An elegant eyes hieroglyph, belonging to Griffoni polyptych by Francesco del Cossa, to symbolize a new awareness in looking at renaissance art.
A canvas with a troubled life. Attributed to Cosmè Tura until 1906, was then returned to Francesco del Cossa ( 1436-1478) by the art critic Adolfo Venturi. Very likely this work shared the same destiny of other similar strangely standing alone saints characters: in the first half of eighteenth century some antics dealers cut and detached the figures from the larger polyptych.
Nowadays the individual pieces of Griffoni polyptych are broken up in museums around the world. The slice of Santa Lucia, for instance, is at National Gallery in London. It seems plausible that the complicated major altarpiece was painted by Francesco del Cossa in collaboration with a young painter, Ercole de Roberti, who had followed del Cossa when he left Ferrara.
Both del Cossa and de Roberti, together with Cosmè Tura, were learned artists and beautified the walls of Schifanoia palace, a leisure edifice belonging to d’Este family, the Ferrara rulers. The series of months applied to the walls are widely known for their deep and enigmatic knowledge. To tell more, these frescoes ( slightly damaged in the 2012 earthquake) are widely considered as being one of the clearest example of enigmatic knowledge in italian renaissance painting art.
Back at the canvas object of this article, the saint in the picture is unquestionably Santa Lucia. Because she suffered martyrdom in the eyes ( for this reason she is the italian patron saint of eye diseases). She was scarcely used by italian painters of the same age in their altarpieces, as I have already said renaissance artists followed rules that perhaps could look strange today. That’s to say they were paid only according to the difficulty of the figures, and generally chose saints and martyrs which allowed them to “play” with symbolism. In fact Santa Lucia had no reason to appear in this canvas, but the considerations above made. A different discourse must be done about the central character of St. Vincent Ferrer. Probably this subject was chosen in accordance with the Dominicans, having been recently canonized him.
The Griffoni polyptych, in its virtual reconstitution by the art critic Roberto Longhi in 1935 in his essay “Officina Ferrarese”, offers other interesting characters together with their symbolic items. But Santa Lucia’s eyes are really an unusual iconographic theme. I have never seen something like that. The character stands holding a single palm tree bough in her right hand and a very elegant flowery pair of eyes in the left. It seems a delicate vegetal stem keeping the eyes she has lost. We know that the palm tree bough usually, even in catholic iconography, represents a sacrifice. In fact this is a symbol we often see in crucifixions.
If we take a closer look at the entire altarpiece we can soon observe that it teems with strange and unorthodox details. During italian renaissance academies and brotherhoods attempting to reconstruct the ancient wisdom teachings mushroomed all over. We know they had to be intended as private erudite coteries in which discussions always took place in symbolic and allegoric way, through metaphors rather than explicit written statements. It was then up to the follower and apprentice to learn by himself through insight. By means of intuition. And, coincidentally, the learning by intuition was called “learning by eyes” and represented by a pair of eyes indeed. New eyes through which to see a new reality. And these pair of flowery eyes seem to me one of the most delicate and elegant way to represent the necessity of a new insight.
I think that Francesco del Cossa has reached his highest in painting the Santa Lucia eyes detail. The remaining of his altarpiece is surely learned and intriguing, but sadly very hardly we can say to be before stunning beauty and architectural proportions, at least for the italian parameters we are used to. The Griffoni polyptych is not so different, and poorer, in symbolic ingredients than, for instance, Giovanni Bellini’s Sacred Allegory, but the gorgeous appearance of Bellini’s. Thus Bellini’s canvas is world-famous, while del Cossa is only known by a minor audience.
Nevertheless I would like to invite you to spend some time on these learned particulars, even if we will find then in other more celebrated artists works. I don’t mean to push me too far in the meanings, but how could I not notice that the right eye was an ancient symbol of Osiris and the left of Isis, and so that the balanced view is a symbol of our mercurial hermaphrodite, already fixed on a flower stem. I could also say that in many altarpieces of the same period in the upper part of a central personage there were more than often two personages of different sex, male and female. Here the male counterpart, St. Florian, has got a red sword as well as a red flowery stem in his right hand. So it would be too much easy to be interpreted as our Red Sulphur. I could also say that the symbol of sacrifice meant the painful extraction of a Soul from a body, either metallic or human. Additionally, the Greek language, as the Italian, gives the same meaning to the words κόρη, virgin (daughter) and eye pupil.
If you take a look at the two figures at St. Vincent Ferrer sides, you can notice some strange hanging jewels. Chains and rings. A chain is a symbol of our Earth joining the Sky. Through our stellar Secret Fire, of course. Rings are solar symbols. St. John Baptist holds a crozier with a bull, another symbol of earth and sky joining. There is also a salamander, allegory of our Secret Fire extracted from earth, at his foot. St. John is a symbol of baptism by water. Our philosophical dissolving water, of course.
There is a column, symbol of raw matter, under St. Vincent Ferrer central figure. And an ideal line seems to link to the Christ in almond hovering over his head: our final process of ultimate extraction of a Soul. St. Peter holds two keys linked together by two rings and two chains: we need two Secret Fires, one extracted from the earth and one from the sky.
The dais in the bottom of Griffoni polyptych is very likely by Ercole de Roberti, the young co-worker of Francesco del Cossa, and represents the histories of Saint Vincent Ferrer. The painting is worth an article dedicated. Resemblances to Hypnerotomachia Poliphili are quite evident.