Musical angels

To celebrate Easter, here are some images from a visit to Valencia a couple of years ago.

In the 15th century, Rodrigo Borgia commissioned Italian painters Paolo de San Leocadio from Lombardy and Francesco Pagano from Naples to redecorate the Great Chapel of Valencia Cathedral. The future Alexander VI wanted to blend the Gothic with the Renaissance, requesting the artists to paint frescoes in the new style between the ribs of the thirteenth-century vaulted roof above the cathedral’s main altar. His commission asked for ‘two angels… with golden wings in exquisite colours; to decorate the ribs with branches, leaves and fruits, painted with gold of ducats and to paint the windows in azure and gold of ducats, too’ (

The result was ten angels playing musical instruments against a striking blue sky set with gold stars, which had been hidden for 300 years until the frescoes’ fortuitous rediscovery in 2004. This is one of the earliest examples of Renaissance art in Spain, where the fresco technique of watercolour painting on damp plaster was also rare.

Paolo de San Leocadio was trained at Padua where he was heavily influenced by painters such as Andrea Mantegna. This influence is evident in the boldness of these breath-taking frescoes, their rational and clever placement in the vault and the gradations of light and colour, which in technique are reminiscent of those in the Camera Picta at Mantua.

Frescoes in Valencia CathedralWhat makes these frescoes an embodiment of Renaissance values? First is their intelligent use of perspective and scale. Unlike in architecture, where classical models were readily available, few Roman or Greek paintings had survived. Therefore humanist thinkers tried to recreate classical art in spirit instead by studying and practising ideas of classical proportion, which also led to the discovery of the mathematical rules of perspective. Instead of the one-dimensional, out-of-scale flat figures and landscape of mediaeval paintings, Renaissance painters mastered the art of naturalistic representation that showed objects at a lifelike scale. The angels in the Valencian frescoes appear to be three-dimensional and to be flying through the vault while playing their instruments. The drapery of their contemporary rather than classical clothing is also well executed, in a manner resembling that of Leonardo da Vinci, as is their hair.

The second feature is the use of colour. The lapis lazuli blue and gold are characteristic of early Renaissance painting and reflected the magnificentia of the patron, who would have had to pay for the expensive ingredients required to produce them. The skill of the painter is also evident in the depth of the colour, which was more difficult to ensure in fresco than in oil because of the painting technique, which tended to produce more faded hues.

Frescoes in Valencia CathedralThe third is the wit of the composition, the humanist Renaissance characteristic of being playfully ironic: each angel is different and has an individual face, they are cleverly arranged to mirror each other around the ceiling without being identical, the placement of each body is suited to his instrument, and there appears to be a breeze blowing through their hair and clothes.

One further feature of these frescoes that is significant in Spain is that they were commissioned by a member of the clergy, albeit one who did not exactly have a reputation for piety. Ecclesiastical commissions tended to outnumber those from private patrons in Spain. The frescoes, and indeed Paolo de San Leocadio’s subsequent appointment as official papal artist, would have been intended to reinforce Rodrigo Borgia’s position in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Furthermore, the subject of the frescoes is pious: the pagan and sometimes even pornographic images that were fashionable in humanist circles in Italy were frowned on in more strongly Catholic Spain.

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