Shadows and Light: Uccello’s Tragic Tale in ‘The Miracle of the Desecrated Host’

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Echoes of a Burning Past: Uccello’s Heart-Wrenching ‘Miracle of the Desecrated Host’.

“The Miracle of the Desecrated Host” portrays a charged historical event from 1290 Paris, where a Christian woman sells a consecrated host to a Jewish moneylender, who upon cooking it, witnesses it bleeding. This incident causes an uproar, leading to tragic executions. The artwork is significant in the annals of art as it showcases Paolo Uccello’s remarkable application of perspective and compositional choices, while also casting a light on societal attitudes towards Jews during the mid-15th century in Italy. It reflects the often intricate interplay of societal narratives and visual artistry.

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The canvas that portrays ‘The Miracle of the Desecrated Host’ was fashioned by Paolo Uccello between 1467 and 1468, as evidenced by payments made to the artist during his stay in Urbino with his son, Donato. This painting is the predella, a part of an altarpiece, of a grand altarpiece depicting the Communion of the Apostles. The altarpiece was not created by Uccello due to age and health issues, but was completed between 1473 and 1474 by the Flemish artist, Justus of Ghent. The two works were commissioned for the Church of Santa Maria di Pian di Mercato by the Corpus Domini brotherhood in Urbino. Following the demolition of the church in 1708, these pieces were relocated to the neighboring Church of Sant’Agata. Over time, the predella was separated from the altarpiece and its whereabouts became unknown until it was rediscovered in an attic of the Piarist College, significantly damaged, prior to September 1857. After a prompt restoration, it entered the collection of the newly established museum of the Institute of Fine Arts in Urbino in 1861.

Initially, in 1456, the task of creating the altarpiece and its predella had been assigned to Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini, also known as “Fra Carnevale”. However, the artist relinquished the assignment on June 5th of that same year. After the predella was finished, the Corpus Domini brotherhood tried to entrust Piero della Francesca with the task of completing the main work in 1469. Francesca declined the offer after inspecting the large panel, which was likely already prepared for Corradini or Uccello.

Unusually, the predella was painted before the main panel. It tells the story of an incident that occurred in Paris in 1290, as narrated in the 14th century by Giovanni Villani, with some alterations introduced by Antonino Pierozzi, such as the scene of blood dripping.. The predella reflects the negative perception of Jews in Italy during the mid-15th century. Around this time, Monti di Pietà, non-profit financial institutions established by various monastic orders to manage modest loans, were set up to replace Jewish moneylenders. The Monte di Pietà in Urbino was instituted in 1468, with the approval of Countess Battista Sforza, wife of Federico da Montefeltro.

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Red is the dominant hue in the predella, present in the columns and many scene details.

The Miracle of the Desecrated Host
The Miracle of the Desecrated Host, first scene

The first scene is set in a Jewish moneylender’s office, depicted beautifully using central perspective. The owner’s religion is discernible from the emblem of a scorpion on the fireplace—a symbol of Judaism, used in an anti-Semitic context since the Early Church Fathers. Other crests include a Moor’s head, often seen in non-Christian contexts, and a star, probably related to a guild. The scene depicts a sacrilegious sale of a consecrated host by a woman who, in contrast to Villani’s original text, receives a bag of money in exchange.

The Miracle of the Desecrated Host
The Miracle of the Desecrated Host, third scene

In the second scene, we see the interior of the Jew’s home, where the host is being cooked in a pot on the fire. As the host embodies Christ, it bleeds, with the blood spilling onto the floor and reaching beyond the home’s threshold. A group of people outside, drawn by the commotion, attempt to break down the door. The scene is masterfully divided by the wall of the house, separating the violent action of the soldiers from the domestic intimacy of the Jew, his wife, and their two children who seem surprised and terrified by the event. Particularly interesting is the perspective grid provided by the checkered floor, which offers an ideal continuation of the first panel’s setting.

The Miracle of the Desecrated Host

The subsequent scene shows the host being solemnly returned to an altar by a procession, led by a pope wearing a triple crown, possibly Boniface VIII, who erected a votive chapel in Paris in 1295 to commemorate the miraculous event.

The Miracle of the Desecrated Host
The Miracle of the Desecrated Host, fourth scene

In the fourth scene, against a distant pastoral backdrop, the woman who sold the host is about to be hanged, with an angel suggesting a possibility of redemption.

The Miracle of the Desecrated Host
The Miracle of the Desecrated Host, fifth scene

In the fifth scene, under the watchful eyes of soldiers, the Jew, his wife, and their two children are executed at the stake.

The Miracle of the Desecrated Host
The Miracle of the Desecrated Host, final scene

In the final scene, angels and demons vie for the soul of the sacrilegious woman, under the shadow of an altar resembling that of the reconsecration scene. The devils are almost entirely effaced due to scratches likely made out of popular fanaticism.

The predella is particularly renowned for its application of perspective rules and effective compositional choices, with a background that continues from panel to panel. Despite the meticulous construction, the arrangement of the protagonists does not convincingly depict depth as they seem simply superimposed on the background, even lacking cast shadows on the ground. This feature of Paolo’s works prompted Donatello’s famous remark: “Your perspective makes you abandon certainty for uncertainty”, implying that the figures progressively lose their physicality and the landscape becomes abstract and digressive.

Source: wikipedia, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche
Topics: Paolo Uccello’s The Miracle of the Desecrated Host, Significance of The Miracle of the Desecrated Host, Understanding Uccello’s Predella, Artistic Interpretation of Paolo Uccello, Historical Art of the Mid-15th Century, Italian Renaissance Art and Society


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