Apparently orthodox, the Decemviri Altarpiece by Perugino reveals not-so-canonical details when enlarged. First of all, a pair of out-of-place black Horns.
Initially, the altarpiece was conceived to be “crowned” by another Perugino’s masterwork, that’s to say, the “Christ in Pity”, to which I will dedicate another article. As the name “Decemviri” ( ten men) may suggest, Pietro Perugino commissioned the altarpiece for the private chapel in the Palace of Priori ( palace of the elders) in Perugia, that’s to say, the rulers and the establishment of the palace of the town.
Perugia was, and still is, the central city in Umbria. In my article on Cesare Ripa and the World Machine, I have already described this central Italian region where hermeticism has always been. Pietro Perugino was from that land, and exactly “ De Chastro Plebis”, or from Città di Castello, as the same artist wrote in the altarpiece at Madonna’s shoe level. The real artist’s name was Pietro Vannucci. Perugino is a common way to define everyone born nearby Perugia, as with Città di Castello.
Despite his talent, Perugino is mainly known for having been Raffaello’s master; in fact, the last one from time to time used to retake some iconographic themes from Perugino, or perhaps Raffaello called back at the old times when, as a skilled adolescent, he was appointed to paint the essential parts of his master’s works. The details were subsequently up to Perugino, a real artistic entrepreneur. So no wonder the twelve years old Raffaello (Raffaello Sanzio was born in 1483, and the Decemviri altarpiece painted in 1495-1496) might have put his brush on the canvas. And who knows if he had realized, or even seen, Perugino scattering strange symbols on the painting.
Here on the left, I produced a horn enlarged detail. These horns stand out on a golden background and are in the upper part of a cavity with an external and puffy musky green enclosing both Virgin and Child. The black color is the inner cavity part. Black, or better dark, is also the “portico”, a structure often used by Perugino and also by his pupil Raffaello. But why is the portico strangely so dark? To the point of requiring Perugino to paint the throne in gold to throw some light on the scene? And why maintain the same error repainting the throne face steps in a dark color?
In the Palace of Priori Chapel, the altarpiece ( 193 cm. x 165 ) was never too far for a trained and inquiring eye to discover and appreciate, even if the strange details are not in the central point. The black horned lining cavity shape is hard to discover just by those who take it all for granted.
The portico in the Decemviri altarpiece is dark; the steps of the stairs are faced black. And why a Virgin and child on a majestic dominion chair? Very unusual, indeed. Originally the throne was a symbol of Isis in her black putrefactive splendor. Yes, we are here celebrating our first indispensable alchemical success: the reach of blackness.
The more time one spends on closing up, the more the oddities list seems to extend. The Virgin’s green mantle presents a micro golden and radiant sun on the girl’s shoulder (1). And this detail throws an aura not so iconographically Christian on the whole scene. The vegetative quintessential green color demonstrates the tangibility of the Spirit, featuring a characteristic green color (3). The Virgin wears green shoes and a radiant sun on her green mantle. So green is the sun, our sun on the earth is our Secret Fire, and the Spirit is green in color.
If we take a magnifying lens and search all the paintings, we can further notice the Virgin wearing some musky green shoes; Musky green is a vegetative symbol.
It is not a change that occurs that all the personages around the Virgin and Child are officiant priests. As I said, Perugino had, like most of the famed artists of his time, a blank paper to choose whoever he had considered artistically suitable for his symbolical purposes. All the officiant personages around the Virgin will appear in their esoteric meaning when we comment on the second painting conceived to be set above this canvas. Anyway, the ceremony could not be other than a marriage.
The Umbrian painter could pick up any saint he preferred; he chose St. Ludovico, bishop of Toulouse. St. Ludovico and Lawrence are unimportant, but they let symbolic imaginary run. A bishop allows Perugino to add also a crozier to paint. In my Crozier articles, I have presented these liturgical specimens as necessary symbolic means. In the Decemviri case, we have a pined crozier, unique in liturgical history, since a pine cone may hardly have any biblical reference. But a pine cone resembles our vase, philosophical egg, or crystal dome. The end of our work. A substance resembling a pine cone indeed, and this time not metaphorically. Our final construction is the hermetic building. A building is also appearing in the same crozier structure.
