It was not easy to get inside the Cappella del Tau, also known as the church of Sant’Antonio Abate. The limited accessibility we encountered was probably related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The chapel is just small and as a consequence there was a considerable risk of infection. This could easily have led the authorities to close down the building altogether, but in the summer of 2020 it was possibly to go to a website (which since seems to have stopped working, although it may now be up again) to get a telephone number, and by dialling that number make a reservation for a time slot. Unfortunately no one answered the phone when we tried the number for the first time. When subsequent attempts were unsuccessful too, we decided to skip the chapel. Fortunately we had planned a second visit to Pistoia and this time we were lucky. Someone picked up the phone and after a brief conversation (in Italian of course, the official on duty was not proficient in any other language) we succeeded in making an appointment for a visit. When we showed up at the agreed time, we turned out to be the only visitors. The doors to the chapel were unlocked for us and we had the Cappella del Tau all to ourselves.
The saint and the history of the chapel
The Greek letter Tau (T) initially reminded me of Saint Franciscus of Assisi (1181-1226), who had made the Tau his personal symbol. But the Cappella del Tau has no connection whatsoever with Franciscus and his order. It is related to another saint who lived in a much more distant past. The alternative name of the building, the church of Sant’Antonio Abate, gives away that I am referring to Saint Anthony of Egypt, also known as Anthony the Abbot. According to tradition he was born in the year 251 in Roman Egypt. His family was well-off, but when he was about twenty years old both his parents died. Their death proved to be a turning point in the life of young Anthony. He sold his possessions and began to lead an ascetic life. At some point he retired into the desert. Anthony was not the first monk, but since so many men joined him he became known as the father of monasticism or the father of all monks. He was said to have died in 356 at the age of 105. At the time of his death he was famous for the miracles that were attributed to him, and especially for healing the sick.
In the eleventh century Anthony’s remains were taken to France, where around the year 1095 the Order of Saint Anthony was founded. The members of this Order, also known as Antonines, wore habits onto which a Tau was sewn and in this way the letter Tau became the symbol of Saint Anthony. The Antonines founded hospitals and tended to the sick; it was no coincidence that the Tau closely resembled a medical crutch. They were famous for treating the disease known as Saint Anthony’s fire. This disease is perhaps better known under its scientific name of ergotism. It is caused by a fungus called claviceps purpurea, which grows especially well on rye. Many people who ate contaminated rye bread fell ill and felt like their internal organs were on fire, hence the name Saint Anthony’s fire. And what was worse, patients ran a serious risk of losing limbs to gangrene. The Antonines treated their patients with a balm that contained pork fat. Apparently the balm worked so well that the monks earned themselves a reputation of master healers. Since they needed pigs to make their medicaments, their animals were provided with special bells and allowed to wander around freely. The pig and the bell have since become attributes of Saint Anthony as well.
Although the Order of Saint Anthony was founded in France, it quickly spread to other countries. In 1360 a monk named Giovanni Guidotti was given permission to build a church dedicated to Saint Anthony the Abbot in Pistoia and to donate it to the Order, together with the adjacent monastery. When the building was completed, the Florentine painter Niccolò di Tommaso was commissioned to decorate the entire interior with frescoes. Niccolò started in 1372 and was obviously aided by assistants. It is assumed that one of the assistants was the local painter Antonio Vite. Niccolò and his helpers left us a collection of frescoes that is truly formidable: not a single spot in the chapel seems to have been left undecorated: back wall, side walls, vault, everything was frescoed. Meanwhile, the Order of Saint Anthony kept expanding, but this expansion stopped around the turn of the sixteenth century. There were several reasons for the Order’s decline. There were fewer outbreaks of ergotism and in the seventeenth century the French physician Denis Dodart (1634-1707) discovered the connection between the fungus and the ailment. The success of the Order had always been based on its treatment of Saint Anthony’s fire, so when the disease gradually disappeared, so did the Order. At the end of the eighteenth century it was dissolved in various countries. The dissolution in Italy happened as early as 1774.
The dissolution of the Order had disastrous consequences for the Cappella del Tau. The chapel was split into multiple floors and converted into a residential complex. The frescoes suffered substantial damage in the process. In the 1960s the complex was acquired by the Italian government and during the subsequent restorations the frescoes were rediscovered. No matter how damaged they are, the cycle as a whole is still a unique masterpiece with a couple of very special scenes. The former monastery now houses the Museo Marino Marini, which is dedicated to the work of the famous sculptor Marino Marini (1901-1980), who was born in Pistoia. A decorative tablet was incorporated into the building on which we can twice see the letter Tau. The tablet furthermore features the coat-of-arms of Pistoia, supported by two bears. Surrounding it are several sculpted shells of Saint James. These are the symbols of the apostle Saint James the Great, patron saint of the city (see Pistoia: The Duomo).
I already mentioned that many of the frescoes are heavily damaged. To add insult to injury, some of Marini’s sculptures are blocking the view, which made me wonder whether there was no more space for them in the museum. Fortunately there is still much to see and enjoy, although it is surely a pity that visitors can hardly find any information in the chapel about the scenes on the walls and vault. To compensate, I took a lot of photos and with the help of Discover Pistoia and another Italian website I later constructed what I had seen. Against the back wall Niccolò di Tommaso and his assistants painted a large fresco of Paradise, but so much of this fresco is lost that it does not warrant further discussion here, unlike the frescoes on the three cross-vaults. These are decorated with scenes from the Book of Genesis. The scenes from the Old Testament are continued in the lunettes of the walls. The registers below the lunettes have stories from the life of Christ, and below these frescoes we see stories from the life of Anthony the Abbot. This brochure gives a good impression of what visitors may expect.
