–18). Likewise Enoch gives alms and votive offerings, and God rewards his faithfulness with immortality (Heb. 11:5–6; Gen. 5:22–24).

The chosen Old Testament figures are connected not only because of their offerings but also because of their lineage or filial historical association. For example, Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob; Cain was the father of Enoch, Noah was a descendent of Seth, brother of Cain, and Noah continued the lineage of Abraham; and Moses and Aaron as well as Abel and Cain were brothers. All these biblical ancestries in various ways referred to the brotherly association of the confraternity’s members as well as to their filial love and connection with Jesus.

Another type of association between the Old Testament figures and the members of the confraternity relates to civic activities and interactions with the community. Some Old Testament figures portray patriarchs, e.g., Melchizedek, the King of Salem, who welcomed Abraham with a feast and blessings in the name of God, fomenting diplomatic relations among the Israelites (Gen. 14:19); Aaron, whose inspirational speech at Mount Sinai legitimized the kingship of Israel (Exod. 32:4); and Jacob, whose name changed to Israel because he was the first patriarch of Israel, establishing the twelve tribes of Israel (Gen. 25–29). Other prophets represent kings, judges, or rulers: Moses, as a judge, provided the law for the Israelites through God’s Ten Commandments (Exod. 18 and 20:1–17); Samuel shaped Israel’s future and protected the ark for Israel (1 Sam. 5:11); and Enoch instructed Jewish people on the mission of God and taught them how to pray, fast, and provide alms for the needy. Thus Vasari was associating the prophets’ benevolent activities with members of the confraternity’s charitable roles.

Another group of prophets stands for community builders, such as Noah, who built the ark (Gen. 6:13–21) and consulted with Enoch regarding the flood and the protection of the Jewish people (Enoch 45:1–12); and Nehemiah, who rebuilt the city walls of Jerusalem, established economic reforms for the Israelites, and formulated a Jewish identity (Neh. 2:11–16 and 5:1–5). Their inclusion in the program further comments on the physical renovations and spiritual reformation of the confraternity.

In the Cortona oratory, the selection of the twelve prophets from the Old Testament (only nine visible now) is a prefiguration of the twelve apostles in the New Testament (Matt. 10). Symbolically, the number twelve refers to various meanings, which from ancient times were associated with physical and metaphysical notions: namely, the cosmic order (signs of the zodiac, twelve months of the year); the temporal and spiritual order (hours, wheels of fortune); and dodecanary groups, in particular in biblical iconography, such as the twelve tribes of Israel (Gen. 49:28 and Deut. 33:6–25), the twelve sons of Jacob (Rev. 21:12, 14), the twelve fruits of the Tree of Life (Rev. 22:2), the twelve loaves at the Table of the Temple (Lev. 24), and the twelve precious stones on the prophet Aaron’s breastplate (Exod. 29:7–9; 1 Sam. 28:3–6; and Num. 27:21).[25] Included in these connotations are symbolic associations of the twelve moral virtues (only eight visible now) from the twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:2–23).

Part III: The Moral Virtues

“Moral” is derived from the Latin mos meaning custom, that is, a “moral virtue is the habit of choosing the mean as determined by reason”.[26] Unlike the ancient philosophers Aristotle and Cicero,[27] Augustine and Aquinas considered moral virtues as intellectual virtues because “virtue is the art of living well. [And] art is an intellectual virtue. Therefore, moral virtues do not differ from intellectual virtues”.[28] For the Christian philosophers, “the act of a moral virtue is a choice of an appetitive power, which is part of the soul choosing rightly”.[29] Following the intellectual circles of the Cinquecento in Florence, Rome, and Venice, Vasari articulated the philosophical and rhetorical discourse about the symbolism of allegories, emblems, and personifications in his commissioned works on profane and sacred decorative cycles.[30] He also absorbed the biblical and Christian traditions of the Cinquecento;[31] hence his comprehension about the meaning and visualization of Christian iconography.

Vasari associated the moral virtues with some of the Old Testament prophets, projecting their positive dispositions to be emulated by members of the confraternity and thus providing for these lay brothers of the confraternity a spiritual role and teaching guidance for their charitable and pedagogical tasks. Vasari chose the depiction of twelve moral virtues, which are affiliated also with the selected and corresponding prophets. But these personifications of moral virtues are depicted without a specific iconographical order, biblical classification, or classical tradition.[32] In this fashion, Vasari united the function of the theological and cardinal virtues with the gifts of The Holy Spirit and their manifestations. Also in this manner, Vasari allied the moral virtues to a specific prophet. All the prophets from the Old Testament make their offerings and turn toward the main altar, but not the moral virtues; they accompany the adjacent prophet or frame the nearby prophet’s sacrificial niche. For example, on the left wall: Fear of God (Reverence for God) and Patience face toward and frame Isaac’s niche; Hope (Perseverance) and Prudence face Enoch’s niche; and on the right wall Faith (Religion) and Peace frame Samuel’s niche; while Fortitude and Vigilance face Moses’ niche. Thus Vasari envisioned the moral virtues as closely connected to the prophets’ practical conduct and spiritual leadership.

The uniqueness of the placement of the moral virtues, in the oval cartouches or ovati inside the spandrels of the walls, and their connection with the adjacent prophet from the Old Testament constitute an inventive artistic composition on the part of Vasari (Figures 2 and 3). The moral virtues are chosen from the traditional depiction of the cardinal and theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Their selection and assignment are linked to the adjacent prophet’s activities and role in the Jewish community. The twelve virtues were originally identified with their inscribed Latin names in small triangles below the ovati. Today the inscriptions are illegible, with the exception of the virtues of Faith or Religion, where the inscription reads Fides, and Vigilance, with the inscription Iustitia, both barely distinguishable.

The spandrels are decorated within a triangular design and between two adjoining arched niches. Their backgrounds are filled with grotesques and in the center the ovati are framed with theatrical curtains. The ovati are painted in bronze colors to emulate classical honorific medallions. Inside are depictions of some Christian personifications of the theological virtues (Faith, Charity, and Hope), cardinal virtues (Prudence and Fortitude), and the blessed virtues of the Holy Spirit (Concord, Fear of God, Patience, Peace, Perseverance, and Vigilance), which are placed between the niches of the Old Testament prophets’ sacrifices. These moral virtues symbolically connect with the image of the sacrifice: viewing from the entrance of the oratory toward the altar, on the left side, for example, the niche of Isaac is framed by the virtues of Fear of God and Patience; Abraham is framed by the virtues of Patience and Hope/Perseverance; Enoch is framed by the virtues of Hope/Perseverance and Prudence; and the niche of Melchizedek is connected with Prudence. The virtues next to the niche of Noah, as well as the sacrifice of Noah, are severely damaged and illegible.

