The Way of the Cross in Barile – by Liz Gilmour and Mary Dargie

In a tradition dating back to about 1600, the little hill town of Barile in Basilicata stages an annual Via Crucis Procession on Good Friday.

The procession starts at the Chiesa dei Santi Attanasio e Rocco, which houses the Madonna Addolorata.

Barile 1

Some of the young men of the village, dressed as Roman soldiers, ride round the town on horseback …

Barile 2

 … while people are gathering in the square.  

Barile 3

The trial of Jesus is enacted in the piazza.  (4)

Barile 4

Crowds line the streets as the procession slowly winds its way along its 4 kilometre route.  It features a large cast of characters, including the high priest Caiaphas,

Barile 5

Pontius Pilate,

Barile 6

St Veronica,

Barile 7

Mary Magdalene

Barile 8

..  and a little angel carrying the holy chalice.

Barile 9

The person chosen to be the Christ figure himself will have prepared for this demanding role with a period of prayer and fasting. 

Barile 10

Palazzo Medici: the Chapel – by David Dryer

In 1459 Benozzo Gozzoli started work on a commission by Cosimo and Piero de’ Medici to fresco the private chapel in the Palazzo Medici in Florence (Figure 1). This text considers the nature of the commission, its subject matter and materials, and discusses its iconography and purpose in celebrating religious devotion at the same time as promoting the status and political influence of the Medici family.

Gozzoli chapel

Figure 1: The chapel of the Palazzo Medici 

The fresco cycle, completed in about two years and covering all but one wall of the small chapel depicts the procession of the Magi towards the Christ child who is depicted on Fra Filippo Lippi’s altarpiece (now replaced by a copy). Images of angels and shepherds complete the scene. The frescos were executed with great detail and the colours have survived remarkably well. 

The sequence commences on the east wall with the youngest king, Caspar and his retinue descending from the mountains. Magus Balthasar gazes upwards, possibly towards where a star of Bethlehem may have been prior to the alterations made when the palazzo was sold to the Riccardi family in 1659. On the west wall Magus Melchior is the closest to the Christ child on the altarpiece and he is accompanied by the largest procession of pilgrims. This all takes place in a minutely detailed landscape which bears resemblance to the countryside around Florence and is populated with all manner of animals and birds.

From the late 1430’s Cosimo de’ Medici was a man with considerable political influence in Florence, a de facto ruler who sought to promote both the city and his family. A rare privilege bestowed upon Cosimo by Martin V, to whom he was Papal banker, allowed the Palazzo Medici to include a chapel for private prayer and to be used as a reception room for important dignitaries. 

The choice of subject matter was particularly relevant for Cosimo, who was active in the religious community of Florence and a patron of religious art. He belonged to the Compagnia de’ Magi, a confraternity that congregated at San Marco and organised the annual Festa de’ Magi, a public festival dedicated to the three kings. Cosimo took part in re-enactments of the journey of the Magi and contemporary accounts of the pomp and splendour of these parades are reflected in the frescos. There is much use of gold and metals that would have reflected candlelight (the only light in the original chapel) to great effect. In a surviving letter from the artist to Piero de’ Medici he reminds his patron that he needs to acquire ultramarine from Venice to complete the brocades on one wall, suggesting that the more expensive materials may have been provided by the patron. The same letter also suggests that the artist may have been poorly or irregularly paid for his work, since he had to beg Piero to advance him 50 florins with which to ‘buy corn and many other things’ that he needed.

The Magi are dressed in white, green and red, colours alluding to the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and also the armorial colours of the Medici family whose coat of arms features on the bridles and saddles of horses. A number of orange trees are depicted and in many artworks commissioned by the Medici oranges are used as an allusion to the coat of arms.

Leading the retinue behind Magus Caspar (Figure 2) are two servants whose clothing is decorated with the Medician devices of a diamond ring symbolising eternity (also used elsewhere in the ceiling of the chapel), feathers meaning faith or strength and the motto ‘SEMPER’ meaning always or forever. Within the retinue members of the Medici family are depicted, including Cosimo riding a mule whose bridle carries a gilded Medici coat of arms and Piero riding a white horse and showing the diamond ring and feathers. Also depicted is Carlo, an illegitimate son who by his inclusion was perhaps legitimised to suggest the continuance of the Medici line should Piero not survive.

Piero’s sons Lorenzo and Guiliano have also been recognised, as is the artist himself who is seen wearing a red cap, helpfully bearing his name in gold. It was previously thought that the young king was a portrait of Lorenzo but he would have been only ten years old at the time and it would have been very unusual to depict a family member in such a prominent position. This theory has now been discounted.


