Sacred Images: The Tradition of Christian Art in Urbino

By Ashley Ford, Editor-in-Chief

Christian subjects have been a primary source of art in Urbino since the Middle Ages. Over time, art has been influenced by mythology and architecture, but the historical Christian art that has been preserved is still the main focus of this city.

St. Joseph's Oratorio Photo by Kelsey Poynor
St. Joseph’s Oratorio.  Photo by Kelsey Poynor

Urbino is a city covered in Christian art. Not only do precious works hang in churches, but also in the Ducal Palace, theaters and on buildings and atop pedestals throughout the city streets. Urbino also has preserved two oratories, The Oratory of St. John the Baptist and The Oratory of San Giuseppe. An oratory is a private church for a special brotherhood of worshipers. Sometimes they would open their church up to the public.

The Oratory of Saint John the Baptist features a fresco painting wrapped around one of the rooms. Illustrated by the Salimbeni brothers, Lorenzo and Jacopo, this 1416 fresco displays scenes from the history of Saint John, the Crucifixion of Jesus, Madonna and Humility and Madonna and Child on the throne.

When scoping out the room, you’ll find the need to sit down in one of the chairs arranged in the room’s center. All the different scenes individually tell their own story. Making your way around the room, you can put the story together, starting with the crucifixion of Jesus. These stories are filled with many characters, and you likely will be amazed how well-preserved the fresco is.

The most interesting part that’s preserved in the room is the actual body of Saint John the Baptist himself. He lies in a glass tomb under the Crucifixion of Jesus, allowing all visitors to see his body wrapped in a black robe.

A few steps outside this oratory you will find the Oratory of Saint Joseph. This oratory dates to the 16th century. According to the information desk pamphlet, it “consists of two chapels: the smaller is that of the Manger of Brandani, conserved in its original state; the larger, which is the real church, was renovated and practically reconstructed between 1682 and 1689.”

Photo by Kelsey Poynor
This is Federico Brandani’s stucco of the nativity scene in Ducal Palace.
Photo by Kelsey Poynor

A few steps into the Chapel of Manger, your skin will be slightly clammy. When walking into this room, it’s as if you’re walking into a cave. This grotto holds Federico Brandani’s great stucco of the representation of the Nativity scene. Its scene includes baby Jesus under a shelter, together with the Virgin in adoration, Saint Joseph, two traditional animals a lamb and two cows and three shepherds.

This stucco scene brings perspective and movement to the room in many ways. In the distance looking in the Nativity scene, you can see a city there afar. Another version of this city is also engraved into the cave wall. This scene is not intended to be Urbino. Also, the ceiling above is dominated by another work of stucco with angles flying around.

In the second room is where the fraternity of the oratory would gather. In this room stands a large and famous statue of Saint Joseph himself reaching down and looking out on those sitting in front of him. Above him reads in Latin, “TE JOSEPH CELEBRENT AGMINA CAELITUM,” which translates in English to “Let the hosts of Heaven celebrate you, Joseph.”

Many other churches, cathedrals, oratories and Christian art museums are scattered throughout Urbino. The Chiesa di S. Francesco is a smaller public church that sits in the middle of town near the central square. This year, the building was boarded up on the outside for restoration, but it’s still open. About a half-mile walk uphill, you will find the Cathedral of Urbino. This building is connected with the famous Ducal Palace, which makes the inside of this cathedral so grand.

Photo by Ashley Ford
Madonna and Child in fresco. Photo by Ashley Ford

Worshippers and visitors use the cathedral every day and the architecture feels more modern than some of the other churches. This is because the building had to be renovated after an earthquake in the 1800s caused the floor to sink and the dome to crash and be destroyed. The room seems to flow from the natural light reflecting of the baby blue, white with gold trim walls and ceiling. The floor of this room is marvelous; one would think royalty threw gatherings in here. But it’s when looking up at the ceiling you feel like you begin to sink.

A special prayer room stood out to me the most. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a gold light. Following it, I found a single man praying by himself. This tranquil room leaves one surrounded by colorful paintings. Outside of the entrance of this prayer room is a statue of Urbino’s famous painter and native son, Rafaello. Seeing this statue in the Cathedral of Urbino made me realize how important art in general is to the people.

Beneath the Cathedral of Urbino is another private church called the Oratorio Della Grotta. Walking down into the oratory, you will see a painting of two hooded men praying. Our guide, Marco Bartolucci, explained that the men would pray in an all-black hooded outfit to prove their identity didn’t matter to their beliefs. This building is unique in its layout, with four rooms that represent the events of Christ’s life.

Next door to the Cathedral of Urbino is the Museo Diocesano Albani. This museum is rich in religious art that includes paintings, sculptures, robes from the Pope and beautifully jeweled household objects, such as mirrors and chalices.

A tour of Christian art of Urbino wouldn’t be complete without hitting these main religious spots. Even though all are open to the public, some do charge a small fee to see the art and in some cases, the remains of those who passed on centuries ago.

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