BASILICA OF SAN FRANCESCO, Lower Basilica Lorenzetti

Audio File length: 2.48
English / USA Language: English / USA

Look carefully at the frescoes in the area to the left of the altar: they are more sophisticated - but also more dramatic – than the ones I’ve been telling you about until now. It was here, at the beginning of the 14th century, that the great painter from Siena, Pietro Lorenzetti, illustrated the “Stories of the Passion”, almost in competition with his contemporary Simone Martini, who was working just a few meters away in the chapel of San Martino.

Following centuries in which painting was seen simply as a means of rendering glory to God and educating the faithful, here it became almost a competition between artists, intent on creating works that were beautiful and pleasing to the eye, as well as, and indeed more than, illustrating sacred events. If you look carefully at the superb frescoes by Lorenzetti, you’ll see an endless number of realistic, entertaining details, making them very different from the earlier ones painted by Giotto in the Upper Church, in a simple, solemn style, which you’ll soon have the chance to see.

Look for the scene depicting “The Last Supper: it is taking place in an elegant octagonal hall, furnished in a pleasant Gothic style, with magnificent marble seats and an exquisitely embroidered tablecloth. The most unusual detail, however, is on the left, where you can see an attendant taking the leftovers to a dog, which is hungrily licking the plates, while a sleeping cat is enjoying the warmth of the large fireplace.

And what about the characters featured in the “Crucifixion? The smartly dressed horsemen appear indifferent to the dramatic events, while some of the horses are painted with such energy that they almost look as if they’re conversing with one another.  

There’s a touch of romanticism evident too: in the troubled scene of the “Arrest of Christ”, observe the moon going down behind the mountains, while the Apostles are quietly slipping away behind the mountain on the right.

Pietro Lorenzetti was also supremely talented at depicting tragedy, as you can see from the fresco entitled “The Deposition from the Cross”: the dead body of Christ is a harrowing scene, with his distraught mother Mary’s face close to her son’s, lolling backwards in suffering.


An interesting fact: look for the scene of the Flagellation of Christ: you can spot a monkey, held on a leash by the gentlewomen at the window on the roof of the building where Christ’s torment is taking place. In the 14th century, the aristocratic classes were fond of keeping exotic animals as pets, and Lorenzetti, attentive to everything around him, portrayed the society of his time even in his sacred paintings.


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