The Contrari Chapel: the heretical chapel of the Fortress of Vignola

The Contrari Chapel in the Vignola Fortress, with its frescoes imbued with mysticism, is a powerfully evocative setting. But it was forgotten for centuries. We tell its story and its paintings.

Among the walls of the Rocca di Vignola, there is a chapel full of charm and filled with symbolic references, which allows us to take a journey through centuries of history: it is the Contrari Chapel, whose events probably began in the third decade of the 15th century, when the lord of Vignola, Uguccione Contrari, feudatory of Niccol III d’Este, decided to have the castle’s room destined for recollection and prayer frescoed. The work is by an artist whose identity is currently unknown: a number of names have been proposed by art historians who have labored in attempts at attribution (ranging from Belbello da Pavia to Giovanni da Modena via Michele dai Carri) but, due to the fact that there are no other works that can be assigned with absolute certainty to the same hand, the author of the frescoes has always been generically known as the Master of Vignola.

Vista della Cappella Contrari
View of the Contrari Chapel

Before delving into the scenes that decorate the Chapel’s walls, let’s say that this room of the Rocca remained closed for centuries, disappearing almost completely from documents (it is only mentioned as a small church in a 1642 inventory and as a small chapel a couple of centuries later) and consequently going into oblivion. An oblivion, however, that has helped to preserve in excellent condition the splendid cycle of frescoes that decorates the walls of the Contrari Chapel: thanks to two restoration interventions, the first conducted between 1991 and 1992, and the second conducted between 2005 and 2006, the frescoes have been cleaned, restored of adhesion defects, and properly reintegrated.

But what is the reason for this sort of censure that has affected the Contrari Chapel? It is necessary, meanwhile, to leap back as far as the 12th century to lap up the thought of Gioacchino da Fiore (c. 1130 - 1202), a Calabrian theologian and mystic whose theories often encountered, throughout history, vivid resistance from the official Church: suffice it to say that the cause of beatification has been protracted for centuries, was reopened only in 2001, and is currently at a standstill. The cycle is pregnant with references to the thought of Joachim of Fiore, so much so that we could call it a Joachimite cycle, and before long we will see why. But the reasons why the Vignola cycle has long been forgotten must also be sought elsewhere: the texts from which the depicted episodes mainly draw, in fact, are not the four canonical Gospels, that is, those officially recognized by the Church since the Council of Trent. The episodes were mainly inspired by the apocryphal texts, the books that are definitively expunged from the Church’s official Canon precisely with the Council of Trent, which, let us remember, was held between 1545 and 1563: if until then the apocrypha could also be accepted as a source of inspiration for the depiction of the works of Jesus, from that moment on they were considered contrary toCatholic orthodoxy. And, as if that were not enough, the chapel is also full of symbolic references that the Council of Trent definitively banned: some of these iconographies, were even considered heretical.

In reality, for 15th-century religiosity there was nothing heretical about them: these are frescoes produced at a time when the Christian religion knew different forms, traditions, symbols and customs than those that would be strictly established about a century and a half later. The journey inside the frescoes can begin right from the vault of the chapel, where we find the figures of the four evangelists. We can easily notice that the evangelists are not accompanied, as we would expect, by their traditional symbols: the lion for St. Mark, the eagle for St. John, the ox for St. Luke, and the angel for St. Matthew. We can recognize the evangelists only if we are aware of the contents of their Gospels: each of the evangelists is in fact portrayed in the act of penning a book with a sentence in Gothic script taken from their respective Gospels, and is accompanied by a figure referring to their contents. And here we already realize an incontrovertible fact: the frescoes were intended for a culturally highly refined environment that was deeply familiar with the sacred texts.