On the right wall, viewing from the entrance to the oratory toward the altar, the niche of Nehemiah is framed by the virtues of Concord and Peace; the niche of Samuel is framed by the virtues of Peace and Faith/Religion; the niche of Aaron is framed by the virtues of Faith/Religion and Vigilance; the niche with Moses is framed by the virtues of Vigilance and Fortitude (severely damaged); and the niche of Jacob connects with the virtue of Fortitude. Of the two virtues located in the main altar, only the frame of the cartouche remains. One of them between Abel and Cain was probably Charity (severely damaged); the other virtue next to Cain is visually unrecognizable. Between the niches of Abel and Noah, the virtue in the ovato has been severely damaged and is no longer visible.

The function of these moral virtues in the spandrels is to spiritually guide the prophets in their sacrificial offerings. In order to keep a historical unity and connection between one prophet’s sacrifice and its follower, the virtues on the left side of the wall are placed on the left side of the Old Testament prophet’s offering, while those on the right wall are placed on the right of the Old Testament prophet, e.g., Fear of God (Timore di Dio) or Reverence for God is before Isaac’s sacrifice, followed by Patience located next to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. All the moral virtues or personifications of specific moral virtues are represented by seated females, with the exception of the personification of Fear of God, who stands in an ethereal space. The moral virtues with their corresponding attributes are engaged in an activity as a disposition of their personification. Some are veiled as prophetic sibyls while some are bare-breasted, alluding to the purity of their heart, and all are barefooted—a traditional allusion to being in a metaphysical space or on holy ground (1 Cor. 12:15–21).[33] Vasari’s compositional design of the ovato, the treatment of figures, and the iconographical conceits of the Cortona moral virtues resemble those of the Neapolitan moral virtues (1545) more than those of the same personification from the Cornaro-Spilnelli’s ceiling in Venice (1540–42), the Casa Vasari in Arezzo (1542–48), or the Sala dei Cento Giorni in the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome (1546). The Cortona visualization demonstrates that Vasari, along with his assistants (Cristofano Gherardi, Raffaelino del Colle, and Stefano Veltroni), was developing a pictorial album of iconographic images from earlier commissions of decorative cycles and continued as visual encyclopedia in Cortona, anticipating the emblematic compilation of figurazione in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia of 1603.[34]

A. Moral Virtues on the Left Side of the Wall

Fear of God or Reverence for God (Timore di Dio/ La Riverenza)

In a limited space due to the architectural structure of the spandrel, in a half size ovato, the personification of Fear of God (Timore di Dio) or Reverence for God is portrayed as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:9–10: “For the fruit of Light [Reverence] consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth, trying to learn what is pleasing to God”). In a celestial atmosphere, the veiled figure floats gracefully in an undetermined time (Figure 5).

Figure 5

She gazes with love and reverence at a flying white dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit and divine inspiration. Compositionally, Vasari and Gherardi conflated two images from the Neapolitan ceiling: from the personification of Religion they appropriated the attribute of dove as a spiritual inspiration (Holy Spirit), and they echoed the personification of Fear of God––with the exception that the figure is clothed—in that the treatment of the body turning is alike and the figure resides in a similar heavenly sphere (compare Figures 5 and 6).[35]

Figure 6

The Bible contains several references about this theme of the fear of God; namely, Proverbs 9:10: “The fear [reverence] of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One [Spirit]”; Psalm 111:5: “God has given food to those who fear Him; He will remember His covenant forever”; and Luke 1:50: “And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him”. Vasari placed this figure next to Isaac, indicating that this moral virtue will provide spiritual guidance for him and his descendants through the Holy Spirit (the dove). Isaac, already a divine gift granted by God to his father Abraham, prepares a thanksgiving gift at the altar in sacrificing a ram. God granted Isaac the gift of everlasting blessings (Gen. 17:21: “I will establish My covenant with Isaac”). In the oratory, members of the confraternity were reminded to revere God in their practical tasks as well as in their prayers.

Patience (La Pazienza)

In the ovato next to Abraham’s sacrifice, the personification of Patience is depicted as a fruit from the Holy Spirit (Heb. 6:12: “So that you will not be sluggish, but imitator of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises [Land]”) (Figure 7).

Figure 7

The portrayal for this virtue is similar to the Neapolitan Patience, where a young seated woman bends her head and embraces a yoke (compare Figures 7 and 8).

Figure 8

Patience with resignation holds her yoke, a symbol of obedience and servitude. Vasari described the image of Patience as: “Il giogho al collo et il capo basso” (“The yoke around her neck and her head bowed”),[36] referring to a New Testament passage from Matthew 11:29–30: “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light”. Vasari continued appropriating this moral virtue in other commissions about Patience, adding other attributes such as chains and water hourglass, which are conceits of endurance, time, and perseverance.[37]

In the Cortona wall, Abraham is placed next to Isaac, the son (gift) promised by God (Gen. 12:4, 22:16), who patiently waited for this blessing from God. However, God tested Abraham’s faith and loyalty. He obediently acted and willingly attempted to sacrifice his son for God. Hence God rewarded Abraham for his obedience and patience, making him the father of future nations (Heb. 6:15). Like his son Isaac, Abraham hoped and waited patiently for God’s blessing. The Cortona Patience also rests her right foot firmly on a large stone; because of its hardness, a stone is a symbol of durability and reliability.[38] This further emphasizes Abraham’s unshakable faith in God. These aspects of Patience, such as faith and obedience, achieved by Abraham are moral virtues to be emulated by members of the confraternity in their transactions with the lay community.

Hope or Perseverance (La Speranza/La Perseveranza)

Between Abraham and Enoch is the personification of Hope or Perseverance (Figure 9).

Figure 9

Vasari portrayed earlier versions of this virtue in the commissions of Venice, Naples, and Rome. Among these depictions of Hope, the most elaborate is the panel painting of 1542 for the ceiling of the Cornaro Spinelli Palace, now at the Accademia in Venice.[39] A seated, veiled figure has an elaborate hairdo with tresses with blue ribbons and coral beads and gazes at the heaven. The anchor next to her is an attribute of faith for the personification of Hope (Heb. 6:18–19). With praying hands, she thanks God for having sent a flying dove holding in its beak an olive branch (Gen. 8:11), an indication of peace and God’s forgiveness toward human beings. In the Venetian painting, next to Hope is the prophet Noah, who turns his head toward the dove, acknowledging with pleasure this gift of peace from God. Vasari depicted a dove holding a green branch, a reference to Noah’s dove carrying an olive branch (“… la colomba [di] Noé con l’ulivo … volta al cielo”).[40] Noah also holds a vine branch with grapes, a reference to his planting a vineyard after the flood (Gen. 9:20) and a prefiguration of Eucharistic wine in the New Testament (Lk. 22:19–20). According to the Church Father and Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), the theological virtues—charity (love), faith, and hope—are divine virtues that are granted to humankind in order to bring them closer to God.[41] Like Hope, Isaac is anchored in his regular sacrifices of a ram to God (Gen. 17:17).[42] However, the personification of Hope is pivoted toward Enoch.

