“Ut omni hebdomada, animam unam eripiat de purgatorio igne feria sexta”
A soul saved from the flames of Purgatory, this time not by Christ or the Virgin but by San Lorenzo. It is the image of a rare iconography that is preserved on the walls of the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Ponte in San Gimignano.
The building, erected in the thirteenth century on a historically important place in the context of the urban development regarding the Valdelsa town at that time – as the toponym of “bridge” suggests – is one of those places to be rediscovered, for those who already familiar with its name, and to be known for those visiting San Gimignano.
This ancient place of worship, now deconsecrated, returned to be admired following restorations in the early twentieth century, after a series of events that had seen it transformed into a wine cellar, then into an oil mill and finally into a deposit of bricks and lime. is one of those art treasures that also tells the story of San Gimignano: it does so thanks to the extraordinary images that are preserved here, witnesses not only to the style of the painters who worked there, but above all to the specific trends of some periods that pushed the clients wanting certain themes represented.
On the basis of this we can mention for example one of the most interesting and unrecognised depictions of the damned in hell directly inspired by the first Canticle of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, as the eminent Florentine Art historian Cristina Acidini pointed out in a recent publication that sheds light on iconography and history of the building.
On the right wall of the oratory, with a single nave, the images of the damned in some groups – with their relative punishments – unfold in an unfortunately incomplete state and with a “difficult overlapping”, again as the Florentine scholar pointed out.
Detail of the frescos of the Purgatory, Oratory San Lorenzo in Ponte, San Gimignano
An unusual image of San Lorenzo
If it is Dante’s infero that appears on the right wall, on the opposite wall we find equally fascinating images which, although not well preserved, retain some truly surprising details.
Here the titular saint appears to have descended into purgatory ready to redeem, as I said above, a soul from the flames.
It is a more unique iconography that of the saint who has the faculty to redeem a soul from purgative flames and his presence here in San Gimignano has a double importance, both as a testimony of an ancient tradition according to which, as reported by the professor of Iconography and Classic Tradition at the University of Siena Marilena Caciorgna in the same publication cited above, Lorenzo would have been given the opportunity to redeem a soul from Purgatory every Friday as he had been martyred – among other things right in the flames -, both to rediscover the possible role of the oratory used by sangimignanesi as a place to pray to obtain the liberation of the souls of their families.
San Lorenzo and San Gregorio rescue Purgatory souls (detail) Oratory San Lorenzo in Ponte,
The figure of Gregory the Great and a crowned head
The presence of San Gregorio Magno next to that of Lorenzo in the fresco of Purgatory would strengthen this thesis, a saint to whom the custom of celebrating a mass in the trigth from death “with liberating value” and who already had particular veneration in San Gimignano dates back (see its link with the story of Santa Fina).
In addition to this, Gregorio is represented in San Lorenzo in Ponte in San Gimignano in the same function of redeeming a soul, but the latter has a detail that is not accidental: his crowned head should identify the character as a ruler. Scholars have recognised in these the emperor Trajan who is linked to the hagiographic events of the pontiff, as described both by the Fathers of the Church and by Dante Alighieri himself who mentions both the emperor and Gregory the Great in Purgatory and in the Paradise of the Comedy – this is a fact that is of particular interest from the point of view of the artistic events that affect San Lorenzo in Ponte.
Images of redemption from eternal damnation, as well as those of a moralising nature that also see the presence of a Triumph of Death, along the lines of the well-known theme of the same name painted in the Cemetery of Pisa by Buffammalco, are just some of the suggestive representations that can be admired in the oratory of San Lorenzo al Ponte in San Gimignano.
The publication mentioned above and which I report here in the bibliography systematically describes all the historical and artistic dynamics of this jewel of San Gimignano.
However, if you are interested in discovering the oratory with a guided tour, you can contact me. However, the oratory remains open every day in summer from 10:00 to 13:00 and from 15:00 to 19:30, in winter from 11:00 to 13:00 and from 15:00 to 17:00: 30. To access the Oratory, you just need to have a ticket for the Civic Museums or the San Gimignano Pass ⟢
V.Bartoloni (a cura di), San Gimignano – La Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Ponte, Atti della Giornata di Studi, San Gimignano, Sala Tamagni, 6 Ottobre 2018, Sillabe 2020 (Italian edition)