2022 College Art Association Annual Conference VIRTUAL, Virtual conference
IAS-Sponsored Session

Beyond Transfer and Revival: Narrative Creativity in Medieval Italian Mural Decoration (11th–13th c.)

Thursday March 3, 2022 Zoom 2, 9:30-10:30 am CST

Organizer and Chair: Armin Bergmeier, University of Leipzig

Organizer and Discussant: Alison Locke Perchuk, California State University: Channel Islands

The period 1000–1250 saw vibrant artistic and intellectual creativity in medieval Italian wall paintings and mosaics. Large-format narrative sequences were deployed in new ways to elevate viewers spiritually, perform exegesis, shape communal identity, teach history and theology, and display power. Authors and artists offered sophisticated theorizations of the aesthetic, affective, and communicative capacities of images. While some sequences drew on existing models, notably the paintings and mosaics that accrued to Old St. Peter’s, many more were ad hoc creations, mixing old and new motifs, styles, and artistic strategies to generate distinctive compositions intended for specific spaces, sites, and purposes. The historical and conceptual weight of Rome (then as now) and the natural coherence of pictorial recensions versus the heterogeneity of unaffiliated narrative sequences has resulted in a historiographical privileging of passive transfers and revivals over discrete acts of artistic and patronal creative agency. This panel seeks to reset that balance.

Narrative creativity played out in the development of new iconographies, narrative structures, and framing systems, and in the reimagining and repurposing of old ones. New pictorial strategies were generated for new architectural forms and spatio-liturgical arrangements; Byzantine decorative practices were integrated with Latin architecture and vice versa. Collective analyses generally cluster by iconography, region, or artisans; we seek instead to bring together papers underscoring how creativity manifested itself in discrete monuments, whether well-known, like Santa Maria in Cosmedin or Sant’Angelo in Formis, or deserving of greater fame, like San Tommaso ad Acquanegra sul Chiese or San Calocero in Civate.


Speakers/Papers

Teemu Immonen, University of Turku
The Frescoes in the Narthex of Sant'Angelo in Formis

In the present paper, I discuss the relation between the frescoes in the narthex of Sant’Angelo in Formis and the biblical fresco program inside the church. The program inside comes from the time of Abbot Desiderius while the frescoes in the narthex are usually dated to the late 12th century. Analysing the interplay between the frescoes within and without the entrance wall, I argue that they form a thematical whole and function as parts of a single program, originally composed by the learned Cassinese elites of the Desiderian era. This does not necessarily call into question the traditional dating of paintings in the narthex, as they appear to be a reworking of earlier frescoes destroyed in an earthquake. Reading the frescoes in the narthex as a product of the Desiderian creative culture allows us to release their interpretative potential in a new way. More than that, it offers us hints how the Cassinese monks of the abbey’s Golden Era were taught to look at images: what did they see when they saw an image on a wall? Apart from purely visual questions, dating the frescoes in the narthex to the late 11th century also connects them more directly with the intellectual and literary currents of the abbey at its height. The frescoes participate in the re-evaluation of the Classical past in the monastery at that time and they shed light to the mentality behind the changes in the Cassinese liturgical calendar and liturgical readings under Abbot Desiderius.

Chiara Paniccia, Università degli Studi "G. D'Annunzio" di Chieti-Pescara
Saint John at Porta Latina: An Innovative Roman Bible

At the end of the 12th century, the iconographic tradition of the Roman Bible, painted on the walls of churches in imitation of the models of the Roman apostolic basilicas, reached the height of its fortunes and at the same time came to an end. The basilica of Saint John at Porta Latina was probably renovated during the pontificate of Pope Celestine III (1191-1198). Unlike the traditional biblical cycles, the Porta Latina paintings have a particular narrative development due to their arrangement in the space of the church and the selection of biblical episodes. The number of episodes is smaller than traditional and the narrative sequence does not provide for a typological relationship between the Old and New Testaments arranged on the two walls but, as customary in southern Italy, the episodes follow a ring direction. Unlike the southern Italian model, however, the biblical stories only concern the nave. There are no iconographic comparisons for the narration on both the presbytery and the counter-façade: in St John’s the Last Judgement is related to some Old Testament episodes painted in the upper part of the wall. So far, not enough attention has been paid to the novelty of this cycle with respect to tradition. The paper intends to reflect on the way the iconographic programme of Porta Latina is organised in relation to the physical space of the church and the figurative interaction of the images. It therefore questions the relationship with its models and the creative intentions of a concepteur who made this unique figurative programme.

Evan A. Gatti, Elon University
Narrative Creativity and Acts of Imitation on the Vercelli Rotolus

Scholars of medieval Italian wall painting are likely familiar with the 13th-century Vercelli Rotolus (Archivio Capitolare Vercelli, #5) as an exemplum (or model book) that preserved frescoes purported to have decorated the nave of the Cathedral of San Eusebius in Vercelli. The rotolus, which is comprised of three sheets of vellum glued together and organized into two rows, is divided into 9 sections, depicting 18 vignettes from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2-21). According to a 17th-century description of the Cathedral, the main nave of the church was divided into nine bays, as reflected in the drawing, and was painted with scenes from Acts. As compelling as these alignments are, the Vercelli Rotolus (hereafter VR) has more to offer scholars than what it once was. As has been argued by Enrica Pagella, the VR offers insight into the processes and mindsets of transmission and influence. I will contend that the material and formal aspects of the VR itself—the thing as it is and not just a referent for what once was—should be seen as a meaningful model for inquiry. In this paper, I will argue that the order and visual arrangement of imagery preserved on the VR raises important questions about medieval narratives and iconography. As part of a larger project, I will discuss the development of a facsimile of the VR (to be produced by Facsimile Finder) as well as an academic commentary, and a teaching guide for using the VR in a general studies classroom.

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