God redeemed Cain’s murdering action through the good deeds accomplished by Enoch, his son. Enoch was responsible for numerous inventions because of his activities as an initiator: as a tailor, he invented the needle for sewing (Gen. 5:18–24); as a writer, he invented the art of writing (Gen. 5:24); and as a prophet, Enoch composed the visionary Book of Enoch.[43] In this book Enoch explained the sacred knowledge of creation, the difference between good and evil, the Messianic kingdom, and the mission of teaching, praying, and assisting the needy. Enoch envisioned Abraham’s bosom (Old Testament) or the place of Limbo (New Testament) as well as Christ’s coming to earth (Book of Enoch 68:1). Because of Enoch’s love for the divine, God rewarded him by allowing him to escape death and transporting him to heaven (Gen. 5:24).

The Cortona image of Hope is fused with the symbolism of Perseverance. Vasari described the personification of Perseverance as “una donna che posti il piè sopra una gran pietra stia ferma, volta ad un splendor celeste con devozione” [“a woman placing a foot on a large fixed stone, [while] turning with devotion toward a celestial splendor“).[44] The Cortona Perseverance shows a crowned and veiled young woman kneeling on a stone and devotionally lifting her joined hands towards a celestial glimmer, praying while gazing toward Heaven. In the Bible, one is reminded, “And in your knowledge and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness” (2 Pet. 1:6). Here Hope/Perseverance supplicates for divine blessings. As a fruit of the Holy Spirit, Hope and Perseverance are also symbols of love (Rom. 5:5: “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our heart through the Holy Spirit who was given to us”). The perseverance in praying reminded the members of the confraternity to faithfully hope for heavenly blessings.

Gherardi painted an abbreviated version of the traditional portrayal of Hope depicted by Vasari in his previous commissions. He appropriated Vasari’s Neapolitan depiction of Hope inside an ovato with a veiled young female praying and looking at the sky, where rays of light grant her inspiration or suggest the presence of divinity. The anchor set at her side and the hourglass at the other side are seen in the Neapolitan painting, but in particular in a study for this painting at the National Museum of Czech Literature in Prague (Inv.Ik 5497), which portrays a large hourglass and an elaborate anchor with a nautical robe, not visible in the Cortona Hope (compare Figures 9 and 10).

Figure 10

Hope’s attributes of the hourglass and anchor represent her safety and security. The hourglass, usually an attribute of Temperance, symbolizes the passage of life as well as the recurrence of life and death, the heavens and the earth.[45] The members of the confraternity during their rituals were probably inspired by Enoch’s faithful perseverance and his devotion toward and trust in God when viewing the moral virtue of Hope/Perseverance.

Prudence (La Prudenza)

One of the most coveted virtues during the Renaissance was the cardinal virtue of Prudence.[46] Vasari depicted the personification of Prudence between Enoch and Melchizedek. She is portrayed with a Janus head of a young female and an old man. Prudence is seated on a bench, gazing at a mirror while holding a hairpin with her left hand. On the ground a small serpent moves between her feet, a conceit about caution and wisdom (Figure 11).[47]

Figure 11

Vasari continued the Renaissance tradition of depicting Prudence with a Janus head and looking at herself in the mirror, as seen in the Giotto at the Arena Chapel of 1310 in Padua and Piero Pollaioulo’s preparatory drawing for the cycle of virtue of 1490s, now at the Galleria degli Uffizi.[48]

The Cortona Prudence differs from previous presentations Vasari composed of the same personification, e.g., the Chamber of Fortune for his house in Arezzo, where Prudence, although with a Janus head, does not hold a mirror but embraces a cornucopia and a key. The snake is absent here. Similarly the Farnese Prudence holds a cornucopia and a key and looks at a globe, and no snake is visible. Perhaps the most beautiful of the Vasarian representations for the personification of Prudence is a drawing or study for the refectory of Monteoliveto in Naples (Frits Lugt Collection, Fondation Custodia, Paris, Inv. 7777) (Figure 12).[49]

Figure 12

In this disegno, Vasari elaborated on the attributes of Prudence and described her in several accounts as “Prudentia il farsi bella alla spera aver la serpe e le chiavi di Iano” (“Prudence beatifying herself at a mirror [and] holding a serpent and a key of Janus”)[50] and “Una Prudenza con due face, una di vecchio, l’altra di giovine con una spera, monstrandovisi dentro” (“An [image of] Prudence with two faces [heads], one of an old man and the other of a young man, and  reflecting herself in a mirror”) .[51]

In the Parisian drawing, Prudence is surrounded with all her attributes of practical and speculative wisdom such as a mirror, a serpent, a key, and a Janus-head, while attending to her toilet. Her engaging attitude denotes her existence in the present. On the contrary, the Cortona Prudence’s hair looks disheveled. She holds a type of hairpin, suggesting that she plans to address her hairdo. This type of hairdo’s instrument is clearly visible in the Neapolitan Prudence, where she is braiding her tresses.[52] The Cortona Prudence deliberates on her action of attending to her toilette, a suspended moment to ponder on the present—a careful and prudent delay (compare Figures 11 and 12). A serpent cautiously moves between two stones at her feet, paralleling the attitude of the figure. Perhaps in the visualization of the Cortona Prudence, Vasari anticipated his description of Prudence in I Ragionamenti (1555–57; published posthumously 1588):

La Prudenza … la quale contemplandosi nello specchio, si fa ogn’or più bella acconciandosi la testa, dinotando che nella difficultà che ha il cervello saldo esce d’ogni fastidio e pericolo … [come] la serpe … che fra que’ dua sassi stretti passa, e lassa la spoglia vecchia.[53]

(Prudence … in gazing at herself in the mirror becomes more beautiful every day by dressing up her hair [head], which denotes that a healthy mind [intellect] overcomes any nuisance and peril … [like] the serpent that passes between two tight stones and strips off the old skin.)

