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Chapter I: The Arrow in the Eye (page 4)

The Arrow in the Eye

By great fortune, there exists a copy of the fresco, shown in Figure 1.1b, which can give us a reading of the parts of the fresco for which no photograph exists. For instance, we can see that Saint Christopher was (as Jacobus of Voragine puts it in his Golden Legend a thirteenth-century compendium of legends about the lives of the saints often consulted by Renaissance artists) "a man of prodigious size, being twelve cubits in height, and fearful of aspect" (Jacobus de Voragine, 1969, p. 377). Jacobus describes the relevant episode of Saint Christopher's martyrdom as follows:


Fig 1.11 Masolino, Saint Christopher. St. Catherine's Chapel, exterior, San Clemente, Rome (1428-30).

Then the king [of Samos] had him tied to a pillar, and ordered four thousand soldiers to shoot arrows at him. But the arrows hung in mid-air, nor could a single one of them touch Christopher. And when the king, thinking that he was already transfixed with arrows, shouted invectives at him, an arrow fell suddenly from the air, turned upon him, struck him in the eye, and blinded him. Then Christopher said: "I know, O king, that I shall be dead on the morrow. When I am dead, do thou, tyrant, make a paste of my blood, rub it upon thine eyes, and thou shalt recover thy sight!" Then at the king's order he was beheaded; and the king took a little of his blood, and placed it upon his eyes, saying: "In the name of God and Saint Christopher!" And at once he was made whole. Then the king was baptized, and decreed that whoever should blaspheme against God or Saint Christopher should at once be beheaded. (Jacobus de Voragine, 1969, pp. 381-2, slightly changed by the authors)

Mantegna's interpretation agrees with Jacobus's account; so at first blush it would seem that Mantegna's representation of the arrow in the eye is traditional and that there is therefore no evidence of a metaphorical role for this aspect of the picture.

However, when one looks for pictorial antecedents for the arrow lodged in the king's eye, one realizes the novelty of Mantegna's interpretation - for there are none. In Italian painting, Saint Christopher - like all the other saints - appears both in isolated images and in cycles depicting the saint's life.3 Twenty-four isolated images of Saint Christopher have been cataloged, most of which represent him in the act of carrying the Christ-child across a river (for example, Masolino's touching fresco, Figure 1.11), whence his name, which means "Christ-bearer"). Only one of them depicts the miracle of the recalcitrant arrows: It is part of a polyptych on various subjects painted by an anonymous Venetian painter between 1325 and 1335.4 It does not show the arrow in the eye. All seven cycles (including the one to which Mantegna's fresco belongs5 contain a scene representing the recalcitrant arrows6 ; but as far as the poor state of preservation of these frescoes allows us to tell, only Mantegna's shows the episode of the arrow in the eye. If this is true, and if we may assume that Renaissance artists did not deviate easily from traditional practice in the representation of scenes from the lives of the saints or from the life of Christ, it suggests that Mantegna may have had good reason for drawing the viewer's attention to the arrow in the eye.

3 See Kaftal's 1952, 1965, 1978) compendia on the iconography of the saints in Italian painting.

4 For an illustration, see Pallucchini, 1964, Figure 217.

5 Not all of which were painted by Mantegna; some were painted by Bono da Ferrara and Ansuino da Forli.

6 The cycles are all frescoes. In northeastern Italy: Ridolfo Guariento (active in the Church of San Domenico at Bolzano (these frescoes have been destroyed); School of the Veneto (early fifteenth century) in the Church of Santa Lucia (partly ruined); Bertolino dei Grossi (attribution uncertain) between 1417 in the Valeri family chapel in the Cathedral at Parma. In Tuscany: Spinello Aretino (ca. 1346-1410) in the Church of San Domenico, Arezzo; Parri Spinelli in the Cathedral at Arezzo.

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