The scenes on the cross-vaults start with the creation of Heaven and Earth, of the animals and of man and woman, i.e. Adam and Eve. The next cross-vault starts with a fresco of God warning Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Seduced by a snake with a human head, Adam and Eve ignore the warning. They are subsequently cast out of Paradise and are forced to till the earth. On the third cross-vault their sons Cain and Abel have been born. The first becomes a farmer, the second a shepherd. When the two brothers make a sacrifice to God, God accepts Abel’s offering but has no eye for Cain’s, an event that leads to the most famous fratricide in history. Cain has to answer to God for killing his brother and is condemned to a life of erring and wandering. He also receives a mark, indicating that he may not be killed. If he is killed in defiance of God’s order, the murder will be avenged sevenfold (Genesis 4:15).
The last two scenes of the third cross-vault are very special. They are only partially based on canonical biblical texts. This is especially true as regards the first scene. In the background of the scene we see how Cain is building a city and names it after his son Enoch (Genesis 4:17). In the foreground we see a much more disturbing event. A very old bearded man is sitting on his knees in a thicket while a slightly younger (but still old-looking) man is taking aim at him with his bow. The second man is supported by a young boy. The most convincing interpretation is that we see the death of Cain here, Cain being the man among the trees. The man with the bow is his descendant Lamech. As Lamech is almost blind, the boy has to help him shoot the bow. Of course he had no intention of killing his ancestor, as it had been prohibited by God. But the boy – sometimes identified as Tubal-cain (Genesis 4:22) – thought he had spotted an animal in the thicket and thus had Lamech fire an arrow at Cain. On the left we see Lamech killing the boy as well.
The final scene is based on Genesis 6:4. It features the Nephilim or giants, the children of the sons of the gods and the daughters of men. The Bible gives us no information whatsoever about these giants’ appearance, so Niccolò di Tommaso was free to use his own fantasy. He depicted them as semi-naked wild men, their private parts covered with a loin cloth and armed with a cudgel. On the left a giant has killed a man and kidnapped his daughter. He may also have stolen his cattle, for on the far left we see a herd. The other events of the fresco are harder to interpret. On the right a giant is watching while a man and a woman are toiling. They appear to he sieving grain. Perhaps they have been enslaved by the giant? In the background we see a house with three people, a woman and two men, sitting in front of it. They are working and I get the impression that they are making clothes and shoes. The fresco is notable for the sharp contrast between the civilised people and the barbaric giants.
In the lunettes of the walls we see many figures from the Old Testament, including Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Lot, Isaac, Rebecca, Esau and Jacob. Many of the fourteen scenes have regretfully suffered substantial damage; the best can be found in the back of the chapel, near the Paradise fresco. Below the cycle of stories from the Old Testament starts a second cycle of frescoes about the life of Christ. These frescoes are well executed and certainly interesting, but a bit less spectacular than the Old Testament frescoes. Among the scenes we do find a remarkable image of the Navicella (‘small boat’) or Barque of Saint Peter. The scene comes from Matthew 14:22-14:33, where we read how the disciples find themselves in trouble in their boat on a lake. Jesus then walks on water towards the boat and Peter too learns that he has the power to walk on water, at least as long as he does not doubt Jesus. When he does show doubt, he starts to sink and Jesus has to grab him. It is this moment that has been depicted in the chapel, although the image of Jesus has been largely lost.
Finally, below the stories from the life of Christ we can admire stories from the life of Saint Anthony. We see how he gives away his possessions to the poor and subsequently escapes from a monastery to go and live in the desert. Another scene shows how Anthony gets back the barrels containing part of the inheritance that he had thrown into the sea. While living in the desert Anthony meets his contemporary Paul of Thebes, a well-known hermit. Paul passes away (around the year 341) and fifteen years later Anthony dies as well. Then a new protagonist enters the stage: Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria between 328 and 373. He wrote an influential biography about Anthony. The fresco cycle has him sitting at a table, having dinner with monks, and standing before a group of animals. The scene suggests that the animals know where Anthony has been buried. The next scenes are more difficult to interpret, partly because of the damage, but they are about the finding of the remains of the saint and the translation of the relics to France (historically, the remains were presumably first taken to Alexandria and then to Constantinople).
The last two scenes focus on the Antonines and their efforts to help the sick. We first of all see a religious gathering in front of a church. Three men are kneeling at an altar that presumably contains Anthony’s relics and on the right a sick woman is led forward (una indemoniata according to the brochure I mentioned above, a woman who is possessed by demons). In the final scene we see the monks at work. On the left they are treating a patient with their pork fat-based balm, while on the right a man dressed in red is looking at a chest full of hands and feet. These may be limbs lost as a result of gangrene, but it is also possible that we are looking at votive offerings for Saint Anthony, to thank him for having saved their limbs (in Fátima in Portugal pilgrims commonly burn such ex-votos). One reason for taking this possibility seriously is the presence of a portrait of Saint Anthony in the chapel that contains the chest.