We have already encountered St. Lawrence in Michelangelo and the Mumia-Skin in the Last Judgement. But here, St. Lawrence drops his ladder to wear sumptuously. Red Flakes, too similar to the phylacteries of initiates, are placed by Perugino for the strange priest pectoral to show up. And we may have some reminiscences of pectorals’ importance in some odd ceremonies. The embroidered seraphs are alchemically a symbol of very ethereal worlds, which only a martyr with a ladder can reach.
A knight riding along with a lion decorates the ultimate throne step. And only he who can ride along with a lion is allowed to enter: horses are a symbol of eternal life in many religions since the greatest antiquity, and lions of the ultimate alchemical step (3).
At the same time, two winged griffins beautify the central step sides, even if they may appear as a piece of foliage arabesque. It is enough to define this Perugino masterpiece as a Christian-structured painting with hermetic details.
The roses on the throne vault are identical to those on the Basilica of San Zaccaria, Scuola Grande of San Marco, and San Matteo Facades in Venice ( a Jacopo Sansovino mark). They are so identical and strange that I will dedicate an article to them.
But let’s get back to horns now. Horned animals are generally a symbol of fixity in Alchemy. Nevertheless, as you may know, every symbol stands for at least three different meanings. This time exception seems to make the rule. Since Perugino painted a scene more elegant than a hunting one, we have no paws grasping the ground, meaning the element earth.
Moreover, we have no animals at all. We have a cavity greenish black with two little horns like the god Pan used to have. Pan was considered the god of nature. Primarily the god of flocks and herds, his name was altogether associated with the greek word “pan”, meaning “all”. Do you remember the motto “en to pan”, one the all, inside the Codex Marcianus Ouroboros image? God of nature, god of the universe. Pan’s sudden appearance was supposed to cause terror, and from that, the word panic. So what more appropriate than god Pan to represent our alchemical wilderness for antonomasia: the putrefaction phase, our blackness in which all precipitates and is brought about? God Pan’s iconographic theme became a demonic theme in Christian culture. Strangely enough demonic world is another hermetic symbol of putrefaction and blackness. If you can’t imagine what putrefaction is, maybe see my article “Black Haida Crow Destroying the Matter Shell“.
The Virgin herself symbolizes our Mercurius, the child for our Sulphur. Sulfur and Mercurius are two modalities for our wild Secret Fire. And we, during our works, begin to think of success once we achieve blackness. So our Secret Fire starts to become apparent during black. But, as it is said, our Mercurius can take all the colors and metaphorically remains green in its core. It is bound to be vegetative. The throne steps are allegories for alchemical works, primarily three (see an Opus Magnum scheme). But in all of them, Perugino sapiently puts a black face. In fact, in every work, we have a black phase.
Here, the symbolism is perfectly “telling” a hermetic story, and the fifteenth century was just the “golden century” for Alchemy in Italy. I dare to add a phrase I mean to paste in every article on artworks on this site, that’s to say that old disciplines are an inspiration to newer ones, and the contrary is very unlikely to be.
In the same way, I will not comment on the more critical symbolism scattered by Perugino in the Decemviri altarpiece: the cavity enclosing the Virgin and Child. An allegory that is not an allegory at all. But an absolute necessity when, a step beyond our trivial metallic fatigues, one would have braved the “Terra Incognita”, or unknown land, of a human Soul and the Spirit of Life meeting to create something we are forbidden to know. But vertigo.
- See also Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit and Secret Iconography of the Wheel and Pietro Perugino and the Lady of the Wind ;
- See also Capello & Equinox Nostoc Collecting , Nicolas Lefevre and the Flos Coeli Medecine ;
- See also Canseliet and the Color of the Spirit ;
- See also Atalanta Fugiens and the Golden Apples ;