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Encouragement to Prayer

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The east wall: Hell.

Snakes and fire, and each person with a placard telling us what they did to get there — like the man with the big scissors, for example.

This sixth room of the lower church of S. Francesco, a rectangular space about 6 meters long, was walled in for several centuries and only recently rediscovered.

As we look at hell we have the original door of the chapel behind us: and although very few churches showcase hell like this, here it's what the designers of the space meant us to look at as we pray. Simply put, this chapel is designed to encourage us to pray in a penitential mode: fear of our eventual fate, consciousness of our sins.

To our left, a bare stone wall, once surely frescoed, but now the paint has gone. The wall to our right more than makes up for it, even though it too has suffered destruction, with five large scenes of the life of Christ remaining, naïve but rendered attractively and with feeling: the Crucifixion, the Deposition from the Cross, the Burial, the Resurrection, and the Noli Me Tangere — the odd scene in which the risen Jesus meets Mary Magdalen in the garden of the tomb, and tells her "Don't touch me!"
A sequence of 5 square paintings representing episodes from the life of Christ. It is part of the lower church of S. Francesco in Leonessa, Lazio (central Italy).

Despite this miniature-like montage of mine, the five scenes run about 5½ meters, almost the full length of the room. (No, you don't need to squint: each panel expands with a click.)

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Detail of the W wall: the blessed in Heaven, with the usual disproportionate number of monks. Below, a pulled-back view of the wall where the front door of the chapel used to be; and a detail of the other remaining fragment of it.

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But who prayed in this room? Who looked at the torments of Hell for hours, and, purified, saw Heaven only for a minute as they left the building?

This chapel is often called the Oratorio dei Bianchi, "the prayer-room of the Whites". No document records it as such, but — it contains the most beautiful painting in the church, above or below ground; and that painting clinches the identification: it's all on the next page. 
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Page updated: 8 Jul 04