Rome contains many hidden treasures, but the most remarkable of the lot is concealed on the Caelian Hill, above the Colosseum, in the medieval monastery of Santi Quattro Coronati. It’s a cycle of frescoes dating from around 1250. It is extremely rare for painting from this period to survive anywhere, but it’s even rarer in Rome, where the rebuilding of the city by the Counter-Reformation popes destroyed almost all medieval painting.
The paintings are in a vast vaulted gothic hall, the walls of which — about 800 square metres of them — were originally completely covered in frescoes. About half the original paintings remain: an earthquake, and the construction of additional windows, have destroyed the rest. But what survives is so impressive that it has been called ‘the medieval Sistine Chapel’ — which it’s not: it’s not that amazing. But it is wonderful, so the hyperbole is pardonable.
Almost every other surviving medieval fresco cycle depicts scenes from the Old and New Testament, or at least episodes from the life of a saint, reflecting the critical role of painting in providing religious instruction for the illiterate. But these pictures aren’t overtly religious. They depict the seasons, the zodiac, the labours of the months, and the vices and the virtues. The virtues are depicted as knights in chain mail with saints and prophets on their shoulders, whispering wisdom into their ears. There’s what looks to be an image of Mithras sacrificing a bull. There are also personifications of the seven liberal arts, and a large portrait of Solomon, sitting in judgment, but looking much more like a medieval ruler than an Old Testament king.
The impression that this is a secular cycle may, however, be misleading. Professor Andreina Draghi, the greatest authority on the cycle and the woman who discovered it, points out that all of the images can be fitted into the system of Christian symbolism then prevalent, and she quotes various medieval writers to show that the labours of the months had a complicated interpretation involving the spiritual journey of every Christian through life to death, judgment and (perhaps) heaven.