“A descent into the world of colour takes you into the heart of the Cathedral to the place popularly known as the “Crypt”, one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the past twenty years.” The website of the Opera della Metropolitana di Siena uses roaring language to open a short article about the Crypt, a room beneath the Duomo that is indeed exceptional. In 1999, researchers excavating under the choir of the cathedral suddenly and unexpectedly struck gold as they discovered a room decorated with frescoes from the second half of the thirteenth century. The frescoes, though centuries old, were still in excellent condition.
More information about the history of the Crypt can be found on the website Sacred Destinations. It seems that the name “crypt” is a bit of a misnomer. The term suggests the room was used for burials, but this was never the case here. The crypt in Siena cannot be compared to, for instance, the crypt of the Duomo in Florence. According to Sacred Destinations, the Sienese crypt “is thought to have functioned as a sort of porch, with stairways leading directly up into the nave of the cathedral”. It was built in the thirteenth century, but when the choir of the Duomo was extended and the baptistery was constructed after 1317, the room was abandoned. Its ceiling was demolished, destroying the upper fresco cycle. It was subsequently used as a storage room and then filled up with earth. The room was rediscovered in 1999 and opened to the public in 2003. I missed it on my first trip to Siena in 2010, so I was eager to see it during my 2016 visit.
The Crypt itself – I will still call it the “Crypt”, even though technically it is not a crypt – is not that interesting, but the frescoes are gorgeous. They may have been painted between 1270 and 1280. The colours are beautiful, with red, blue and gold dominating. Among the painters were, according to the Opera website, Guido da Siena (ca. 1230-1290), Dietisalvi di Speme (active between 1250 and 1291), Guido di Graziano (documented between 1278 and 1302) and Rinaldo da Siena (active 1260-1281). Sacred Destinations adds that these may have been assisted by a young Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1318/19).
The upper fresco cycle (now lost; see above) depicted scenes from the Old Testament. The surviving scenes from the lower cycle were inspired by the New Testament and show the Life of Jesus. We for instance see the Judas Kiss on one wall, and the Crucifixion, the Deposition and the Entombment on another. The style is still quite medieval. It would require a few more years – and a Florentine named Giotto – to truly break away from Byzantine traditions.