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With refined mastery, the year 1506 sees the progressive addition of beauty to beauty in the Cathedral, giving further form and face to all those episodes that truly portray the stages of Salvation history. Motivated by these sentiments, the Massari – a lay group that constituted the so-called Fabbrica del Duomo which commissioned and supervised the necessary works – begins to promote the idea of decorating the main nave with images inspired by the New Testament. They immediately focus on the apsidal basin and on the area above the triumphal arch. These are the first two frescoes that come to light: the Pantocrator, which dominates the basin and the whole nave and the Annunciation, bringing about a perfect theological completeness to the apse area: the images of the Incarnation and of Christ the Judge represent the beginning and the end of the Salvation History.

For the following fifteen years, these frescoes inaugurated what would be known as Biblia Pauperum, the “Bible of the poor”, which, with the language of art that touches the heart still today, recounts the life stories of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus Christ, in a succession of scenes that portray the key episodes of our Creed.

Day after day, for centuries, these walls have narrated our faith, producing generations of devotees who in this Church can see a veritable window opening towards heaven.

In the apse basin Christ the Judge immediately appears, portrayed in all his majesty and divinity when he will return on the clouds of the sky as Lord of time and history “to judge the living and the dead.” On the opposite wall, in the counter-façade – one of the last episodes executed – we find him on another throne, the one from which he redeems the whole of humanity by sacrificing himself: the Cross. Viewing the walls of the main nave one can see in succession all those events which have as protagonists first Mary’s parents, then the Virgin Mary herself, then the life and passion of our Lord, so as to constitute a perfect synthesis from the History of Salvation.

Finally, under this great cycle, introduced by the artist of the last scenes of the passion and the counter-façade and completed from other painters over half a century later, we can admire the images of those who from the depths of the centuries had foreshadowed the coming of Christ: the Prophets, portrayed with their protruding scrolls in the rounds between one arch and the other, who seem now to sustain the scenes narrated in the New Testament.

Pantocrator (Boccaccio Boccaccino 1506-1507) • Detail. Apsidal basin
Crucifixion(G. A. De Sacchis detto il Pordenone 1520-1521) • Detail on the counter-façade

Many were the artists chosen by the Massari – with the criterion of the best the artistic market of the time could offer, and not only in Cremona – who contributed to the realization of this impressive pictorial decor.

The first to take care of the cycle is Boccaccio Boccaccino who, returning from Venice, dedicated himself from 1506-1507 to the apsidal basin, interpreting the Massari’s request to paint “our God and Supreme Lord” in the solemn figure of the Pantocrator, of Christ the just Judge, portraying him in an image that captures his supernatural trait rather than his humanity, and idealizing him in the greatness of his divinity at his glorious return at the end of time, a gravity underscored in this image by the golden background that Boccaccino brings back in his mind’s eye from the basilicas of the Serenissima and by the presence of the patron saints of the city (from the left, Marcellinus, Himerius, Homobonus, Peter the exorcist), together with symbols of the four Evangelists.

Pantocrator surrounded by Sts. Marcellinus, Himerius, Homobonus, Peter the Exorcist
(Boccaccio Boccaccino, 1506-1507)
Apsidal basin


(Boccaccio Boccaccino, 1507)   Above the apsidal arch


Immediately afterwards Boccaccino executes the Annunciation above the triumphal arch in such a high position, at the apex of the nave, which further highlights how much that particular moment is precisely the beginning of the Historia Salutis, the history of our salvation, which will be fulfilled at the glorious return of our Lord as we contemplate him in the apse basin. A work of exceptional elegance in its portrayal of the sweet moment of the Incarnation when the Father, whom we see at the center of the scene while pouring out the Spirit in the form of a dove – almost to iconographically represent the original idea of the Massari of God Most High – assumes our human nature in his Son.

Upon his return from Rome, it is Boccaccio Boccaccino yet again to dedicate himself from 1514-1515 with the project for the decorative system of the main nave – where he “paginates” the arches dividing each in two panes separated by faux pilasters – painting the first spans of the northern wall (on the left, upon entering) with the depiction the episodes taken from the apocryphal Gospels of the life of the Virgin Mary with reference to her parents (the Annunciation to Joachim and the Meeting at the Golden Gate between Joachim and Anna), then on to the Birth of Mary and finally to the Betrothal of Mary to Joseph .

Annunciation to Joachim   |  Meeting at the Golden Gate between Joachim and Anna  (Boccaccio Boccaccino, 1514)  First north side span, central nave

The Adoration of the Shepherds  |    Circumcision (Boccaccio Boccaccino 1517) Fourth north side span

From here, the human affairs of Mary begin to intersect, of course, with those of Jesus; therefore, we find the following frescoes: the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity and the Circumcision of Christ, the last span in which Boccaccino is involved, at least for the time being.

The trait absorbed by this great painter of a balanced composition following the “ordered rhythm of central Italy” in the examples of Raphael and Perugino and through his wise use of color honed by his previous Venetian experience, combined with his knowledge of the masterful graphic production of Albrecht Dürer, make Boccaccino the main protagonist in the care and attention that the Massari placed in their decision to always seek only the best for the growth and care of our Cathedral.

In the following scenes we meet two new artists of the generation following that of Boccaccino: Gianfrancesco Bembo, who painted the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation at the Temple, and Altobello Melone, whom we will also find on the southern wall, and to whom credit goes for the Escape to Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents. It is in this latter work where we begin to feel a growing pathos in the composition and in the expressions of the characters, as we gradually view the successive scenes of the Passion.