The connection between Prudence and Melchizedek, whose name means “My King is Righteousness” (Rev. 19:11, 16), followed the pattern of righteous living set by his noble ancestor Enoch, as it is represented in the fresco wall. As High Priest and King of Salem (the land of Jerusalem or the land of peace, Gen. 14–17), Melchizedek was also considered a King of Peace (Isa. 9:6, Ps. 110:4). After four victorious battles, Abraham visited Melchizedek, who in celebration and friendship provided a meal bringing bread and wine (Gen. 14:18). Abraham recognized him as a High Priest and gave him a tithe (one-tenth) from the spoils of battles according to the Hebraic tradition (Gen. 14:18–20). Through his faith and prudence, Melchizedek “subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness he made strong, waxed valiant in fight, and turned to flight the armies of the lines” (Heb. 5:10; 7:1; 11:33–34). Hence this moral virtue of Prudence is associated with Melchizedek and functioned as well a beacon of wisdom for the lay brothers. Melchizedek’s sacrifice is adjacent to Noah’s offering, now hardly visible, as well as the corresponding moral virtue.[54]

B. Moral Virtues on the Right Side of the Wall

Concord (La Concordia)

In the wall corresponding to the left wall, the depiction of Concord, another fruit of the Holy Spirit, resides in half of an ovato due to the curved ceiling of the wall, like the moral virtue of Fear of God on the left wall. She is veiled and holds a bundle of fasces signifying the strength that comes from unity and peace, while looking down at some broken fasces, which symbolize discord and war (Figure 13).

Figure 13

Vasari repeated this motif in many of his commissions.[55] A well-preserved drawing of Concord that can be found at Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Germany (GS, Inv. 9629r)[56] visualizes the iconography seen in the Monteolivetan painting. Although not wearing a military cuirass as in the Kassell drawing and in the Neapolitan painting, the Cortona Concord is portrayed envisioning the concept of bond and unity by embracing tied up fasces as well as resting her feet on a cube or pedestal, a symbol of perseverance and solidity (compare Figures 13 and 14).[57]

Figure 14

Vasari described this portrayal, “Concordia … le mazze rotte et un fascio delle sane” (“Concord… [with] broken strips and an unbroken bundle”), in a series of iconographical notes on the images for the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome.[58] The personification of Concord is placed next to Nehemiah’s offering because, according to the Book of Revelation 21:16, the cube where Concord rests is a reference to “heavenly Jerusalem”, which was created as a perfect cube based on the ratio of number 12.[59] As a governor of Persian Judea (5th century bce), Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem’s wall and gate, and fortified the city against hostile neighbors (Neh. 1:11). He was renowned for his ability to negotiate fairness in the distribution of food and land allotments among his people as well as to convince wealthy nobles and officials to forgive debts incurred by needy families. In his prayers to God, Nehemiah pleaded: “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (Neh. 5:19). For the members of the confraternity, the virtue of Concord was to be pursued like Nehemiah, who emulated this virtue in his economic endeavors. He also applied it with political skills in achieving consensus among his people and adversaries as well as his quest for betterment and unity of his people from Judea.

Peace (La Pace)

Between Nehemiah and Samuel, Peace resides. Both Peace and Concord are fruits of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:5: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace”).[60] A drawing by Vasari, Peace Bearing an Olive Branch (Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, inv. 462), which in the past was attributed to Perino del Vaga, represents a theme similar to those in the paintings from Naples and Cortona (Figure 15).[61]

Figure 15

But Vasari conceived this drawing for the Apparato dei Sempiterni (1541–42) of Pietro Aretino’s comedy La Talanta in Venice,[62] where a bare-breasted female as personification of Peace holds an olive branch, a traditional symbol of peace, and with her other hand is burning arms of war (Vasari wrote: “La Pace abruciar armi con l’oliva in mano … [e] colomba con l’oliva” [“Peace burning arms {while} holding an olive branch…{and} the dove holding and olive branch”])[63] The Cortona Peace closely resembles the drawing of the Venetian Peace: while seated, she carries on her duties of burning the instruments of discord (compare Figures 15 and 16).

Figure 16

In the Aretine Peace for the Chamber of Abraham, Vasari focused on the image gazing at an olive branch, a symbol of peace (Figure 17), while in the Sala dei Cento Giorni, Peace focuses on burning instruments of war, a different type of amity.

Figure 17

The Cortona Peace conflates both symbolisms of peace with the olive branch and, paradoxically, the destruction of arms with fire—a delicate balance achieved by Samuel in his governmental role as a prophet and judge of Israel. He restored law, order, and religious worship (1 Sam. 4:25–18; 7:3–17). The members of the confraternity viewed Samuel not only as a judge, a regulator of laws (Exod. 18:16), but also as a teacher who founded a school for studious men who wished to become moral or spiritual teachers (1 Sam. 19:18–19; 2 Kings 2:1–7, 15, 4:38). With his faith and obedience to God, like Abraham (Heb. 11:32), and accord through leadership, like Nehemiah (1 Sam. 7:13–14), Samuel provided peace and prosperity for the people of Israel. The constructive peaceful and pugnacious actions of Samuel were to be emulated by the lay brothers in their conduct and interactions with the community of Cortona.

Faith/Religion (La Fede/La Religione)

Between the prophets Samuel and Aaron, the theological virtue of Faith is seated next to an altar (Figure 18).

Figure 18

Her identification is still legible: Fides. Her attributes are combined with those of the personification of Religion, including a cross and a chalice with a Holy Host. Vasari frequently represented Faith as Religion in religious decorative cycles such as the Neapolitan (compare Figures 18 and 19).

Figure 19

The Cortona Faith is veiled, alluding to her spiritual nature. She embraces with her right hand a cross and gazes intensely at a chalice held with her extended left hand, where a suspended Holy Host has appeared. Faith’s action resembles the priest’s performance of raising the chalice at the moment of the transubstantiation during the Sacrifice of the Mass, where the miraculous transformation occurs from material to divine substance. These attributes are symbols of redemption and salvation achieved through acts of faith, as found in a gloss on Matt. 1:2 by Aquinas: “Faith generates Hope, and Hope Charity”, the “work of Faith is to believe in God”.[64] In I Ragionamenti, Vasari described some aspects of the personification of Faith: “[Fede] donna che con la croce in mano, quegli altri vasi in su quello altare … [sono] sacramenti della Chiesa” (“[Faith] a woman with [holding] a cross in one hand, those other vases are on the altar … [they are references to] sacraments of the Church”).[65] In this manner, Vasari provided an explanation for some objects in the ovato. The Cortona Faith is next to an altar holding three vases (altri vasi), referring to their use when imparting the sacramental rites of Baptism, Holy Communion, and Anointment of the Sick according to the Roman Catholic ceremony.

The theological virtue of Faith faces toward Samuel’s altar, offering him sacramental blessings as the last ruling judge of the Old Testament and as performer of David’s anointment as the new King of Israel. Biblically, Samuel is known for his tenacious prayers and his faith. In 1 Samuel 7:5 and 9, he reminded the people of Israel to gather together: “I will intercede with the Lord for you”, and “[Samuel] cried out to the Lord on Israel’s behalf, and the Lord answered him”. And in 1 Samuel 12:22, he wrote: “For the sake of His great name the Lord will not reject His people, because the Lord has pleased to make you His own”. In the niche, as Samuel is making his offerings, a cherubim angel appears over the altar. The angel instructs Samuel to follow God’s request, anointing the young shepherd David, instead of aging Saul, as the new King of Israel (1 Sam. 16:12). Attentively, Samuel listens and, in paralleling the pointing gesture toward heaven of the celestial being, accepts God’s directive. Above this offering scene, the moral virtue of Faith alludes to the same angelic request to follow divine wishes and trust in God. In viewing this interaction between Faith and Samuel, the lay brothers acknowledged the importance of prayers and faithful accept and deliverance of God’s messages.

