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A Little Seventeenth-Century Oratory


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This is a very small chapel, but you wouldn't know it: the altar and its theatrical backdrop dominate this intimate prayer space.


[image ALT: zzz. It is a stucco reredos of the Baptism of Jesus in the church of S. Giovanni Battista in Spello, Umbria (central Italy).]
The best work in the church is the late 17c reredos of the Baptism of Jesus. Of painted plaster possibly with an eye to reminding one of a della Robbia ceramic, stylistically it lies somewhere between baroque and rococo, and is an unusually elegant work. (Which being interpreted: I don't much care for anything after about the 15c, but I like this.)

Newcomers to things iconographic, don't be fooled by the tall figure obviously in command and holding the cross: it is indeed St. John the Baptist, the titular saint of the church. Normally he wears a camel skin, as it says in the Bible; here he doesn't seem to, but if there were any doubt, the shape of the cross is always a tip-off, even if he were not baptizing. When Christ is represented holding a cross, it is almost always the real thing, a blocky lumber cross capable of supporting the weight of a man; whereas St. John almost invariably holds a very thin cross like the one you see here.


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One of the lofts on either side, optimistically decorated with angelic musicians: they must have been for instrument players and choristers. The symmetrical lofts suggest Vivaldi and antiphonal music, and this church would be a very good place for chamber music concerts.


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Page updated: 28 Jun 13