by Rachel Hiser Remmes

Although much of what remains from medieval Italy is found within the superficial built environment, most notably the plethora of extant basilicas across the peninsula, the town of Massafra in the Salento region houses distinct domestic and ecclesiastic spaces. The rock-cut villages and churches along the San Marco and Madonna della Scala ravines are architectural and artistic wonders dating back to the fourth century and used until the fifteenth/seventeenth centuries. Hewn from the rock, the spaces mimic the layouts of their built counterparts. The frescoes that cover the walls of the churches and crypts are particularly noteworthy and may even provide more nuanced insights into the daily lives of their medieval attendees and patrons.

In the famous Crypt of Candelora, named for the frescoed depiction of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, is an uncommon image of the Virgin Mary escorting the child Jesus to school. From what is known about the educational system in the Salento, school was integral to the lives of Jewish and Christian boys, beginning as young as the age of five. This fresco, then, appears to respond to and moralize a daily custom. Furthermore, the woman praying alongside her husband to the left of the Virgin also raises questions about the traditional dress of married women in the Salento. Archeological, visual, and textual evidence strongly asserts that married women traditionally wore head coverings well into the twentieth century. Yet, a few outliers, including this fresco, appear to contradict the regional custom.

This singular fresco is one of many that exist on the rock-hewn surfaces in Massafra’s churches, but it exemplifies the potency of frescoes as data of daily medieval Italian life and presents opportunities for further study.


Linda Safran, The Medieval Salento, Art and Identity in Southern Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

Virgin walking Jesus to school, Crypt of Candelora, Massafra, Italy, 12th century, fresco.

Cave Dwellings, Massafra, Italy, 4th-15/17th centuries.

Detail of Virgin, Virgin walking Jesus to school, Crypt of Candelora, Massafra, Italy, 12th century, fresco.

Detail, Crypt of Candelora, Massafra, Italy, 12th century, frescoes.

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