Vigilance or Justice (La Vigilanza, La Giustizia)

Between the prophets Aaron and Moses resides the moral virtue of Vigilance or Justice, a combination of one of the cardinal virtues and one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Figure 20).

Figure 20

Below the ovato, the Latin inscription says: Iustitia (Justice).[66] Piously attired and veiled, Vigilance is seated guarding two large tablets—God’s Ten Commandments—delivered to Moses in order to instruct his people about God’s moral code. On her right of the scene, Vigilance holds a scepter designed with a crane balancing its weight on an orb atop and at the bottom resting on a lion. Vigilance carries some indiscernible herbal plants. The Cortona Vigilance is similar in compositional design and attributes to the Neapolitan version, but here she is frontally seated and holds in her right hand a pine-tree branch[67] and in her left hand a book or small tablets. In both images, Vasari visually stressed the attentive, guarding, and protective nature of this moral virtue toward the stone tablets (compare Figures 20 and 21).

Figure 21

The personification of Vigilance symbolizes “loyalty, goodness and good order in monastic life”.[68]

The emblematists of the Cinquecento, Pierio Valeriano and Paolo Giovio, noted with care the importance of the crane as a symbol of vigilance for ancient writers such as Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (Book 10, 30, before 76 ce) and Aristotle in his History of Animals (Books V and X: 12, before 322 bce). See, for example, Valeriano’s emblem La Guardia (The Guard) in Hieroglyphica sive De sacris Aegyptorum,[69] and Giovio’s Dialogo delle imprese, Emblem on Custodia (Custody), where the crane is crowned by a scroll with the Latin inscription: “Officium natura docet” (“Nature teaches one duty”),[70] a comment on the nature of the crane as a dutiful and a watchful bird. In the Middle Ages, Saint Anthony of Padua (1195–1231), in one of his sermons about “Merciful men compare to cranes”, commented that “Let us succeed [in life to] alternately to labor. Let us carry the weak and infirm. In the watches of the night, let us keep vigil to the Lord, by prayers and contemplation”.[71] The inclusion of a lion, a symbol of vigilance as well, emphasizes the crane’s action of watchfulness, as seen in Alciato, Emblem 15, “Vigilance and Protection”.[72] Members of the confraternity would connect with this moral virtue of Vigilance and its symbolic ramifications since biblical and medieval times because they too advocated in their goals for the community to care for the needy and sick as well as to be vigilant in their faith.

In Antiquity, the crane was also considered a sacred bird because his large wings made it possible to fly great distances and migrate to foreign lands.[73] This migratory action of the crane was paralleled with Moses’s migration with the Israelites to God’s promised land. Not by accident, Vigilance is associated with Moses’s actions and sacred gifts, the divine tablets. The Holy Spirit granted to Moses the gifts of Vigilance and Judgment. Hence the moral virtue of Vigilance is depicted guarding the tables and guiding Moses’s actions like in his sermons. In the Book of Moses or Deuteronomy 16:20, Moses instructed the Israelites to: “Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land of the Lord your God is giving you”. Later, Joshua (22:5) reminded the Israelites to follow God’s laws: “Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you”. This was an important dictum to follow for the faithful members of the confraternity.

Charity and Fortitude

Although there are ovati for these moral virtues, their imagery is severely damaged, making it too speculative to ascertain the appropriate visual attribution and content. Both virtues, Charity a theological and Fortitude a cardinal, were depicted numerous times in Vasari’s religious cycles.[74] Not by accident is Charity located on the wall of the altar, between Abel and Cain, as a strong reminder of Cain’s uncharitable behavior but also of forgiveness achieved through the regularly enacted Christian sacrifice during the Mass, which was performed at the main altar.

The ovato of Fortitude next to Jacob refers to his courageous actions in adversity (Isaiah: 41:10, “Do not fear, I am with you; do not be afraid for I am your God, I will strengthen you; I will surely help you; I will uphold you with my right hand of righteousness”; and Genesis 49:24, “But his bow remained steady, and his arms were made strong by the power of the Mighty God of Jacob, By the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel”). With the presence and reception of benefits by these moral virtues, the lay brothers were able to enact and pursue practical and spiritual good deeds for the community of Cortona.


For Aquinas, the moral virtues were not all connected, but with Prudence they functioned together for the betterment of individuals. Augustine opted for the opposite, however: “The virtues in the human soul in no way are separated from each other”.[75] Vasari combined both theological versions, visualizing them attending and protecting one of two prophets but also partaking of the ensemble of the Old Testament figures. Hence, when attending to the confraternity’s service, the lay brothers apprehended the importance of the benefits imparted by these moral virtues. These moral virtues assisted, guided, and promoted actions of good deeds and spiritual pursuits for the members of the confraternity. Their placement in ovati acted like metaphorical mirrors of moral behavior, where their reflections indicated to the viewer (lay brothers) a physical and a spiritual role and a benevolent and a godly comportment to be emulated. Also, the Old Testament figures became mentors for the lay brothers. The prophets’ benevolence and endeavors as judges, rulers, and builders were teaching references for the communal roles of the confraternity in the region of Cortona. The prophet’s actions of good deeds and thanksgiving refers to the functions of the confraternity, “a form of organized religious life, a spiritual heart of civic government, and a social kin claiming the allegiance of peers and the obedience of subordinates”.[76]

Historically, the Old Testament prophets provided military, moral, and spiritual leadership with their actions and offerings to their respective Jewish community. Their behaviors were guided by the moral virtues that in turn were moral examples for the lay brothers to imitate. In the same manner, the confraternity’s brothers administered spiritual and secular guidance and assistance to their native community of Cortona. In requesting this type of imagery for the oratory, the brothers of the Compagnia del Gesù implied to the community and to their constituents that they were pillars of the community as well as moral and spiritual leaders who built a better life for the citizens of Cortona. The brothers’ efforts were through personal and spiritual sacrifices as well as through prayer. Prayers are symbolic offerings. The purpose of a Christian prayer or Old Testament offering is to raise one’s mind and heart to God or is meant as an act of thanksgiving. In the oratory, the original placement of a wooden sitting bench and an altar suggests that the confraternity participated in religious activities such as chanting or praying or both, thus following the sentiment of the Christian reformation in the church.

