Painted Splendor of San Blas

Built at the close of the fourteenth century, the Chapel of San Blas in the Cathedral of Toledo, Spain, is a great treasure of Gothic art. Commissioned as a funerary monument by the then archbishop of Toledo, Pedro Tenorio (1328–1399), the chapel is built on a square plan and crowned by an octagonal dome—its eight facets inspired by the design of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was erected atop what was believed to be the tomb of Christ. Within the chapel is an extraordinary cycle of frescoes painted in quintessential Florentine tradition, quite possibly the work of artists Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina and Niccolò di Antonio, both of whom were active in Toledo and Valencia between 1393 and 1401. In 1395, according to church records, Starnina and Antonio were paid the final installment on an altarpiece depicting the Passion of Christ, which had been commissioned for the Capilla del Salvador (Chapel of the Savior), also within the Toledo Cathedral. The Spaniard Rodriguez de Toledo, whose signature appears on one of the scenes in the Chapel of San Blas, participated in their execution.

Until recently, however, the murals were barely discernible, obscured by centuries of soot and salts wrought by rising damp, and damaged by earlier attempts to restore them. The fresco cycle comprises 14 discrete scenes. The narrative, which begins on the chapel’s west wall and continues clockwise around the room, commences with representations of the apostles John and Luke and a depiction of the Annunciation. The latter shows an impressive use of perspective. The Virgin and the archangel Gabriel are in the foreground, while in the background a succession of rooms creates an illusion of depth. This scene, one of the most beautiful of the chapel, suggests the work of a master of miniature art, for it shows an exquisite craftsmanship in the details, such as a Book of Hours—which traces the genealogy of the Virgin to the house of David—which is depicted laying on the table with a Star of David on its cover. In the background is a rendering of a building with Moorish arches. Collectively, the imagery is representative of the three religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which coexisted in the city of Toledo from the Middle Ages onward. The chapel’s north wall is adorned with a scene of the Crucifixion that echoes the style of a similar scene in the National San Matteo Museum in Pisa, which was painted in the manner of Antonio Veneziano, with whom Starnina is thought to have apprenticed. Depictions of the Nativity, Christ before Caiphas, the Entombment, and the Descent into Limbo complete the decoration of the north wall, although only fragments remain of the latter two scenes. Photographs taken of the paintings in the 1920s reveal a much more conventional.

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