Volta della Cappella Contrari
Vault of the Contrari Chapel, with the evangelists and their symbols. Rocca di Vignola Foundation

The sail above the entrance wall depicts Saint John writing the beginning of his Gospel(In principio erat Verbum, “In the beginning was the Word”), and he is accompanied by a tree on which we notice a three-headed figure. The episode associated with him on the wall is that of Pentecost. Let us return for a moment to the thought of Joachim of Fiore: according to the Calabrian theologian, the history of the world should be divided into three ages. The first, the age of the Father, is the one related to the Old Testament. The second, that of the Son, is the one during which Jesus revealed himself and the Church spread his message. Finally, the third is that of the Holy Spirit: an age of grace, righteousness and freedom, during which humanity can await without fear the new coming of Christ and the final judgment. This is also why Joachimite thought was often opposed: because he believed that the age of perfection, that of the Holy Spirit, would come in the future, and consequently the Roman Church of the second age would be far from perfect. That is, it would have been a kind of project in fieri, in the process of evolution: a rigid and dogmatic Church versus the free, mystical and spiritual Church of the age of the Holy Spirit.

La Trinit trifronte
The tri-frontal Trinity. Rocca di Vignola Foundation
Let us return just to the three ages: during the third age, a sort of new golden age, the prophecy described inSt. John’s Apocalypse would be fulfilled (incidentally: Joachim of Fiore was a great admirer of St. John’s work), namely, the coming of the heavenly Jerusalem, which according to Joachimite thought would manifest itself in the form of a just, equitable and grace-filled society. The heavenly Jerusalem, according to John’s Revelation, is a splendid city, filled with gold, inhabited only by the righteous and illuminated by the glory of God. Also according to the Johannine prophecy, the city is traversed by a river on the banks of which is thetree of life, among whose branches the Trinity is discerned, from which descends the glory that illuminates the city: it is precisely the tree that we see, in the fresco, next to St. John, and the three-headed figure would be none other than the same depiction of the Trinity. St. John, moreover, is the only saint in the cycle who looks at his symbol: a detail of no small importance to consider the importance of the saint within the frescoes. The Trinity thus depicted is the so-called tri-frontal Trinity. An iconography that would later be condemned by the Council of Trent, and then considered heretical under the pontificate of Urban VIII (this is the 17th century), as it was considered monstrous. It might have recalled, just as an example, the mythological cerberus, the infernal three-headed dog of pagan cults.

We said that the sail of St. John corresponds to the episode of Pentecost: it is the moment when the Holy Spirit descends on Mary and the apostles in the form of a dove and strikes each of them in the guise of a tongue of fire, enabling them to speak all the languages of the world. The metaphor marks the beginning of the preaching of Jesus’ message to all nations. Thus we can understand why the Pentecost scene is so important: it is nothing less than a kind of hymn to the Holy Spirit.

La Pentecoste
Pentecost. Rocca di Vignola Foundation

Ges Bambino
Baby Jesus. Rocca di Vignola Foundation.
The centrality of the figure of the Virgin Mary in the thought of Joachim of Fiore is reiterated in the adjoining wall. For the Calabrian cleric, Our Lady is the blessed virgo Maria mater christianorum, that is, the “blessed virgin Mary mother of Christians”: she is therefore considered the parent of the Church, the community of Christians. Mary begot the Son through the Holy Spirit, and was present with the apostles when God sent down the Holy Spirit on earth at Pentecost: a figure, therefore, of considerable importance. In ancient times there was already a widespread belief, later sanctioned as Catholic dogma in 1950, that Mary was assumed into heaven with soul and body: the master of Vignola depicts the episode of the Assumption on the wall dedicated to St. Matthew, who appears with the symbol of the Child Jesus in the act of blessing. A key that links the symbol to the scene could be the coral necklace that the Child wears around his neck: in the Middle Ages, coral was believed to protect the newborn from danger, and we could therefore consider it almost as a symbol of maternal love. A love that Jesus will reciprocate by also saving his mother’s body, here described as that of an old woman: an iconography that differs from the traditional iconography of thesoul, depicted as a snow-white and innocent creature, and which is necessary precisely to highlight the fact that both the soul and the body of the Virgin would be assumed into heaven. The episode of the Assumption is not part of the canonical Gospels: in this case the sources are two apocrypha, the Dormitio Virginis attributed to St. John, and the Transitus Mariae of Pseudo-Joseph of Arimathea, texts taken up in medieval times by Jacopo da Varazze’s famous Legenda aurea, which the artists looked to. The fresco therefore celebrates both the figure of Christ, so much so that Matthew’s gospel is identified by the phrase Cum natus esset Yhesus (“When Jesus was born”), and that of his mother, bound together by an infinite mutual love.