Perhaps an understanding of the patronage by the confraternity and the selection of the subject matter for the oratory can be found in the statutory of the Compagnia del Gesù. The original intentions and foundation of the Compagnia del Gesù are not pedagogical (paedagogium), as Ignacio of Loyola writes in 1541: “no estudios, ni lectiones en la Compañia” (“no learning or lectures in the Company”). The Compagnia del Gesù was a lay institution intended to assist the needy and the infirm. However, shortly after its establishment as a confraternity in 1546, Pope Paul III issued a papal bull, Copiosus in misericordia, permitting the Compagnia del Gesù to become a teaching institution. Hence the members of the confraternity had a new didactic role in their society.

Among the pedagogical instructions were rules for teachers on how to teach various subjects, including the Sacred Scriptures, e.g., “teach and explain the New and Old Testament in alternative years”[77] and “when teaching the Sacred Scriptures, the citations should be read in Hebrew and Greek”.[78] Part of the Rule was an analysis about the concept of sacrifice in the Bible, inferring that the Old Testament offerings and rituals are prefigurations of New Testament rituals, e.g., Christ’s offering bread in the Last Supper is a prefiguration not only of the Eucharist at the service of the Mass but also an Old Testament sacrifice.[79] The comparison was illustrated with the sacrifice of Melchizedek foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice as well as His priestly mission.[80] These brief notations indicate how members of the Compagnia del Gesù were well versed on the associations of Old Testament with New Testament allusions. Furthermore, the Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb. 7:3–6) emphasized the ministry of Melchizedek as a good example for the confraternity’s activities as well as for the depiction of the sacrifices from the Old Testament and the moral virtues.

The emblematic moral virtues all praised the purification and sanctification of the soul through sacrifice, followed by good behavior and performing charitable actions, hence abiding by the mission of the Compagnia del Gesù. Vasari’s personification of moral virtues for the oratory provided an original thematic portrayal that combined his artistic creativity and his own Christian spirituality with the practical undertakings and the spiritual leadership of the Compagnia del Gesù in Cortona.


[1] Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Giorgio Vasari’s Offertory at Cortona”, in Lilian Zirpolo, ed., Anthology of Chapels, Trenton, NJ: WAPACC Press, 2010, pp. 209–230; Alexander Linke, “Vasari’s Transfiguration over Sin and Death: Unveiling the Glory of God”, in Walter S. Melion, James Clifton, and Michael Weemans, eds., Imago Exegetica: Visual Images as Exegetical Instruments: 1400–1700, Leiden: Brill, 2014, pp. 923–958.

[2] See Pietro Tacchi Venturi, Storia della Compagnia di Gesù in Italia, 2nd ed., 4 vols., Rome: La Civiltà Cattolica, 1931, Vol. 1, Part I: La vita religiosa in Italia.

[3] See Lance Gabriel Lazar, “Bringing God to the People: Jesuit Confraternities in Italy in the mid-Sixteenth Century”, Confraternitas, 7.1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 11–13.

[4] See Nicholas Terpstra, ed., The Politics of Ritual Kinship, Confraternities and Social Order in Early Modern Italy, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999; Lance Gabriel Lazar, Working in the Vineyard of the Lord: Jesuit Confraternities in Early Modern Italy, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005; Barbara Wisch and Diane Ahl, eds., Confraternities and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Italy: Ritual, Spectacle, Image, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; and Venturi, op. cit., ibidem.

[5] See Edoardo Mori and Paolo Mori, Museum of the Diocese of Cortona, Cortona: Calosci, 1998, p. 74.

[6] See Mori, op. cit., p. 72.

[7] See Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori (1568), ann. and ed. Gaetano Milanesi, Florence: G.C. Sansoni, 1878–85; repr. in 1970–79, VI, p. 238, hereafter Vasari-Milanesi; Karl Frey, ed., Der literarische Nachlass Giorgio Vasaris, 2 vols., Munich: Georg Müller, 1923, vol. 2, Ricordo 224, p. 872, hereafter Vasari-Frey; and Paola Barocchi, Vasari Pittore, Milan: Club del Libro, 1964, pp. 37–38 and 134.

[8] As noted in Vasari’s vita of Gherardi, it is likely that Gherardi collaborated with Vasari in the fresco decoration while relying on Vasari’s drawings and expertise for the reproduction in paintings.

[9] See Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Giorgio Vasari’s Sala dei Cento Giorni: A Farnese Celebration”, Exploration in Renaissance Culture, 21 (1995), pp. 121–151. Reissued for the 40th Anniversary of Exploration in Renaissance Culture Publication (Spring 2015).

[10] On March 23, 1785, as a consequence of the Napoleonic invasion and edict, the confraternity was abolished and the Church of Jesus was deconsecrated. From this time until War World II, little is known about the use of the building. On April 25, 1945, the interior of the church was transformed into a museum for the diocese of Cortona, displaying numerous works of renowned Tuscan and Cortonese artists such as Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli. The fate of the oratory is less dramatic than that of the church; the oratory’s ceiling and walls were maintained and restored and eventually became part of the museum of the diocese. Perhaps at this time, the carved wooden choir by the Cortonese artist Vincenzo di Pietropaolo of 1517 was dismantled, Luca Signorelli’s altarpiece of The Institution of the Eucharist of 1512 was moved to the Museo Diocesiano, and Guglielmo Marcillat’s Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine was discarded or destroyed. Or perhaps the Cortonese artist Filippo Berrettini destroyed Marcillat’s stained-glass window during the construction of the additional staircase in 1643–46.

[11] See Vasari-Milanesi VII, pp. 650–651.

[12] Although there are traces of paint behind the wall of the altar, it is difficult to visualize the imagery. Sources suggest that a painting of Signorelli’s, Institution of the Eucharist or Communion of the Apostles of 1512 (now both in the Museo Diocesano), originally hung above the altar and that at an unknown date Signorelli’s painting was replaced with a terracotta sculpture of Bernardino Covatti’s Pieta of 1519. Perhaps the discolored decoration behind the altar was part of an original design to ornament the lamentation scene.

[13] See Venturi, op. cit., ibidem.

[14] See Sotheby’s catalogue no. 401, October 12, 1979.

[15] See British Museum inventory 1858–11–13–31; and N. Turner, Florentine Drawings of the Sixteenth Century at the British Museum, London: British Museum, 1986, p. 186, n. 137

[16] I am grateful to the personnel of the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe of the Galleria degli Uffizi for their assistance while studying these drawings.

[17] There are, however, discrepancies between the design of some of the drawings and the completed paintings, e.g., the drawing of Moses becomes the painting for Nehemiah and the drawing for Nehemiah becomes the modello for Moses’ painting. Scholars such as Paola Barocchi attributed the drawings to Gherardi, while others, such as Luca Bellosi, attributed the drawings to Vasari. See Luca Bellosi, ed., The Age of Vasari. Arte in Valdichiana dal XIII al XVIII secolo, Cortona: Arte Tipografica, 1970, pp. 44 and 57–70.

