The paintings along the vaults of the central nave narrate stories from the Ark of the Covenant, taken from the first book of Samuel in the Old Testament. The first vault is painted with the Battle of Aphek, during which the two sons of Eli, the high priest, are killed by the Philistines who then also take the Ark containing the Ten Commandments, along with Aaron’s rod, Moses’ staff and the Manna from the desert. Once such news is brought to Eli, he falls backward off his chair and dies.
On the following vault, the Philistines are taking the sacred Ark to their city, but its presence is a cause of terror, pestilence and death. The presence of a praying Virgin Mary at the centre of the vault is worth noting. She represents continuity between the Old and the New Testaments and is the symbol of a new Ark of the Covenant, a new sacred chest, as she holds, in her womb, the symbol of a new allegiance between God and the chosen people: Christ, her son. The Second Maestro’s unique painting style is apparent on this vault due to the presence of marked decorative elements, a clear influence of southern Italy’s byzantine artistic heritage.
Further ahead, the Philistines return the Ark to the Israelites. The Ark, drawn by two calves, is driven out of the city of Ashdod to Beit Shemesh.
On the following vault, the people of Israel welcome the return of the Ark. However, those who dare look at it, drop dead. Thus, the people of Beit Shemesh ask the city of Kiryat Ye’arim to take the Ark. The offer is accepted and the Ark is taken to Abinadab’s house.
On the next vault, Samuel orders the destruction of false deities the people of Israel had started worshiping. Once the deities Ashtoreth and Baalim were banished, the Israelites were further purified by means of the sacrifice of a lamb.
The story continues on the vault to your right with the Battle of Mizpah, in the course of which Israelites defeat the Philistines thanks to Samuel’s intervention.
The next vault, behind you, depicts the moment in which the Israelites ask Samuel for a king. Following the Word of God, Samuel crowns Saul king of the people of Israel and anoints him, an act which is illustrated on the arris closest to the central nave. This seems to hint to more contemporary history and the continuous struggle between church and empire. On this vault we see a high priest, custodian of spiritual power, legitimising the temporal power of a king. Is this not a clear statement regarding the superiority of the pope’s role in relation to any other worldly power?
The four miracles performed by St Magno represented under these vaults are the work of the Third Maestro of Anagni: their design is based on a more mature spatial awareness. We see people in movement, we get a sense their gestures and facial expression and they are wearing beautiful medieval garments. These are the clear signs of a new style taking shape, which make the Maestro one of the most remarkable Italian painters of the 1200s.