Milan, Sunday 26 April 2020
My phone gave a ping this morning. It was to remind me that the head of Saint Peter of Verona would be on view today in the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio.
Like in those movies which start by jumping right into a scene that leaves the viewer confused and then write “24 hours earlier …” at the bottom of the screen, I must now write that in order for readers to understand this cryptic statement we need to go back some three months, to the month of January (a blessed time when we were still free to walk around and go wherever we wanted). My wife and I had gone down to the basilica of Sant’Eustorgio (a mere 15 minutes’ walk from our apartment) to visit its small museum, something which we had never done (I should note in passing that Sant’Eustorgio is one of Milan’s oldest churches, having been established in the 4th Century. One day, I might devote a post to it). In any event, the centrepiece of the museum is the Portinari chapel. It was built in Renaissance style in the 1460s, by Michelozzo, or possibly Filarete, or maybe Guiniforte Solari. As readers can see, there is a considerable degree of doubt on the question. What is not in doubt is who paid. That was Pigello Portinari, who made his money as the Medici Bank’s representative in Milan. He had it built as a family chapel cum mortuary, as well as a place to house one of the relics of St. Peter of Verona, his head (more on this later).
We see here an exterior view of the chapel.
Anyone who has visited Milan will see a certain resemblance with the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, which houses Leonardo’s Last Supper.
But the chapel’s real interest lies in its interior. There are lots of things to admire, but two things stood out for me. One is the interior decoration of the dome, by Vincenzo Foppa.
The rainbow effect, I suppose meant to denote the ineffable beauty of heaven, is really striking. It reminds me of a fresco by Bergognone in another Milanese church, San Simpliciano, which I came across quite by chance one day (an adventure which I relate in an earlier post).
The other stand-out in the chapel is the sepulchure of St. Peter of Verona, by Giovanni di Balduccio, a Pisan sculptor, said to have learned his trade under Giovanni Pisano. He was brought to Milan to sculpt this sepulchure in the later 1330s, some 80 years after the saint’s death.
It’s a very complex sculpture, full of meanings and theological allusions, as befits a religious sculpture of the Middle Ages. I do not propose to elucidate any of the meanings or allusions, because I want to focus on what I found most enchanting about the sculpture, the bas reliefs around the centre of sepulchure, three of which we see in the photo.
These tell the story of the saint’s miracles, his death, funeral, and canonization. They are gems of storytelling. I’m sorely tempted to insert photos of all the bas reliefs, but I will control myself and only insert four.
Starting with his miracles, we have first the healing of the dumb man: a fairly mainstream depiction, with everyone looking holy.
Then we have the miracle of the boat. I presume there was a storm and the saint’s intercession was invoked. Look at the man scurrying up the mast and the fear on sailors’ faces.
Then we have the saint’s murder, in a forest near Seveso: look at the monk running away on the left while the assassin plunges the knife in.
Finally, we have the saint’s canonization by Pope Innocent IV: look at the two grooms at the bottom holding the horses. I can almost hear one saying the other, “how long are they going to go on in there?”
Saint Peter of Verona is one of my favourite saints, iconographically speaking (as I’ve noted in an earlier post). He was killed by having his skull split open with a sabre and having a dagger plunged into his chest. This led to a whole string of paintings over the centuries like this one by Guercino.
I know it’s puerile but I find it hilarious to see these paintings with the man solemnly standing there with a sabre stuck in his head.
In any event, a strange thing happened when the saint was eventually buried in Giovanni di Balduccio’s sepulchure: the head got separated from the rest of the body. One explanation put forward is that Giovanni got the saint’s measurements wrong and made the sepulchure too short. His head was therefore taken off, and the the-then Archbishop of Milan, one of the large Visconti tribe, decided to take it. Another simply has it that the Archbishop wanted to have a piece of the saint near him and comandeered the head – which was probably considered the holiest piece because of that vicious sabre slash. Whatever the reason, the fact is that the saint’s head ended up with the Archbishop, in a nice urn. But then, the story goes, the Archbishop started suffering terrible headaches, and finally realised that he was being punished for keeping Saint Peter’s head separated from the rest of his body. He returned the head to Sant’Eustorgio and hey presto! his headaches disappeared.
Readers can imagine that this story rapidly turned Saint Peter into the saint to be invoked by those who suffer from headaches. Thus started the tradition of bringing the head out once a year, on the last Sunday of April, from the little side-chapel of the Portinari chapel in which it is stored away, and allowing people to come up and touch the casket in which it is kept.
Well, this is very interesting to me! I have to tell readers that I have suffered from headaches since the age of 14. When I was young they could be very strong, now they are just a nuisance. Of course, I’m a firm believer in modern science! But still, you never know, perhaps a little touch of the saint’s casket could help …(rather like those crossed candles at the throat to protect one from sore throats on St. Blaise’s feast day). So, since today is the last Sunday in April this year, I had been hoping to take part in this ancient ritual. Thus, the reminder which I had put in my calendar way back in January. But it is not to be, Covid-19 has once again screwed up plans.
Goddamned Covid-19 …