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This was originally the top panel of the high altarpiece of Forlì Cathedral, the main panel of which is now in the Pinacoteca Civica, Forlì. The dead Christ in the tomb is supported by the Virgin (in blue), with Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Evangelist also appearing in the tomb. The patron saints of Forlì – Valerian and Mercurialis (first Bishop of Forlì) – stand on either side.
The subject of the altarpiece’s main panel is the First Communion of the Apostles – the episode following the institution of the Eucharist, when Christ announced at the Last Supper that the bread and wine represented his own body. The panel below it records the deeds of Saint Helena, who uncovered and ‘proved’ the True Cross on which Christ was crucified.
The altarpiece was unveiled in October 1506 during the visit to Forlì of Pope Julius II, who had a special interest in imagery associated with the Eucharist.
This painting was originally the lunette of the high altarpiece that Palmezzano painted for Forlì Cathedral, the main panel of which is now in the Pinacoteca Civica in Forlì. The curved top has been cut down and corners added to alter the shape from a half circle to a rectangle.
The dead Christ in the tomb is supported by the Virgin Mary, with Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Evangelist also inside the tomb. The patron saints of Forlì – the young soldier Valerian (husband of Saint Cecilia) and Mercurialis first Bishop of Forlì – stand on either side. The mouldings and decoration of the architecture in the lunette match that of the architecture of the main panel originally below it.
In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari describes the subject of the altarpiece as the First Communion of the Apostles – the episode following the institution of the Eucharist, when Christ announced at the Last Supper that the bread and wine, the sacrament of the Eucharist, represented his own body. Vasari goes on to say that the main panel was surmounted by a lunette with the dead Christ, while below there was a predella representing the deeds of Saint Helena. The Cathedral was dedicated to the True Cross on which Christ was crucified, which according to legend Helena had venerated, uncovered and ‘proved’.
Palmezzano’s altarpiece for his local town featured not only brilliant colours but a profusion of gold ornament, a display of impressive linear perspective and foreshortening, luxurious architecture, and a striking variety of physical types and expressions.
In the main panel, Christ administers the Eucharist to Saint Peter. Nine of his disciples kneel before Christ, while another stands behind them on the left. Saint John holds a chalice aloft next to Christ and looks at the viewer (at this date only the Communion wafer was given to the communicant). Christ appears anxious – the Eucharist represents his own body that he will shortly sacrifice for humanity. The dead body of Christ in the lunette above reminded viewers of the presence of Christ’s body in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
The unveiling of the altarpiece was timed to coincide with the visit of Pope Julius II to Forlì in October 1506. In the lunette, Saint Mercurialis is holding a Guelph banner (red with a white cross), showing that he is aligned with the Pope’s faction. Saint Valerian is holding the blue and white striped banner of Forlì. The Pope’s family, the della Rovere, were by this date the rulers of Urbino and he had a special interest in imagery associated with the Eucharist. The only known earlier painting of the subject of the First Communion is by Justus of Ghent for the Confraternity of Corpus Domini in the cathedral of Urbino (now in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino).
The figures are very characteristic of Palmezzano, especially the stiff anatomy of Christ, the tightly clustered curls of Saint Valerian and the coiling hair of Christ and Saint John. The masks in the background also appear in other works by him.
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