[18] See Liana De Girolami Cheney, Giorgio Vasari: Artistic and Emblematic Manifestations, Washington, DC: New Academia, 2012, pp. 11–231; Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Vasari and Naples: The Monteoliveto Order”, in Papers in Art History, The Pennsylvania State University, 5 (1994), pp. 48–126; and Cheney, “Sala dei Cento Giorni”, op. cit., ibidem.

[19] As the result of the Catholic reforms, in 1575, Phillip Neri established the well-known society of priests called the Oratory in Rome. In 1640–43, Francesco Borromini added the Oratory of Saint Phillip Neri adjacent to the church of Santa Maria Nuova (Santa Maria in Valicella) in Rome. See Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Between Renaissance and Baroque: The First Jesuit Paintings in Rome, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, pp. 5–10, for a discussion on the Jesuit Order in Rome; and Setteposte, op. cit., p. 44.

[20] For example, Noah’s sacrifice and Moses’ sacrifice.

[21] See The City of God (Book 10, 31), where Augustine quoted Plato.

[22] See Lev. 17:11: “The life of the flesh [a sacrifice] is in the blood, and I have given it you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul”.

[23] Moses performed signs of wonders for God, e.g., his walking staff was changed in to a serpent (Gen. 4:12), and the river Nile’s water was transformed into a river of blood (Gen. 4:9).

[24] See Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Giorgio Vasari’s Dream of Jacob”, in Yael Even, ed., Vasari in Context, Exploration in Renaissance Culture, Special Edition (Summer 2013), pp. 7–25.

[25] Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. John Buchanan-Brown, London: Blackwell, 1994, p. 1043.

[26] Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on the Virtues, trans. John A. Oesterle, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p. 80.

[27] Aquinas, op. cit., p. 80, quoting Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics II, 6 (1106b, 36) and Cicero’s On Rhetorical Discovery II, 53.

[28] Aquinas, op. cit., 81, also referring to Augustine’s The City of God, IV, p. 21.

[29] Aquinas, op. cit., ibidem.

[30] Antonella Fenech Kroke, Giorgio Vasari: La fabrique de l’allégorie. culture et fonction de la personification au Cinquecento, Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2011, pp. 75–111.

[31] Lynette M.F. Bosch, Mannerism, Spirituality and Cognition: The Art or Enargeia, Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2018, Chapters Two and Three.

[32] Isaiah 11:2–3; Aquinas, op. cit., pp. 108–107, on cardinal virtues; pp. 119–123, on theological virtues. See Jennifer O’Reilly, Studies in The Iconography of The Virtues and Vices in the Middle Ages, New York: Garland Publications, 1988, pp. 112–159, on their distinctive characteristics; pp. 199–205, on the impact of Cicero, De inventione, II; and see Macrobius, Commentariorum in Somnium Scipionis, I, on medieval iconography about the cardinal virtues. For the traditional interpretation of the personifications of moral virtues in art, see also Adolph Katzenellenbogen, Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in Medieval Art from Early Christian Times to the Thirteen Century, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1964; Emile Mâle, L’art religieux du XIII siècle en France: etude sur l’iconographie du Moyen Âge et ses sources d’inspiration, Paris: Armand Colin, 1910; Louis Réau, Iconographie de l’art chrétien, Paris: Press Universitaires de France, 1955; and Rosemond Tuve, Allegorical Imagery: Some Medieval Books and their Posterity, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.

[33] Or Acts 7:33: “The Lord said to him [Moses] ‘Take off the sandals from your feet for the place on which you are standing is holy ground’”.

[34] See Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, Rome: Gio Gigliotti, 1603. This edition contains illustrations, and not the earlier edition of 1593 published in Rome by Leopido Facij and reprinted in Milan in 1602 as Iconologia, overo, Descrittione di diverse imagine cavate dall’antichità, & di propria invention (Iconology, or, Descriptions of various images derived from antiquity, and from my own invention). See Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1963, for a discussion on the emblematic and mythographic manuals that assisted humanists and artists in formulating figurative encyclopedias; Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Giorgio Vasari’s and Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia: The Chamber of Fortune’s Allegories of Virtues in the Casa Vasari”, in Exploration in Renaissance Culture (Summer 2008), pp. 35–45; and Fenech Kroke, op. cit., pp. 45–51.

[35] Vasari composed other images on the personification of Fear of God, but without attributes; see Vasari-Milanesi, VIII, p. 288. A letter from Vasari to Alessandro de’ Medici and two drawings are at the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe at the Galleria degli Uffizi (623F and 624F). See Härb, op. cit., pp. 262, Fig. 116, for a drawing on Religion at the Isituto Nazionale per la Grafica in Rome (Inv Fn 2941, vol. 2503), attributed to Vasari as a study of Religion for the Neapolitan ceiling.

[36] See Alessandro del Vita, Lo Zibaldone di Giorgio Vasari, Rome: Istituto Archeologico e Storia dell’Arte, 1938, p. 2, quoting Vasari on some descriptive notes about the imagery of 1546 for the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome; and Cheney, Casa Vasari, op. cit., p. 178.

[37] Vasari depicted another variation of Patience associated with the personifications of Endurance and Time. See Vasari-Milanesi, VII, pp. 298–300; Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Giorgio Vasari’s Patience: Astronomical Symbol of Time”, in Raymond E. White, ed., The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena, Memorie: Journal of the Italian Astronomical Society (2001–2002), pp. 112–121; and Anna Bisceglia, ed., Giorgio Vasari e l’allegoria della Pazienza, Leghorn: Sillabe, 2013/2014.

[38] J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, London: Thames and Hudson, 1978, p. 160.

[39] See website regarding this new acquisition: http://www.venetianheritage.eu/portfolio-items/campagna-di-raccolta-fondi-per-lacquisizione-de-la-speranza-giorgio-vasari-del-1541-gallerie-dellaccademia-venezia/? lang=en (accessed July 30, 2018).

[40] del Vita, op. cit., p. 25.

[41] Aquinas, op. cit., p. 119

[42] The virtue of Hope forms part of the theological virtues threesome. The depiction of the anchor recalls Saint Paul’s comment: “Hope is like an anchor for our lives … it enters in through the veil” (Heb. 6:8–19). See George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954, repr. 1972, pp. 45 and 50; James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1974, p. 156; and Cheney, Casa Vasari, op. cit., pp. 92–98, for other Vasarian illustrations of Hope.

[43] The Book of Enoch was discovered in Abyssinia in the year 1773 by a Scottish explorer, James Bruce. In 1821 the book was translated and published by Richard Laurence in numerous editions. Today there is a polemic about Enoch being the son of Cain (Gen. 4:17) or a prophet (Gen. 5:21–24), http://www.israel-a-history-of.com/enoch-the-prophet.html (accessed July 31, 2018). It is not clear if this issue was debated in the Cinquecento.

