Key to Umbria: Perugia

Oratorio di San Bernardino (1451-61)

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Fr Angelo del Toscano, the Franciscan Minister General (1450-3), commissioned this oratory next to San Francesco al Prato in 1451, soon after the canonisation of St Bernardino of Siena.  The fabric of the oratory was completed in the following year, when Pope Nicholas V granted indulgences for those visiting it on the feast of St Bernardino. 

Angelo del Toscano died in the following year, and there was a hiatus before the facade was commissioned from  Agostino di Duccio in 1457 (see below).  The completion of the facade, which was one of the earliest works of the Renaissance in Perugia, was celebrated with great ceremony in 1461.

The Oratorio dei SS Andrea and Bernardino was built behind the altar was in 1537.

Façade (1457-62)


The sculpture of the façade is the earliest documented work in Perugia by Agostino di Duccio.  The composition includes reliefs of scenes from the life of St Bernardino of Siena and figures of the Annunciation and of the patron saints of Perugia in tabernacles.  Bartolomeo di Mattiolo was also associated with the work, and received a specific payment in 1458 for the tabernacle destined to house the figure of the Virgin.  In fact, the execution of all four tabernacles has been attributed to him. 

Most of the work on the facade is attributed to Agostino di Duccio himself: 

  1. The relief in the lunette over the double doors (illustrated to the left), which depicts St Bernardino in Glory with musical angels, is particularly fine. 

  2. The frieze above the double portal includes an interesting relief of St Bernardino's "bonfire of the vanities" (illustrated to the right), with the signature of the sculptor below. 


The interior, which has a nave and two aisles separated by brick clustered columns, is entirely Gothic, in contrast to the Renaissance style of the facade. 

Sarcophagus of the Blessed Giles (4th century AD)

The present high altar is formed by the Roman sarcophagus that was re-used in 1262 for the burial of the Blessed Giles.  This early follower of St Francis died at his hermitage near San Francesco al Prato (later the site of the Convento di Monteripido) in 1262.  He had wished to be buried at the Portiuncula, but the Perugian Commune posted guards to ensure that his body remained in the city.  This was despite the fact that Giles had warned that he would never be canonised and never perform posthumous miracles, quoting the words of Christ: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matt: 13, 39).  When this early Christian sarcophagus bearing reliefs of the story of Jonah (see below) was discovered soon after in the Campo d’ Orto (now Piazza San Francesco), this was taken to be a miracle. 

The relics and the sarcophagus formed the basis of a shrine to the Blessed Giles in San Francesco al Prato, the history of which is set out in this page on that church.  They seem to have been separated in 1781:

  1. The relics were translated in succession: to the Palazzo Vescovile (in 1872); to the Duomo (in 1880); to the Convento di Monteripido (in 1920); and finally to the Oratorio di San Bernardino (in 1936).  The original high altar of the oratory was removed at this point and a stucco altar was built under which the relics were placed.

  2. The sarcophagus was moved to the Museo Civico in 1872 and remained there until 1946, when it was reunited with the relics in the Oratorio di San Bernardino, where it replaced the stucco altar.   (This altar is now in SS Severo e Agata).

Eight columns on the front of the sarcophagus define seven niches.  The central one contains the figure of Christ enthroned, the niche to His right contains a female personification of the Church holding the keys of St Peter, while the other niches contain Apostles.  Christ has given a scroll containing the new law to one of the Apostles (presumably St Peter) in the niche to His left: this early Christian iconography is known as the Traditio Legis.  In the upper register, Jonah is thrown overboard and eaten by a whale (on the left), only to escape three days later (on the right). 

The plaque held by putti in the upper register, which now contains an inscription recording the presence of the relics of the Blessed Giles, presumably once commemorated the original Roman occupants of the sarcophagus.  The male heads at the corners are probably portraits of them.

Tombstone of Angelo del Toscano (ca. 1457)

This marble slab on left wall is attributed to Agostino di Duccio.  It commemorates the Franciscan Minister General, who was born in Perugia and entered the convent of San Francesco al Prato in the early 15th century.  He was a man of great learning and an able diplomat who often served as an ambassador for the Commune.  He rose rapidly through the Franciscan ranks, becoming Provincial Minister in 1438 and Minister General in 1450.  In 1453, he hosted the annual meeting of the General Chapter of the Order, during which he officiated at a celebration of the feast of St Bernardino that was attended by the delegates and by the leading citizens of Perugia.  He died soon after this memorable occasion and was buried in the pavement in front of the high altar of San Francesco al Prato

As noted above, Fra Angelo had been the prime mover behind the construction of the Oratorio di San Bernardino in 1451-2.   His monument is usually dated to ca. 1457, after Agostino di Duccio was commissioned to work on its facade.  His memorial stone was moved to the oratory in the early 20th century. 

