Pietro Cavallini (Rome, c. 1240 - c. 1330), probably Giotto’s master, executed one of the most valuable treasures preserved in the Abbey of St Cecilia: the fresco that used to face people as they left the church, though today it is no longer visible from the nave.
The work portrays Christ’s second coming into this world, traditionally represented in both East and West as indicated in the Gospel of St Matthew: “The Son of Man will be seated on his glorious throne and his twelve apostles will be seated with him, judging the twelve tribes of Israel”(19:28). “The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man. He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call to gather all his elect” (24:30-31). “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (25:31-32).
At the centre appears the figure of Christ the Judge, seated on a splendid throne studded with precious jewels. Below is an altar, Byzantine in style, with the instruments of the Passion: the sponge, the jar of vinegar, the nails, the lance that pierced the side of Christ on the Cross. The oval mandorla surrounding the figure of Christ is flanked by eight seraphim. On the right of Christ, our left, is the Virgin Mary who stands praying, turned towards her eternal Son; next to her are the apostles SS Paul, Jude, James the Great, Matthew, Bartholomew and Philip. On the left of Christ, our right, stands St John the Baptist next to the apostles Peter, John, Thomas, James the Less, Andrew and Simon the Canaanite.
On the lower level, to the right of Christ the Redeemer, angels are portrayed welcoming three groups of the blessed. Closest to him are the deacons, SS Laurence and Stephen the protomartyr. On the far right an angel is ushering a female saint wearing a crown, probably St Cecilia.
To the left of Christ are depicted the souls of the damned, again divided into three groups, together with angels intent on turning them away. The first angel is pushing them with his hands, the second with a lance and the third is using a weapon to pierce the devil’s body.
The overall design of the fresco is a Byzantine setting, but the artist treads new ground in his pursuit of a design that incorporates perspective, in his portrayal of the well-proportioned heads of the figures, as also in his use of subtle and innovative shades of colour. Pietro Cavallini continued his work on both sides of the fresco of the Last Judgment with a series of “typological” scenes above the arches of the walls of the nave, stretching from the basilica entrance to the triumphal arch in front of the apse mosaic: they portray Old Testament “types” that foreshadow the “mysteries”, or rather “saving events”, of the New Testament and are mirrored by scenes depicting their fulfilment. Only the beginning of the cycle, to the left and right of the Last Judgment, has survived: the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary of the birth of Jesus and, mirroring it on the opposite wall, the depiction of Isaac as a “type” prefiguring Jesus Christ.
Finally, in the corner of the wall between the Last Judgment and the Annunciation is an enigmatic figure painted out of scale; is he Samson, the giant Goliath, Judith, St Michael the Archangel ...? In fact he portrays the “Angel of the Covenant ”, the angel who towers over time and space, the Word of God, God himself, sent to human beings of every time and place; the Word of God who comes to us in the Old Testament and above all in the New to reveal God’s saving plan for humankind.
One last, extraordinary detail underlines the depth of theological vision shared by the artists Cavallini and Arnolfo di Cambio: the gaze of Christ the Judge in the fresco is aligned with the figure of the mystical Lamb in the apse mosaic (as can be seen by looking from the central grille in the choir towards the apse). The direction of his gaze is telling us that salvation has been won for us by the Judge who is also the Lamb sacrificed on the Cross out of love for humankind.
The frescoes were cut through at the time of the construction of the choir in the sixteenth century, when, following the promulgation of laws of strict enclosure by the Council of Trent, the nuns could no longer take part in liturgical celebrations in the basilica. The glorious paintings were hidden behind a wooden arch, and for centuries nothing was known about them. Discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century when the choir was rebuilt, the frescoes were restored in the 1980s under the supervision of Donatella and Carlo Giantomassi. Access to the frescoes in the choir is possible now only via the entrance to the monastery.