The northern wall again ends in the hands of Boccaccio Boccaccino with an episode of the adolescence of Jesus, Christ among the Doctors: in this case the arch is not divided into two squares but the scene occupies the entire wall space. Boccaccino himself painted two more scenes with a unitary surface in the presbytery: the Baptism of Christ and Entry into Jerusalem, which were destroyed half a century later in order to open the way for two windows on either side of the main altar.

Escape to Egypt  | Massacre of the innocents  (Altobello Melone – 1517) Seventh span north side, central nave
Last supper (Altobello Melone – 1518) Eighth span south side, central nave

Starting from the presbyteral area, the southern wall now opens on which we find the scenes of the Passion of Christ. Various artists take turns in these works which display a crescendo of artistic expressiveness that will reach dramatic tones in the works of the Calvary.

Altobello Melone dedicated himself to the Last Supper (also in this case a single scene occupies the arch), to a depiction of the Washing of feet, to the Agony in the Garden, to the Capture of Christ and finally to Christ before Caiaphas, a painting which increasingly resembles a modern interpretation in its composition and in its attempt to underline the growing pathos of the themes painted through the pictorial devices: from the cutting figures to the chromatic dissonances rich in surprising brilliance.

At this point the work of Altobello is interrupted in favor of another great painter from Brescia, Girolamo Romanino: it is the year 1519. The Massari continually seek new leading artists for the Duomo work site and commission Romanino with a new project that replaces that of Boccaccino and whose aim is to complete all the works in the nave and in the counter-façade. However, he will succeed in completing only four scenes: Christ before Pilate; the Flagellation of Christ; Christ crowned with thorns and Ecce Homo. His entrée lights up the walls of the Cathedral with a palette never before seen, of a Tizianesque imprint, in a composition in which the cruel punishments inflicted are always accompanied by the mild acceptance of Christ. It is noteworthy the layout of the scenes in settings dotted with the contemporary through the insertion of foreshortenings, loggias – as in the Ecce Homo – or still by the inclusion of characters in sixteenth-century clothes, probable portraits of the notables of Cremona of the time.

Christ crowned with torns  | Ecce Homo (Gerolamo Romamino – 1519)
Fourth span south side, central nave
Christ nailed to the cross (G. A. De Sacchis detto il Pordenone 1520-21) First span south side, central nave

It is at this juncture – we are in 1520 – that a figure at the forefront of the artistic panorama of Valpadana that the Massari called over from the Venetian hinterland, makes his entrance into the Cathedral – at the expense of Romanino, ousted by a bureaucratic glitch: Giovanni Antonio de Sacchis, sobriquet il Pordenone in the pictor modernus documents. It is with him that the drama of the last scenes of the Passion reaches its apex. The tortured and almost deformed faces accentuated by a play between lights and shadows in Pordenone’s frescoes Christ before Pilate, Christ carrying the Cross, Christ nailed to the Cross and finally, the enormous Crucifixion render the pain of these terrible moments visible. In his work, a veritable theatrical composition, Venetian chromatism meets the Michelangelesque line of the figures that, in their dynamism and expressive power, virtually mark a turning point from an artistic point of view, so much so that the moments of the Passion could not be made more visible to our eyes.

The composition of the Crucifixion itself is very true to the Gospels, to the extent that every detail found in the Gospels is faithfully represented; for example, in the signs of the dark sky dense with clouds (“darkness fell over the whole earth”), in the great fissures on the ground (“an earthquake shook the earth”), in the figures of the soldier who breaks the legs of the thief, and in the figure of Longinus who, looking at the Lord on the cross, seems to actually say: “He was truly the Son of God”.

At the same time, however, Pordenone shifts the scene into the contemporary as is evidenced, for example, in the figures in armor such as the giant soldier in the foreground who indicates the Christ on the cross with one hand while, with the other, holds his massive sword, typical of the period in which we find ourselves: we are in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, the era of the Italian wars, when even the Lombard land was the theater of atrocious struggles between the armies. Hence, a contemporaneity displayed in the oriental costumes with which he dresses those who symbolize the cruel characters that led to the crucifixion of the Lord, the Jews.

All expressed with a dramatic force that is emitted, once again, from the deformed, mangled faces and the dynamism of the figures: emblematic, for example, the wriggling of the two crucified thieves.

Crucifixion(il Pordenone, 1520-1521)
Detail. Counter-façade
Lamentation (G. A. De Sacchis detto il Pordenone, 1522) Detail. Counter-façade

The cycle ends at the counter-façade with the Deposition – always by Pordenone as a tribute to Mantegna and to Bramantino with Christ in perspective – and the Resurrection painted by Bernardino Gatti a few years later (1529). Here, therefore, is this impressive decorative installation which from the stories of Mary have led us through the Passion, to the Cross and to the Resurrection, presenting us the true message: Christ, who died to reconcile all of us with the Father, is in reality the Lord of Life, he who definitively defeated death because “He is truly risen”; hence, we can all hope for his mercy as Just Judge.

Christ before Pilate (G. Romanino – 1519)
Detail. Fifth span south side, central nave

The short trip ends in what is rightly called the “Sistine of Lombardy” due to its exceptional artistic value – unique at that time at least in this part of Italy for having collected the finest of artworks in the Po Valley and for making the dizzying evolution of painting comprehensible in the first quarter of the sixteenth century in the name of modernity, and of always wanting to be at the apex of quality in a horizon of openness towards the great artistic trends of the moment. A brief jaunt that, while it has fascinated us from an artistic point of view, has revealed itself to be a true catechesis which, through the language of beauty, has once again spoken – as it has every day in the last five centuries – of the truths of the faith in which we firmly believe.