Apparently orthodox but, when enlarged, the Decemviri Altarpiece by Perugino reveals not so canonical details. 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, the altarpiece was commissioned to Pietro Perugino for the private chapel in the Palace of Priori ( palace of the elders) in Perugia, that’s to say the rulers and the establishment palace of the town.
Perugia was, and still is, the main city in Umbria. In my article on Cesare Ripa and the World Machine I have already described this central italian region as a place where hermeticism has always been around. 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 the Madonna’s shoe level. The real artist’s name was Pietro Vannucci. Perugino is just the definition of everyone born in the nearby of Perugia, as is the case with Città di Castello.
Despite of 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 simply called back at the old times when, as a skilled adolescent, he was appointed to paint the basic parts of his master’s works. The details were subsequently up to Perugino, who was a real artistic entrepreneur. So no wonder the twelve years old Raffaello ( Raffaelo 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.
In the Palace of Priori Chapel the altarpiece ( 193 cm. x 165 ) was never too far from a trained and inquiring eye to find out and appreciate, even if the strange details are not in the central point. In fact the black horned lining cavity shaped is really hard to be discovered just by the ones who tend to take all for granted. Here on the left I produced a horns enlarged detail. These horns stand out on a golden background, they are in the upper part of a sort of cavity with an external and puffy musky green enclosing both Virgin and Child. Actually 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 to require Perugino to paint the throne in gold color to throw some light on the scene? And why to maintain the same error painting the throne face steps again in a dark color?
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 definitely throws an aura not so iconographically christian on the whole scene. If we take a magnifying lens and search all the painting, we can further notice the Virgin wearing some musky green shoes; St. Lawrence clothing as an archdeacon, but with some eccentric, and not catholic, red flakes (quite jewish indeed), not to mention the embroidered seraphs; On the left St.Ludovico, archbishop of Toulouse, holding a crozier with an unusual central pine cone; a knight riding along with a lion is the decoration of the ultimate throne step; while two unicorns beautify the central step sides (that on your right may appear as a piece of foliage arabesque, but the hidden one on the left in unquestionably a unicorn); and finally hermetic roses on the throne vault. It is enough to define this Perugino’s masterpiece as a christian structured painting with hermetic details. On the contrary why to hid the horns and little sun to an extent to let them appearing just to who having eyes for? But I have something even to the christian framework. In fact why a Virgin and child on a majestic dominion chair? If you take a look at my article “The Throne Hieroglyph and the Nightly Power of Isis” you can understand why I don’t mean to take this iconographic theme as a granted one. Was Pietro Perugino learned enough to master this symbolism or simply tried to show off? The answer to you: here the symbolism is perfectly “telling” an hermetic story and 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 in this site, that’s to say that old disciplines are an inspiration to newer ones and contrary is very unlikely to be.
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. In fact this time exception seems to do the rule. Since Perugino here painted a scene more elegant than a hunting one, consequently we have no paws grasping the ground, to mean the element earth. Moreover we have no animals at all. We have a cavity greenish black with two little horns, like god Pan used to have. Pan was definitely considered the god of nature. Primarily 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 universe. Pan sudden appearance was supposed to cause terror, 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 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 a putrefaction may be for see my article “Black Haida Crow Destroying the Matter Shell“.
The portico in Decemviri altarpiece is dark, the stairs steps are faced black. 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. Musky green is really here a vegetative symbol. There may be roughly three types of green color to be seen in alchemical works: the first, here Perugino could point at our “Flos Coeli” (2) or a matter from which to extract our Secret Fire/Mercurius; the second, it may happen that little bacteria may find a good culture ground on our wet paths black putrefactive products. This biological phenomenon could be exchanged for the vegetative symbol of excellence. It may happen. It is not compulsory and doesn’t mean anything else than a biological phenomenon. Did Perugino intend that? Could, back at that time, a bacteria colony be taken for a vegetative sign? Due to scientific lack of knowledge of the time, it could seems reasonable; And, finally, the vegetative quintessential green color demonstrating the tangibility of the Spirit, featured by a characteristic green color (3). The Virgin not only wears green shoes but a radiant sun is on her green mantle. So green is the sun, our sun on the earth is our Secret Fire and the Spirit is green color.
The Virgin herself is a symbol of our Mercurius, the child for our Sulphur. Sulphur and Mercurius are two modalities for our wild Secret Fire. And we, during our works, begin to think to success once achieved the 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.