Figure 2: The procession of the Magus Caspar

The treatment of costume in this scene is similar to that by Gentile de Fabriano in his Strozzi altarpiece of 1423 (Figure 3). Indeed the influence of this work is noticeable with the subject matter being the same and the style similar, although on a grander scale, suggesting that Piero de’ Medici intended to undermine the exiled Strozzi and by this means demonstrate the superiority of the Medicis. 


Figure 3: Detail from the Strozzi altarpiece by Gentile de Fabriano

The inclusion of some of the Medici’s main allies, Sigismondo Malatesta and Galeazzo Maria Sforza, in the work would have reinforced their links with the Medici family and given that the chapel was used as a reception room, would have carried a clear message to visiting dignitaries.


Figure 4: Details by Benozzo Gozzoli

The collaboration between the patron Piero de’ Medici and the artist Benozzo Gozzoli produced a fresco cycle that was designed and executed to serve a dual purpose. The spiritual and devotional aspects of the cycle telling the biblical story of the Magi, an appropriate choice for a chapel designed for a member of the Compagnia de’ Magi, was used to depict the Medici as faithful servants of God. At the same time it conveyed a strong message of political authority and the continuity of the dynasty, clearly intended to influence the many important visitors to the Palazzo. 



MORHART, A., (2005): Re-examining Benezzo Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi Fresco Cycle in the Palazzo Medici, 1459: A New Interpretation, University of Western Ontario

RADKE, R and PAOLETTI, J., (1997): Art in Renaissance Italy, Laurence and King, London

STOKES, H., (1903): Benozzo Gozzoli, G. Newnes, London

TURNER, A., (2007-2009): Grove Dictionary of Art, Oxford University Press

Siena in Challenging Times – by Sandra Cardarelli

In Siena the long-standing devotion for the Virgin found renewed strength after the battle of Montaperti when, in 1260, the Sienese army defeated its Florentine counterpart. Prior to the battle, the Sienese carried the icon of the Virgin in procession through the streets of the city and invoked her special protection. 

Although outnumbered, the Sienese army achieved an outstanding victory, and further to this unexpected success, the keys of the city of Siena were donated to the Virgin in a sumptuous ceremony.  The rituals that ensued in front of the image of the Madonna del Voto, on the main altar of the cathedral, must not have be much different from what the viewers can now see represented in this Biccherna painting displayed in the Archivio di Stato of Siena, where the clergy and the authorities are portrayed in the act of offering the keys of the city to the Virgin.

Biccherna 41

Biccherna 41, The Rendering of the keys to the Virgin, 1483, Siena, Archivio di Stato

The painting represents yet another such occasion that occurred on 22nd March 1483, when the unification of the four Monti (or political factions) was celebrated. The image of the Virgin reaching out of the painting frame to receive the keys epitomizes her importance in the creation of the identity of Siena as “city of the Virgin”. 

The outbreak of Black Death that ravaged the city in 1348 killed thousands of people, including one of the most important artists of his times, Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The plague struck Siena many times after that in 1363, 1374, 1383, 1389, 1399-1400 and 1410-11. 

Throughout the centuries images of the Virgin were commissioned to furnish altars and chapels in churches and civic buildings alike. The façade of the Spedale (hospital), a charitable civic institution established for the care of orphaned children, pilgrims and travellers as well as the sick and poor, was no exception. The hospital building is significantly located in front of the cathedral, which is dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption (Maria Assunta). The façade of the hospital displayed a fresco narrative with four episodes from the Life of the Virgin (now lost) commissioned from Simone Martini, and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti in c. 1335. 

Inside the hospital there is a spectacular series of fresco images showing the activities of the hospital.


Domenico di Bartolo, Caring for the Sick, 1440, detail from the Pellegrinaio of the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.


Lorenzo di Pietro (known as Vecchietta), detail from the Vision of St. Sorore, with the Virgin welcoming infants climbing to Heaven on the ladder (scala) that is the symbol of the Hospital, 1441, Pellegrinaio of the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.

Countless instances of the community turning to the Virgin at challenging times have been recorded by historians of Siena, and this tradition continues today.

On 15 March 2020 the current mayor of Siena, Luigi De Mossi, donated the keys of the city to the Madonna del Voto in the cathedral during a special mass behind closed doors that was celebrated by the Archbishop of Siena, Augusto Paolo Lojudice, to ask for the Virgin’s special protection at this difficult time. 


Further Reading:

The Biccherne of the Archivio di Stato of Siena

Beyond the Palio: Urbanism and Ritual in Renaissance Siena, ed. P. Jackson and F. Nevola (Boxford: Blackwell, 2006).

D. Norman, Painting in Medieval and Renaissance Siena (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003).

D. Norman, Siena and the Virgin: Art and Politics in a Late Medieval City State (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).