2014 International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI,
IAS-Sponsored Session

Medieval Art and Architecture in Southern Italy II: Multiethnic and Multi-Religious Environments

Bernhard 209
Friday, May 9, 2014, 1:30-3:00pm

Organizers and Respondents: Nicola Camerlenghi, Dartmouth College, and Nino Zchomelidse, Johns Hopkins University

Presider: Linda Safran, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies


Rebecca Raynor, University of Sussex
"The Church of Santa Barbara, Matera: Cultural mixing in a tool shed"

The church of S. Lucia alle Malve, formally S. Lucia al Casalnuovo, was carved into the edge of the sharp ravine that divided Matera (Basilicata) in the eighth century. Like the other 155 churches excavated and decorated between the ninth and fifteenth centuries in the city, the plan, decorative programme, and bilingual inscriptions in S. Lucia alle Malve suggest it was a multi-religious and multi-ethnic hub in which eastern and western traditions, practices, and art mixed. Surprisingly, the extensive and exceptionally rich body of material found in Matera is little known. Three hundred years separate the first two accounts of its artistic heritage, and no international scholarship has attended to the collection since Charles Diehl and Emile Bertaux at the turn of the nineteenth century. Deprivation in the district, poor transport links to the area, and its reputation throughout the late-twentieth century as la vergogna d’Italia, explain why Matera has continued to escape the attention of the scholarly community. This paper presents and analyses the complete decorative programme and architectural plan of S. Lucia alle Malve for the first time. Initially used by Benedictine nuns, the layout is typical of a basilica, with three aisles of which only the right side was used for worship. There is also the trace of an iconostasis, though this was dismantled and reassembled to create a kitchen when the space was used as a home in the twentieth century. The original coexistence of both Latin characters and Greek-Orthodox elements continues in the iconography of the frescoes painted between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries. The towering figure of the Archangel Michael in a niche, for example, is typically ‘Byzantine’: he is dressed in imperial loros, and holds a sceptre and orb. A faint Greek inscription identifies him. A Greek inscription also accompanies the depiction of the Virgin and Child. The two frescoes date to the thirteenth century, and both suggest artists and an audience conversant with Eastern pictorial traditions. The latter, however, is, if its date is accepted, apparently unorthodox and daring: it depicts the Christ Child suckling on His mother’s exposed breast. This anticipates a Western iconographic trend also found on the mosaic of the Virgin on the façade of S. Maria in Trastevere (Rome), and, along with other decoration and Latin inscriptions in the church, attests to a community simultaneously aware of more local cultural markers. Having discussed how S. Lucia alle Malve evinces intra-religious and social pluralism at a local level, the paper will conclude by turning to a consideration of the theoretical problems the church presents, echoing debates in recent scholarship on medieval art history.2 The decoration of the church was executed during the Medieval period, but is usually described as ‘Byzantine’ in style. How meaningful is this term for the wall paintings in the church executed on the periphery of the empire’s frontiers and dates? It is not easy to find a replacement term for the works that are in fact coterminous with, but too far south for another label: ‘proto-Renaissance’. S. Lucia alle Malve, therefore, refuses dominant scholarly taxonomies and casts doubt on their usefulness in current academic discourse.

Lev Arie Kaipitakin, Tel Aviv University
"Medieval Sicily’s Arab-Christian Art-in-Flux? Mutable Crosses and Christian Imagery in the Islamicate Ceilings of the Cappella Palatina"

Within the multi-cultural makeup of the Cappella Palatina — the royal chapel of the Norman kingdom of Sicily (1130-1194) — the painted ceilings were traditionally perceived as an Islamic constituent par excellence. Recent studies by E. Grube, J. Johns, D. Knipp, and L. Kapitaikin, however, nuanced that notion pointing that alongside its prevalent Islamic princely imagery, this vast ensemble includes also scenes with Christian content, whether explicit or implicit. Even so, the Christian signification of these scenes – and to what extent and by whom they understood as such – remains a matter of debate. That debate largely neglected the simple fact of occurrence of the clearest Christian sign of all in the paintings: crosses. My paper will address the crosses in the ceilings, in addition to another Christian depiction of liturgy inside a church strategically placed within them. The methodological issues at stake – whether these Christian components in the Islamicate ceilings reflect their painters or commissioners – will be addressed via comparisons with Sicilian, Coptic, Islamic and Romanesque artwork. Another functional approach to the Christian elements of the ceilings will suggest conceiving them as mutable expression of Palermitan community of Arabic-speaking Christians, who apparently conducted Christian liturgy in the Arabic language, as documents testify. The generally neglected Arab-Christians of medieval Sicily and Southern Italy invite cultural, artistic and other comparisons with analogous minorities in the Islamic Mediterranean, like the Copts of Egypt and the Mozarabs of Muslim Spain, certain to engender likenesses and differences among them.

Kristen Streahle, Cornell University
"TABIMUROLLI MUIDEM REP: Pseudo-Kufic, Retrograde Latin, and the Crusades Remembered on the Chiaramonte-Steri Ceiling"

Adultery, beheadings, vendetta—the painted narratives, ornament, and inscriptions of the Great Hall ceiling, or Sala Magna, at the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri compete with each other for the viewer’s attention. The reception room in Palermo, Sicily, generates multiple interpretations, a stunning monument of fourteenth-century baronial art in Italy. This paper addresses the abundant use of retrograde Latin and pseudo-­Arabic inscriptions as meaningful decorative devices on the ceiling, uncovering the vast use of Arabic and pseudo-­Arabic as an intellectual sign of conquest and faith in the context of 14th-­century art and culture—even in a society that no longer spoke it. Demonstrating the complexity of text/image associations and highlighting the power of the visualized and culturally encoded word, I argue that these painted texts did not serve a marginal role in the program of the Sala Magna, but rather encoded the didactic messages of the painted narratives, which were consumed by a highly cultivated audience. Furthering Fedinando Bologna’s suggestion that these texts could be apotropaic, this paper uncovers the religio‐magical properties inherent in foliated verses and both familiar and imagined alphabets. I will situate the inclusion of such texts within the surrounding pictorial narratives on the ceiling, focusing specifically on the graphic Crusader imagery and other demonstrations of, what I consider here, “noble violence.” The use of written Arabic and pseudo-­‐Arabic as a powerful visual vehicle of meaning in southern Italian artistic productions has been well-­documented for the Islamic, Norman, and Hohenstaufen periods (roughly late-­eighth—mid-­thirteenth centuries). Additionally, the polyvalent meaning and use of Arabic is familiar to those studying quattrocento art, especially that of Florence. A vast lacuna exists, however, for the appropriation of pseudo-­texts and their significance in the artistic and architectural commissions of fourteenth-­century southern Italy and Sicily. Using the Palazzo Chiaramonte-­Steri as a case-­study, this paper helps remedy that lack.

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