New Writer Favorite Artwork Fact File

To welcome our new IASblog writers, we thought it would be wonderful if they introduce themselves by sharing their favorite work as one of our “Favorite artwork Fact Files (FAFF). Our fourth and final FAFF comes from Rachel Hiser Remmes

What is your favorite artwork? The eleventh-century fresco program in the Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis in Capua, Italy, undertaken circa 1072-85/7. 

…and your favorite detail? My favorite detail is the donor portrait of Abbot Desiderius in the lower register of the apse on the left-hand side. He holds a model of the church of Sant’Angelo and is curiously dressed in non-abbatial garb.

Why? My Master’s thesis focused on the reception of the fresco program during the church’s dedication ritual. Curiously enough, my visit to the space affirmed my contention that the receptive import of the frescoes cannot be experienced properly except when viewed from within the space. Even though I had spent time researching Sant’Angelo in Formis before my trip, when I stepped into the church it was as if I was seeing it for the first time. Details emerged that I had never noticed, and it was these details that prompted my thesis.

IASblog (Rachel) explains…
Originally a pagan temple dedicated to Diana, the current structure at Sant’Angelo underwent several major renovations in the early Christian and medieval eras. It is tucked away on Mount Tifata in the town of Capua.

The fresco program in Sant’Angelo is one of the earliest fresco programs preserved in-situ, of which a majority is still intact. Most of the program that is visible today is from the eleventh-century campaign initiated by Abbot Desiderius of Montecassino in 1072, shortly after he finished the famous Basilica of St. Benedict’s at Montecassino. The program has gained some of its fame because of its temporal and patronal relationship to St. Benedict’s Basilica, which was devastated by an earthquake in the fourteenth century and then completely demolished in bombings during World War II. Many scholars believe Sant’Angelo to be a near identical replica of the grander Basilica of St. Benedict’s, but this is still open for debate. Regardless, Sant’Angelo preserves the architectural and spatial thought of abbot Desiderius more fully than any other extant building. 

Furthermore, the patron portrait of Abbot Desiderius himself has also initiated interest. Unlike many of the earlier patron portraits found within apsidal spaces in Rome, usually within the conch of the apse, as at SS. Cosmos and Damien, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santa Prassede, Abbot Desiderius is placed in the lower register at the edge of the apse and closest to the nave. Furthermore, an intercessor saint does not present him to Christ in Majesty, a common medieval iconography. His lavish dress and life-like size only enhance his prestige and intrigue as a historical figure and artistic patron.

Additionally, the church is unique because it diverges from the more typical organization of nave imagery. Unlike the nave of Old St. Peter’s or the Basilica of St. Benedict’s, both of which display both Old and New Testament imagery in the nave, Sant’Angelo’s nave is covered with New Testament scenes, while those from the Old Testament decorate the two side aisles.  Unique themes emerge within the New Testament program, including the focus on the parables and an unprecedented image of St. John the Baptist.

Cowdery, H.E.J. The Age of abbot Desiderius: Montecassino, the Papacy, the

Normans in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983. 

Gunhouse, Glenn. “The Fresco Decoration of Sant’Angelo in Formis.” Dissertation, John Hopkins University, 1991.

Kessler, Herbert L. Old St. Peter’s and Church Decoration in Medieval Italy. Spoleto:Centro Italiano di studi sull’alto Medioevo, 2002.

Lipsmeyer, Elizabeth. “The Donor and His Church Model In Medieval Art form Early Christian to the Late Romanesque Period.” Dissertation, Rutgers University, 1981.

Minott, Charles. “The Iconography of the Life of Christ in the Church of Sant’Angelo.” Dissertation, Princeton University, 1967.

Thunø, Erik. The apse Mosaic in Early Medieval Rome, Time, Network, and Repetition. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Main façade of the Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua. 

Various views of the interior fresco program, including a view of Abbot Desiderius and Christ Pantoktrator in the main apse, Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua. Images courtesy of the author. 

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