ORATORY OF ST. MICHAEL
DESCRIPTION OF THE FRESCOES CYCLE
The artist commissioned to paint the St. Michael frescoes – Jacopo da Verona – had probably come to Padua following Altichiero da Zevio; the two would collaborate on the decoration of the Oratory of St. George (component part 3).
The frescoes within the Oratory of St. Michael recount five episodes from the Life of the Virgin, which unfold around the space in an anticlockwise direction. Within the series of cycles that make up the nomination, the works here mark the final example of the late-fourteenth-century frescoes in Padua that developed upon the innovative features introduced by Giotto. As we have seen, these features include: technical refinement in the medium itself; the exploitation of perspective to create a trompe-l’oeil architectural space; interest in the depiction of human feelings and emotions; a taste for narrative that leads to scenes from sacred history being given a contemporary setting and including various illustrious figures of the day. With regard to this latter point, Jacopo da Verona was such a skilled portraitist that it has been possible to identify various real-life characters in the retinue of figures within The Adoration of the Magi. Formerly, it was thought that the bearded figure in red wearing the fur hat was Francesco I da Carrara, and the man behind him, wearing a red hood, was Francesco Novello da Carrara; however, more recent interpretations, in part returning to the claims one finds in eighteenth-century guide books, have inverted the identifications. This means that the procession opens with the living Francesco II (‘Il Novello’), behind whom comes a then deceased member of the Carraresi dynasty (Francesco I had died four years earlier). The identification of the two men would also seem to be confirmed by their depiction in Altichiero da Zevio’s fresco of The King’s Council within the Chapel of St. James at the Basilica of St. Anthony (component part 3). It has also been argued that the figures seen in profile at The Burial of the Virgin may be members of the de Bovi family.
Jacopo da Verona developed in his own original way upon features to be found in the work of the leading painters of fourteenth-century Padua (Giotto, Altichiero, Giusto de’ Menabuoi and Jacopo Avanzi). One aspect he devoted particular attention to was the rendering of portrait likenesses and naturalistic details – look, for example, at the animals in The Annunciation and the landscape in The Adoration of the Magi. Within his work there is also a certain refined delicacy of atmosphere, achieved partly through the spatial articulation of the interiors and in part through the gestures of the figures, which are spontaneous and elegant but never declamatory. Though it maintains its interest in references to contemporary everyday life and to political figures of the day, this new artistic language is imbued with a sense of religious intensity.
Like Giotto, Jacopo da Verona develops his narrative through scenes contained within painted frameworks. However, in the organisation of that narrative he draws upon the procedure developed by Altichiero da Zevio in the basilica’s Chapel of St. James: whilst Giotto used simple correspondences in his narrative, Jacopo da Verona organized the sequence of events in scenes diagonally opposite each other. Also, the artist takes the concrete realism of the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes a step further: there is still attention to small everyday details but the overall atmosphere is one of courtly elegance. Even at the technical level there is a development upon the lessons learnt from Giotto, with Jacopo da Verona further exploring the interaction between different colours – in particular, in the modelling of volume and in the creation of effects of iridescence.