Gonfalon di San Francesco al Prato (1464)

This banner on the right wall is attributed to Benedetto Bonfigli.  The Commune commissioned it during an outbreak of plague in 1464.  It was credited with miraculous powers, and became the object of a cult dedicated to Santa Maria della Pace.   As the outbreak subsided, the Commune sent ambassadors to the newly elected Pope Paul II to seek (among other things) the granting of an indulgence for those attending further occasions on which the banner was used in processions during outbreaks of disease. 

The Franciscans of San Francesco al Prato were closely involved with these moves, following which they instituted a lay confraternity to officiate at the cult.  This confraternity built a chapel (the Cappella del Gonfalone) against the facade of San Francesco al Prato, and the banner was housed in a tabernacle over its altar.  In 1923, it was transferred from this chapel (prior to its demolition) to the Cappella degli Oddi, the chapel that abuts the left transept of the church, which offered direct public access.   It was moved to its current location in 1996. 

The banner shows the Madonna della Misericordia protecting Perugia from angels firing arrows. 

  1. SS Lawrence, Herculanus, Francis, and Bernardino are on the left and 

  2. SS Louis of Toulouse, Constantius, Peter Martyr and Sebastian are on the right. 

Terrified people are shown fleeing before an interesting cityscape of Perugia.  The walls bear an inscription with the date of the outbreak of plague, which is presumably also the date of the commission.

Crucifix (16th century)

This crucifix from the choir of San Francesco al Prato, which is attributed to Eusebio Bastoni, is now on the altar wall of the oratory.

Copy (16th century) of Raphael’s Pala Baglioni

This panel on the right wall, which is attributed to Orazio Alfani, is the earliest known copy of the main panel of Raphael’s Deposition (1507).  The original, which was still in San Francesco al Prato when this copy was made, was sold to Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1608 and is now in the Galleria Borghese, Rome

The copy was first recorded in the sacristy of Sant' Agostino in 1863, the date at which it was transferred to the Galleria Nazionale.  It was restored in 1970 and moved to its current location.

Art from the Oratory

Gonfalon of San Bernardino (1465)

In 1568, Giorgio Vasari recorded the presence of this banner by Benedetto Bonfigli in the oratory.  It is dated by inscription, and probably replaced another that the Commune had commissioned in 1450, after the canonisation of St Bernardino, when it inaugurated an annual procession on the saint’s feast day (20th May) from the Duomo to San Francesco al Prato.  The banner remained in the oratory until 1863, when it was moved to the Galleria Nazionale.

The banner depicts St Bernardino, with his usual attribute of a rayonant disc proclaiming the holy name of Jesus (“IHS”), commending the citizens of Perugia to Christ.  He sits in judgement, surrounded by a choir of angels.  The citizens are depicted donating candles on the feast of St Bernardino.  The bishop blesses the assembly, which includes the leading civic officials and their ladies as well as a number of Franciscan friars and nuns.  A small boy is about to steal one of the candles, and the inscription on his sleeve shows a black devil with a warning : “fura che serai apeso” (if you steal, you will hang).

The citizens are assembled in the Piazza di San Francesco, presumably at the end of the annual procession.  Behind them is the facade of the Oratorio di San Bernardino, which had been completed only four years earlier.  The image of San Francesco al Prato to the right provided important evidence for the original appearance of its facade that facilitated its restoration in 1926.

Miracles of St Bernardino (1473)

These eight important panels by the so-called Workshop of 1473, which depict miracles of St Bernardino of Siena, are dated by inscription.  They were first recorded in 1784 in the sacristy of San Francesco al Prato (link below) and are now in the Galleria Nazionale.  In the panel illustrated here, St Bernardino restores to life a man found dead under a tree.

These panels are among the earliest surviving works in Perugia that fully reflect the aesthetic of Renaissance Florence and of the courts at Urbino and Rimini.  It is therefore surprising that they went unrecorded for so long.  They were restored in 1991-3, and it was during this work that it was confirmed that they had originally been painted on two planks (four scenes on each) that decorated the vertical sides of a niche.  Candidates for the original location of this niche include:

  1. the Cappella di San Bernardino (now the Cappella del Santo Anello) in the Duomo;

  2. San Franceso al Prato; and

  3. the Oratorio di San Bernardino.

 (Follow the links in the page on the Workshop of 1473  for more details).

See also: Other Oratories in Perugia

Return to Monuments of Perugia.

Return to Walk III.