The beautiful and ancient Basilica of San Clemente in Rome is certainly one of the most amazing and awe inspiring churches in the eternal city, its mosaic and crypt are certainly known by most people. What I find especially intriguing about this beautiful Medieval church is an often underrated artistic gem; the Branda da Castiglione chapel, in the left hand aisle.
It represents the first (still surviving) work of the first Roman renaissance, the period that started when Pope Martin V Colonna relocated the See of Saint Peter in Rome after the so-called Avignon captivity. In the early 1400s several artists were called to decorate Roman churches, first of all Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello with the beautiful, and sadly lost, frescoes in the Lateran Basilica. Another important artist was Masolino da Panicale, known for his collaboration with Masaccio in the Cappella Brancacci in Florence.
Masolino da Panicale Cardinal Branda da Castiglione
The Castiglione chapel was named after Cardinal Branda da Castiglione, an early humanist and papal diplomat. He was given the title to San Clemente in 1411 when he was elevated to the rank of cardinal. He had a great appreciation of Masolino’s work in Florence and therefore he commissioned to this talented artist the decoration of a new chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine in San Clemente.
It is believed that Masolino worked between 1425 and 1431, because the Cardinal commissioned other frescoes to the artist in Castiglione Olona in 1435.
The eight scenes of the fresco cycle represent the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria on the left-hand wall and that of Sant Ambrose on the opposite wall.
Stories of Saint Catherine's life.
Saint Catherine refusing to worship idols.
Conversion and beheading of Empress Faustina
Saint Catherine disputing with scholars
Miracle of the wheel
Beheading of Saint Catherine
Stories of Saint Ambrose's life.
The lunette of the right hand wall, the architectural background is rather refined.
Miracle of the bees
Saint Ambrose becomes bishop
Destruction of the rich man's house
Studio of Saint Ambrose
Death of Saint Ambrose
The end wall of the chapel is filled with a majestic representation of the crucifixion, in a very refined early Renaissance style, the horses, knights and other figures remind us of Paolo Uccello, also known for his style very much influenced by the International Gothic style, like most of the early painters of the XV century.
The vaulting is decorated unusually with the four evangelists paired with the church fathers. The quatrefoils on the face of the entry arch is decorated with portraits of the apostles.
On the outer wall of the chapel there are other two frescoes representing St. Christopher holding Christ and wading through the water, the other is a beautiful Annunciation.
The authorship of the chapel was the subject of a long debate ended only in 1996. Vasari ascribed the frescoes to Masaccio, but he was probably confused. It is possible, however, that Masaccio began the decoration of the chapel before his death in 1428.