A fresco, a celebration of a man who at the time occupied living memory, ‘the Canonisation of Saint Catherine’ is part of a narrative which comprehensively covers the life of Pope Pius II.
It is a flattering account as it was patronised by his descendants. The family wanted to honour and immortalise their prestigious and recent ancestor going forward. The fresco was for a library which housed his valuable collection of books and manuscripts. The combination of literacy with art based on Roman antique ideals of display shows continuity and change in Siena as the past meets Pius’ humanist learning. As one function of the entire narrative is to portray key events, chronologically and step by step, in the life of this pope then this fresco does that by depicting the moment he made Catherine a Saint. The viewer knows that ancient Rome has been evoked. This work uses excessive gold and colour, provoking thoughts of the discovery of the Golden House of Nero. This is further emphasised by the milieu of both clergy and lay people and also the putti in the lower portion of the fresco as reminiscent of Roman sarcophagi.
The connection to Rome is, once more, highlighted by the choice of a hugely successful artist who has made his name working in Rome. It shows Siena as a Renaissance city concerned with the same values of reviving the glory of the former Roman Empire. The embellished architectural style of the arches in the fresco shows this. This style is similar to that which Pinturrichio produced in the Vatican for Pope Alexander VI. This does not only show the desired connection to the increasing glamour of the Roman ideal, but also reminds viewers of Pius II’s previous patronage of architecture.
The sheer size of the fresco (700cm x 260cm) is also important to emphasise Pope Pius’ dominance and power. This works well with his elevated position over the clergy and the lay people. He presides over them all and he has the power to decide who can achieve saintly status which is significant at this point in the narrative of his life and career. The size is also important in the location as it needs to cover the vast and impressive library.
The artist, Pinturrichio himself and a key assistant to him, Raphael, are included within the image and along with the coats of arms at the base of the columns and the pope, unite all the elements of familial grandeur, within the library setting, past and present, their patronage of exquisite art and their faith and learning. The addition of the artists in this scene along with the life like drapery and modelling of the features of all included offers a ‘truth’ to the event. This really occurred and can now be preserved. It shows the lively story telling that contemporary patrons longed to affirm.
The narrative is also told in Latin inscription and the canonising moment is a high point, almost the pinnacle of his career. As a city Siena had its own identity both to develop and remain proud of. Having or trying to have a connection with Rome was fashionable and ‘the Canonisation of St. Catherine’ combined the two. This work inspired many sculptures of St. Catherine to spring up around Siena making a very Sienese Renaissance, inspired by Rome.
Norman, D. (2007) ‘Siena and its Renaissance’ in AA315 Richardson, C (Ed), Locating Renaissance Art, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp.135-172.
Welch, E. (1997) Art in Renaissance Italy, Oxford University Press, New York.
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons