Favorite Art Fact File

Who? Maggie, art historian specializing in 14th century manuscripts, and IAS blog reader

What is one of your favorite artworks? Matteo Giovanetti’s frescoes in St Martial’s chapel at the Papal Palace in Avignon, France

… . and your favorite detail? A scene represented on the ceiling, where we see the young Martial accompanied by his father and mother, listening to the words of Jesus Christ for the first time.  

Why? I am intrigued by the text held in Christ’s hand. Christ is clearly speaking to his audience, yet his words are written down in white on a grey scroll. This enabled visitors to the chapel to take part in the action, and almost to ‘relive’ St Martial’s life.

The scroll is also interesting because the color and shape of its letters differ from that of other inscriptions visible in the chapel. In a recent study, Amanda Luyster suggested that they may originally have been beautified by the addition of gold leaf, which has since flaked and disappeared — fascinating!  

IASBlog (Costanza Beltrami) explains …

Born in Viterbo around 1300, Matteo Giovanetti was a painter and a priest, first documented in papal letters of 1322 and 1328. In 1336 he was appointed arch-prior of Verceil in Provence and moved to France, where he became a well-known artist.

A document of 1346 describes Giovanetti as ‘painter to the pope.’ Indeed, all of this painter’s surviving work is concentrated in and around the Papal court, which relocated from Rome to Avignon during the so-called ‘Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy,’ from 1309 to 1377.

In Avignon, Giovanetti may have met the leading Sienese painter Simone Martini, whose last years were spent in the city. He headed a workshop composed of Italian and Sienese painters, who worked in a style comparable to that of the contemporary Sienese school, although with French influences.

Giovanetti and his workshop painted the chapel of St Martial in 1344-1345, on the commission of pope Clement VI. The chapel contains the only complete representation of the life of this saint, depicted here as a ‘thirteenth apostle’ chosen by Christ to evangelize the south of France. As such, the saint was a powerful precedent for the popes of Avignon, who had moved to Provence at a time of political contrasts and uncertainty. Clement VI also had a personal connection with the saint: Martial allegedly performed his first miracles in the city of Tulle, the seat of the diocese where Clement was born in 1392.

Splendidly decorated in lapislazuli blue, the Saint Martial’s chapel was located at the core of the papal palace, near the pope’s chambers. Frequently used for daily services attended by the pope, the chapel became especially important at his death, when cardinals from all over Europe met in strictly controlled conditions to elect a successor. During these politically and religiously charged meetings, the chapel was used as the site where cardinals cast their vote to elect the new pope.

After several years spent in Avignon, Giovanetti returned to Rome, probably to take part in a now-lost decorative program for the Vatican Palace. He died in the Eternal City in 1368 or 1369. 

References: Paula Hutton. “Giovanetti, Matteo.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T032457.

Amanda Luyster. “Christ’s golden voice: the chapels of St. Martial and St John in the Palace of the Popes, Avignon,” in Word & Image, vol. 27, no. 3 (2011).  

Ceiling, St Martial’s Chapel, Papal Palace, Avignon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The young Martial listening to Christ preaching. Detail of the ceiling, St Martial Chapel, Papal Palace, Avignon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Details of the walls, St Martial’s Chapel, Papal Palace, Avignon. Photo: the author.

Now it’s your turn. What is your favorite artwork? And your favorite detail of it? Why? Send us your answers by clicking the “Submit” button, and we will feature your favorite in a post.

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