The oratory of San Giorgio in Padova is often compared to the famous Cappella degli Scrovegni in the same city. It is indeed hard not to see similarities. Visitors enter a small private chapel with a sky blue barrel vault, radiant stars and impressive frescoes on the walls. The frescoes were painted by Altichiero da Zevio (ca. 1330-1390), and they are considered his most important work. When we wanted to visit the oratory in July of 2022, there was unfortunately a power cut. Fortunately the chapel has a grand total of ten windows, so there is plenty of natural light inside it. A pleasant difference with the Cappella degli Scrovegni is that the oratory is not frequented by hordes of tourists (we were in fact the only visitors). It is not necessary to make a reservation, but visitors do need to buy a ticket at the information centre of the grand basilica of Sant’Antonio di Padova, also known as Il Santo.
The oratory was built around 1377 on the orders of Raimondino Lupi (ca. 1310-1379), marquis of the town of Soragna, not far from Parma. The previous year he had become a citizen of Padova. Lupi wanted the chapel to become a mausoleum for members of his family, including his parents Rolandino and Matilde. The location was not randomly picked: at the time there was a cemetery next to the Santo. We do not know the name of the architect, but architectonically the building is not that interesting. The only exterior decorations are three reliefs. In the centre we see Saint George, to whom the chapel was dedicated, fighting the dragon. To his left and right are the coats of arms of the Lupi family. The family name derives from the Latin word lupus (Italian: lupo), which means ‘wolf’. This explains why a wolf can be seen on both coats of arms.
When Raimondino Lupi died in 1379, the interior of the chapel still had to be decorated. That job was entrusted to his cousin Bonifacio Lupi (1316-1390). Bonifacio had already employed Altichiero for his own chapel in the adjacent Santo, and now he decided to also commission him to embellish the chapel of his kinsman. Between 1379 and 1384 Altichiero worked on the frescoes in the San Giorgio. Of course he did not do everything by himself, he must have been aided by dozens of assistants. Moreover, it is possible that a second master worked on the frescoes alongside him. According to information in the chapel itself and from the Web Gallery of Art, this second master was Jacopo Avanzi (died 1416). This would in itself make sense, as this Jacopo had already worked with Altichiero in the Santo. However, the Padova Urbs Picta website believes that a certain Jacopo da Verona was involved. It should be noted that the two Jacopos are often confused (see Padova: Oratory of San Michele), but given the previous collaboration between Altichiero and Jacopo Avanzi, the involvement of Avanzi seems a bit more plausible.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the chapel fell on hard times. Napoleon’s French disassembled Raimondino Lupi’s tomb and shoved it aside. The tomb had previously stood in the centre of the chapel on four tall columns, but only the sarcophagus of the monument has been preserved. We nowadays find it on the left side of the oratory, together with the bust of a helmeted figure. Altichiero’s frescoes were covered with a layer of plaster and not rediscovered until 1837. For a while the chapel itself was used as a stable and prison. Fortunately things changed for the better in later years. In the 1990s the frescoes were restored. They now look fine again, although it cannot be denied that they are rather damaged in places.
Each of the four walls has its own fresco cycle. On the entrance wall we find five scenes from the childhood of Jesus Christ: Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Flight to Egypt (of which about a quarter has been lost) and Presentation in the Temple. The back wall has a large Crucifixion scene with a Coronation of the Virgin above it. The frescoes on both walls are beautiful, but at the same time hardly extraordinary. Things start to get more interesting if we take a look at the frescoes on the left wall, which features scenes from the life of Saint George. As was already mentioned, the chapel is dedicated to George, who was the patron saint of the Lupi family. The frescoes on the right wall are about the lives of two female saints: Catherine of Alexandria (above) and Lucia of Syracuse (below).
The cycle about the life of Saint George consists of seven frescoes, painted in two registers. In the upper register we see George killing the dragon and baptising the king of Silene (possibly Cyrene in present-day Libya). The next scene is very interesting, as here the Lupi family enters the stage. On the far right Raimondino Lupi, founder of the chapel, is introduced to the Madonna and Child by Saint George. The kneeling woman behind him, who is introduced to the Madonna by a female saint, must be Raimondino’s wife, whose name may have been Maddalena Caimi. One source claims that the female saint behind the kneeling woman is Saint Lucia. That is certainly possible and would explain the choice for Lucia on the opposite wall. Of course the saint may also be Mary Magdalene, assuming that the name Maddalena Caimi is correct.
Behind the couple eight more men are kneeling, all dressed in chainmail armour and wearing daggers on their hips. The men are Raimondino’s brothers and cousins. They are all accompanied by a saint, but it probably takes a handful of super experts to identify these figures. The story of Saint George then continues in the lower register. George first drinks poison, but it does not harm him at all. Then he is tortured on the wheel, but two very warlike angels free him. The reactions in the terrified crowd have been wonderfully done. On the left, for instance, a soldier quickly takes cover behind his shield. In the next scene (heavily damaged unfortunately) George destroys a pagan idol. On the far left he dies a martyr’s death by decapitation.
The story of Saint Catherine of Alexandria on the right wall will be familiar to many readers. Catherine confesses to being a Christian and subsequently wins a debate with pagan philosophers organised by the Roman emperor. She is then condemned to death on the breaking wheel, but is miraculously saved. On the fresco we see how the wheel is completely shattered. It looks like several bystanders have even been hit by the flying debris. Again the startled reactions in the crowd are very well done. Do not miss the fine details of the fresco, such as an image of a man with a spear and a dragon at his feet. He is no doubt Saint George, who is after all also tortured on the wheel on the opposite wall. Like Saint George, Catherine is ultimately beheaded. She is buried on Mount Sinai, where we still find a famous monastery dedicated to her.
Saint Lucia of Syracuse is perhaps slightly less famous. At a young age she decided to fully dedicate herself to God, which included a promise to be a virgin until the day she died. However, her mother married her off to a pagan, who for reasons that are quite understandable had no taste for a relationship that was purely platonic. The fiancé reported Lucia to the Roman magistrate, who decided to punish her when she, as a Christian, refused to sacrifice for the emperor. Her sentence was that she was to be taken to a brothel, where her virginity would be taken from her by force. But lo and behold, no matter what the magistrate’s soldiers tried, they utterly failed to move her. On the fresco in the San Giorgio we see that not even six strong oxen were able to drag her off to the brothel. The soldiers can be seen poking the poor animals with their spears, but it does not help one bit. What is interesting is that an Italian word for a brothel is lupanare. In Latin lupa means both she-wolf and prostitute. I do not doubt that the Lupi family was fully aware of this.
Regretfully things do end badly for Lucia. Attempts to burn her alive or boil her in hot oil fail, so ultimately she is stabbed to death with a dagger. The last scene, on the far right, represents her funeral. According to another tradition the Roman magistrate had Lucia’s eyes gouged out before her execution, but that horrible mutilation was omitted on the walls of the San Giorgio. Were Altichiero and his assistants not familiar with this tradition? In 1390 an Umbrian colleague did include the macabre story in a fresco in Assisi. Perhaps Altichiero simply thought that, after adding a stake and a cauldron full of boiling oil, he had painted more than enough cruelty in the chapel.