One of my favorite paintings in the world is Maso di Banco’s St. Sylvester Resurrecting the Two Magi Killed by a Dragon and I’ve never seen it in person. When I was a teenager I stumbled upon the image in a Time/Life book on Giotto that I stole from my sister and it has haunted me ever since. I was struck immediately by how much better it was than any of Giotto’s other followers’ works. The fresco is built like a brick shit house and the power of its structure is something I sensed immediately without really understanding why.
You enter the painting through a broken arch whose flat top is echoed by a similarly arched, broken building in the middle ground and the parapets of a walled city in the distance. Even with some mildly wonky vanishing points, because of a repetition of forms, there is the sense that you are sitting front row center in a completely stable, and therefore believable, environment.
The first scene that you encounter is St. Sylvester slaying the dragon, but strangely, there is absolutely no bloodshed or violence. It is such a peculiar moment. The saint grabs the dragon’s snout while it bashfully backs away like a skittish colt. What should have been the dramatic money-shot is handled with almost somnambulant calm. It’s also worth noting that all of this is inexplicably taking place in a pit with two monks holding their noses and not lending a hand (the bible suggests that the two magi were killed by the dragon’s horrendous breath). Their presence in the pit, however, is part of a formal device that creates a large pyramidal shape whose peak is the top of the saint’s miter and whose base runs from the bottom edge of the pit to the top of the two dead pagans. This stabilizes the composition and creates a clear hierarchy with St. Sylvester at the top of the heap.
There are two scenes being depicted here (the pagans are represented as both dead and alive) and if you’re reading from left to right the saint appears to be killing, rather than reviving them. In order to read the sequence properly, you have to hop over the resuscitated pagans, land on the dead ones and double back to the now kneeling, undead pagans. This appears to be intentional and very creative to me as it keeps you in a weird Möbius loop circling back and forth from the not-quite-slain dragon to the dead pagans and back again.
Curiously, there is a crowd of onlookers led by the Emperor Constantine who barely reacts to all the goings-on, which only heightens the dreamlike feeling of the piece. This is something that Maso learned from Giotto and it lends the scene a seriousness that can’t be achieved through operatic gesticulations. Any emotion that is conveyed by the fresco is actually supplied by the viewer. This is in keeping with the essential quality of Maso’s work. There is nothing extraneous in his paintings, no gewgas or jimcracks. Everything in Maso’s work has to be there like some form of representational minimalism. There are broken buildings that represent the end of the pagan era and fortified bulwarks that represent the Christian future and all of the figures have a role in advancing the narrative, but otherwise, the scene has been stripped bare.
The light in St. Sylvester is also remarkable. Set against a blue, black sky it is intensely directional with an almost lunar quality. All of the buildings and figures exist in clearly defined light and shadow but nothing in this pre-Masaccio world casts a shadow itself, which makes the scene all the more unreal. Everything seems to exist and not exist at the same time.
Maso also uses sharply defined pounce-lines that give the fresco a strangely contemporary, photorealist quality. Many fresco painters of the day tried to obliterate their pounce-lines as they were generally viewed as simple guides from the original cartoon to the finished piece. The fact that Maso not only chose to keep them in, but actually accentuated them, suggests that the heightened realism they provided was something he was striving for.
Ultimately the fresco is about the sea change event that occurred when the pagan culture of magic and superstition was replaced by the new Christian culture of gentle but all-powerful strength. The pagans are reborn in front of their leader who first witnesses the demise of a terrifying mystical creature. The struggle for life and death is caught in the ever-repeating loop represented by the dragon and the now-you’re-living-now-you’re-dead pagans.
Sadly, Maso di Banco died at the age of twenty-eight, long before he could have realized his full creative potential. I can only imagine what he might have achieved had he lived a long and productive life. It reminds me of all of the plagues, famines, and holocausts that have decimated creative lives throughout history.