Ante gradus. When Certainty Becomes Creative. The Frescoes in the Pilgrim’s Hall at Santa Maria della Scala in Siena
A thousand years ago the adventure of one of the most prestigious and prolific works of charity in European history began: the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala [Saint Mary of the Staircase], in Siena. According to the tradition, the cobbler Sorore founded it; according to history, the canons of the Cathedral did: anyhow, this work was born of the novelty that Christ had introduced into the world: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. And indeed the hospital was born ante gradus ecclesiae, in front of the church’s staircase, both a geographical and an ideal location: the Church generates this river of charity that marks the entire life of Siena.
The hospital began as xenodochium, namely as a place for the reception of pilgrims, foreigners who came to Siena from all over Europe, along the via Francigena. Later it became hospitale for the poor and the sick, shelter for the gettatelli [orphans], hospice for the old. The structure, never planned, grew, and over time incorporated houses and roads, a city within a city. Within its walls, men and women consecrated themselves to God in the service of the poor: they were called the Oblates of the Santa Maria Hospital, and soon many Sienese people joined them – sinners as well as great saints, like Catherine or Bernardino – who supported the work, offering their energies, time, and property.
The large land, the numerous properties, the continuing legacies made the Santa Maria a rich institution: every day alms were given to the poor, three times a week a banquet was prepared for them. And the antique hospital became even a bank, providing loans to individuals, but also to the Republic of Siena, saving it from bankruptcy several times.
Charity became beauty: the Sienese artists decorated vaults, walls, and even the covers of the hospital records; the large rooms were filled with music and poetry.
The exhibition illustrates the story of this medieval “company of works” through the reproduction of the frescoes of the Pilgrim’s Hall, where the Santa Maria wanted to fix in eight large “frames” its origin and its purpose. Four original hospital records will be on display: on their covers scenes from the life of the work were depicted. The fourth record closes the exhibition: it will be inside a shrine open to the pages showing the Vecchietta’s will, who was the hospital’s painter, one of the great masters of the Renaissance in Siena and the painter of the first fresco in the Pilgrim’s Hall. The artist devoted all his possessions to the Santa Maria and initialed his will with the image of the Risen Christ in golden leaf and Indian ink. Creativity comes from people like Vecchietta who recognize the Risen Christ as their own name: this is the certainty that generates works
Curator: Marco Barbone and Mariella Carlotti