[44] del Vita, op. cit., p. 8.

[45] See Härb, op. cit., p. 270.

[46] See Aquinas, op. cit., pp. 73–77, noting how “Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life, for a good life consists in good deeds”, p. 75.

[47] See Andrea Alciato, Emblèmes, Lyons: Macé Bonhomme for Guillaume Rouille, 1549, Emblem 18, “Prudence”, on the Janus head; and Emblem 22, “The serpent protects the virgins”, on a serpent as having watchful sight, associated with prudent behavior. See also White, op. cit., p. 165 and n. 106.

[48] Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Giorgio Vasari’s Allegory of Prudence: Mirroring Alciato and Valeriano’s Emblems”, Emblem Studies, 7 (2009), pp. 26–37.

[49] See Härb, op. cit, p. 204, for several drawings depicting Prudence with a Janus head, a clothed female standing holding a snake and a mirror; for the Neapolitan drawing, see p. 259, Fig. 43.

[50] del Vita, op.cit, p. 24.

[51] Vasari-Milanesi, VI, p. 224; and VIII, p. 286.

[52] Vasari’s disegno differs from his Neapolitan image. The drawing illustrates an elaborate holder for the mirror and shows the inclusion of objects—such as the vanity table, comb, and a brush—not seen in the painting. Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues. See Cheney, Casa Vasari, op. cit., p. 180; C. Monbeig-Goguel and W. Vitzthum, “Dessins inedits de Giorgio Vasari”, Revue de l’art, 2 [1968], p. 90, Fig. 4; and Laura Corti, et al., Principi, letterati e artisti nelle carte di Giorgio Vasari, Florence: Edam, 1981, p. 114, for other drawings of Prudence (13650F and 13411F) at the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe at the Galleria degli Uffizi; and National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (Inv. 17917).

[53] Vasari-Milanesi, VIII, p. 90.

[54] Warren Baker and Eugene E. Carpenter, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament, Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2003. For different views of Melchizedek, see Michael C. Astour, “Melchizedek”, in David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York: Doubleday, 1992, vol. 4, pp. 684–686.

[55] Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Giorgio Vasari’s Chamber of Abraham: A Religious Ceiling in the Aretine House”, Sixteenth Century Journal (Fall 1987), pp. 355–380; and Härb, op. cit., p. 163,

[56] See Härb, op. cit., pp. 196 and 263.

[57] See J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, New York: Philosophical Library, 1962, p. 71.

[58] See del Vita, op. cit., p. 24.

[59] See Hans Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbols: Cultural Icons and The Meanings Behind Them, trans. James Hulbert, New York: Meridian Books, 1994, p. 86.

[60] Cheney, Chamber of Abraham, op. cit., pp. 355–380, for the symbolism of Peace.

[61] See Härb, op. cit., p. 203. See Monbeig-Goguel, op. cit., pp. 105–111, for a second drawing of Peace, found in an American private collection (Collection of O’Neal, Charlottesville, Virginia).

[62] Vasari-Milanesi, VI, 224 and X, p. 286; Alessandro Cecchi, “Qualche contributo al corpus grafico del Vasari e del suo ambiente”, Il Vasari, storiografo e artista (1976), pp. 143–161, esp. 148; and Alessandro Cecchi, “Nuove acquisizioni per un catalogo dei disegni di Giorgio Vasari”, Antichità viva, 17.1 (1978), pp. 52–61.

[63] del Vita, op. cit., p. 24.

[64] Aquinas, op. cit., p. 145.

[65] Vasari-Milanesi, VIII, p. 108.

[66] Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Giorgio Vasari’s Astraea: Allegory of Justice”, in Jan de Jong, ed., Depiction of Images, London: Taylor and Francis Publishers; also in Visual Resources (2003), pp. 5–15.

[67] See Cooper, op. cit., p. 44. The crane as a symbol of messenger of the gods is associated with the sun and the pine tree, hence the pine branch included in the painting.

[68] Cooper, op.cit., ibidem.

[69] Pierio Valeriano, I Ieroglifici overo Commentarii delle occulte significationi de gl’Egittiii, & alltre Nationi, Venice: Giovanni Battista Combi, 1625, p. 224. This version is the Italian translation from the Latin, Pierio Valeriano, Hieroglyphica sive De sacris Aegyptorum lieris commentarii, Basel: Michael Isengrin, 1556.

[70] For the symbolism of the crane as a sacred bird, a messenger of the gods, and watchful animal, see Palolo Giovio, Dialogo delle’imprese militari et amorose, ed. Gabriel Simeoni and Ludovico Domenichi, Lyons: Guglielmo Rovillio, 1574, Emblem SM520; L. Volkmann, “Hieroglyphic und Emblematik bei Giorgio Vasari”, in Werden und Wirken, ein Festgruss Karl W. Hiersemann zugesandt, Leipzig: K.F. Koehler, 1924, repr. 1962), pp. 407–441, Fig. 1; T.H. White, The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts, New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1960, pp. 110–112; and Rachel Warren-Chadd and Marianne Taylor, Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend, London: Bloomsbury, 2016, pp. 35–36, on the crane as a vigilant bird.

[71] See John Mason Neale, Medieval Preachers and Medieval Preaching: A Series of Extracts Translated from the Sermons of the Middle Ages, Chronologically Arranged with Notes and Introduction, London: J.C. Mozley, 1856, Chapter on Saint Anthony, pp. 219–250, 340.

[72] Diego Lopez, Declaración magistral sobre los Emblemas de Andrea Alciato, Najera, Spain: Juan de Mongaston, 1615, Emblem 15.

[73] Biedermann, op. cit., p. 79.

[74] Cheney, Artistic and Emblematic Manifestations, op. cit., pp. 11–29 and 135–131.

[75] Aquinas, op. cit., p. 139, citing Augustine’s The Trinity VI, p. 4.

[76] See Venturi, op. cit., ibidem; and Lazar, “Bringing God to the People”, pp. 11–13.

[77] See Angelo Bianchi, ed. and trans., Ratio atque Institutio Studiorum Societatis Iesu, Milan: BUR, 2002, pp. 150 and 169.

[78] See Bianchi, op. cit., p. 145.

[79] Liana De Girolami Cheney, “Giorgio Vasari’s Last Supper: A Thanksgiving Celebration”, Journal of Culture and Religious Studies, 4.12 (December 2016), pp. 735–778. The connection of the moral virtues with the themes in the ceiling about the New Testament is not discussed in this essay.

[80] See Bianchi, op. cit., p. 185.

Liana De Girolami Cheney

Emerita Professor of Art History at UMASS Lowell. President of the Association for Textual Scholarship in Art History. Visiting scholar in Art History at SIELAE, University of Coruña, Spain.

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