Assunzione della Vergine
The Assumption of the Virgin. Rocca di Vignola Foundation

Ges e Maria
Jesus takes Mary to heaven. Rocca di Vignola Foundation

A particular depiction of the Resurrection on the wall facing the entrance wall introduces us to another theme in Joachim of Fiore’s thought, that of reconciliation between Christians and Jews and the conversion of the latter before the coming of the age of the Holy Spirit. The evangelist associated with the episode is Mark, identified by the phrase Recumbentibus undecim (“[Appeared] to the eleven while they were at table,” the subject being the resurrected Christ) and the symbol of Christ with the crusading banner, itself a symbol of the Resurrection. We note that in the scene painted on the wall, in addition to Mary and the twelve apostles witnessing Jesus’ ascension to heaven, three figures in priestly garb appear on the right. The reference, in this case, is to the Gospel of Nicodemus, an apocryphal account in which it is said that on the day after Christ’s resurrection, three men, Adas, Phineas, and Haggai (a scribe, a priest, and a Levite, respectively), went to the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of Jewish justice, to testify to the vision of the risen Christ: their account would thus prompt the Jewish people to set out in search of Jesus. The willingness to seek Jesus is thus assimilated to that reconciliation mentioned just above.

La resurrezione
Resurrection. Rocca di Vignola Foundation

Il serpente della rigenerazione
The serpent of regeneration. Rocca di Vignola Foundation.
Also taken from the Gospel of Nicodemus is the last episode of the Vignola cycle, which in the apocryphal narrative is later than that of the testimony of the three men: the account of Christ’s descent into Hell. According to the narrative, Jesus, together with the good thief Disma, would go to Hell to defeat Satan and take to heaven the souls of the Old Testament righteous, who until then were in Limbo. In the scene, we see Jesus taking Adam by the hand, while at his feet we notice the broken gates of Hell and the figure of the Devil on the ground, knocked down. Interwoven on the wall are some fundamental themes of Christian theology. The evangelist, Luke, is identified by the phrase Missus est angelus Gabriel (“The angel Gabriel was sent”): this is the beginning of the announcement of the birth of Jesus, theLamb of God whose sacrifice will be necessary for the redemption of humanity. The symbol that appears alongside the evangelist is precisely that of thesacrificial lamb, and is connected to the episode by the fact that Adam’s salvation symbolizes the redemption of original sin, made possible, precisely, by Christ’s sacrifice. Christ’s death and resurrection would thus set the stage for a rebirth of humankind, finally free from sin. A rebirth that, in the fresco, is visually represented by the serpent crawling behind the lid of the tomb abandoned by Jesus: the serpent, which changes its skin, is in this case a positive symbol of regeneration. Regenerated humanity would then be ready to receive the Holy Spirit, awaiting his descent to the earth: and here we reconnect with the Pentecost fresco.

La discesa di Cristo agli inferi
Christ’s descent into hell. Rocca di Vignola Foundation

An iconographic program therefore not easy to read, probably suggested by an illustrious figure of the culture of the time, Donato degli Albanzani (c. 1328 - c. 1411), tutor of both Uguccione Contrari and Niccol III d’Este (and of the latter he was also his secretary), learned humanist, pupil of Francesco Petrarch and keeper of the library of the great Tuscan poet. All the charm of the Contrari Chapel, or what was once a room reserved for a few connoisseurs of Gioacchino da Fiore’s sacred texts and theology, is now an integral part of the tour of the Rocca di Vignola. And it gives us a way to come into contact with one of the most refined environments of the time: an environment imbued with a lively and sophisticated culture, whose spirituality and hopes for the future are to be discovered by letting ourselves be guided by the power of the images of the master of Vignola, capable of effectively rendering the extraordinary complexity of these engaging frescoes, evidence of a fruitful and suggestive link between religion, mysticism, art and humanist culture.