Friday, December 25, 2020

The Christmas Story from Santa Maria Foris Portas

  Happy Christmas and good riddance to a year that I am sure most of us would just as soon forget.

"The Annunciation to the Shepherds", a scene from the 
Christmas story as depicted in Santa Maria Foris Portas, Italy.
The pock-marks are from where the surface was "keyed"
to allow a new layer of plaster to adhere to the old. It was
this layer that preserved these paintings, albeit in an
incomplete and damaged state, for us today.

As has become my tradition, I wish to present another glimpse of a Medieval view of the Christmas story. This particular instalment comes from an amazingly happy accident in the form of some remarkably preserved early medieval paintings in a small chapel some 50km north-west of Milan. It seems that the church, along with the rest of the town was mostly destroyed in the 13th century and never re-built, but by the time of the destruction, the paintings had become old and outmoded and were thus covered over with new plaster, which helped to preserve the frescoes until their rediscovery in 1944. 

What is left of the Annunciation scene and part of the 
Visitation between Mary and Elisabeth. 
Incidentally, the "annunciation" scene evolved and changed
considerably over the course of the Middle Ages, but the 
"Visitation" scene has already been firmly established and 
is no different from that still in use in the 13th century.

There seems to be a lot of debate as to when these frescoes were painted, and small wonder that, because there are simply no other paintings like them to have survived from the Middle Ages. It is important to realise, however, that this sort of decoration was normal and common in the early Middle Ages, and there were probably dozens of buildings dotting the surrounding landscape, decorated by this anonymous artist (or artists). Someone with the skills this artist had does not do "one-off jobs". He obviously made an entire career of painting and it is a shame that so little of what he or his peers produced has come down to us- which is also what makes this find all the more spectacular, having survived at all.

Gifts of the Magi. Because only part of the painting was done
"al fresco" (in the wet plaster) much of the colour and details
have been lost to time, or pealed away by the removal of the
overlaying plaster layer. Of particular note is that nearly 
every trace of Mary's chair has been lost, only a bit of the 
foot-stool remains. 

Carved to imitate contemporary metalwork of the time, 
this relief from the "Ratchis Altar" seems to have been 
inspired by the same model as that used by the Santa Maria
In a world without photography, artist relied on one another's
work and certain models became more popular and iconic,
 in time becoming the "standard" design from which to work.
 This did not mean wholesale copying, just a point from
which to begin. Each artist left his own nuances and stylistic
contributions. This adaptation and individuality is what leads
to stylistic and chronological changes in art. If every artist
simply copied exactly what he saw, then art would have been

Now in the Vatican, this 3rd century sarcophagus front
has a different version of the same scene. It was this version
which would become the "standard" method of depicting the
scene. Note the more natural and spacial depiction from 
Santa Maria Foris Portas.

I prefer to join the camp of those who opt for a 6th century date of these works as the iconography of many of the scenes is very different to much of the Western art tradition by the 9th century (the alternate proposed date). One example would be that, although the style is very different, the basic model of the Three Magi seems to be the very same one used for the right-hand end of the famed 8th century "Ratchis Altar", down to the little round hats worn by the three Magi and the angel flying overhead. Neither of these details is in the 3rd century catacomb depiction of the scene (now in the Vatican Museum) which seems to have become the more popular model and the one which most western art followed from the 4th to the 10th century. Most early depictions, also opted for the Phyrgian Cap, as opposed to these little round hats. By the time of the Ottonian dynasty, the hats had changed to crowns and the "wise men" had become "kings". 

Another reason for my view of the earlier date is the very fact that these frescoes do not follow the more "conventional" model of many of the scenes. At the dawn of the "Middle Ages" there was a lot more variation on any number of themes, but as time wore on, "conventional norms" fashioned "iconic" models from which various subjects were depicted giving rise to instant recognition of biblical narrative depictions across a broad spectrum of art forms. In Sana Maria Magiore, In Rome, there is another version of this scene which is neither like the Vatican version nor that of Santa Maria Foris Portas. There were probably still other versions which have not survived at all. These painting then, in my opinion, are from the period when Christian art was still young and finding its form.

The Flight into Egypt, in this scene Mary rides
an ass led by a nearly obliterated figure; Joseph trails behind.
As time wore on, the figure leading the ass morphed into that
of Joseph leading; the other figure fell by the way. Also taken
from the same original model, a panel from the so-called 
Throne of Maximian, in Ravenna informs us that the steaks
above the donkey's head is a wing of an accompanying
angel, another figure that often dropped out of the
pictorial lexicon by or before the 11th century. 

Lastly, because of the style of the paintings themselves, I opt for an early date. The similarity of "Byzantine" art and these paintings have been noted, but it has also been noted their many differences. It is important to realise that "Byzantine" art was, in fact, Roman art in its beginnings. Byzantium was the new Roman capital city (called Constantinople) set up by the Roman emperor, Constantine in the 4th century. What was artistically produced there was simply the natural evolution of Roman/Western Mediterranean art at the time. The fact that a similarity of style between what was produced in Constantinople and Rome would occur only some two hundred years after the shift from one place to the other as the capital should come as no surprise to anyone. 

The angel warns Joseph in a dream, to flee to Egypt.
Unfortunately, much has been lost in this picture as well but
the remnants of Roman artistic style is still very evident.

This depiction of the same scene comes
from the "Throne of Maximian" an ivory
chair in Ravenna, from the 2nd quarter of
the 6th century, It is interesting to note 
that this and the Santa Maria painting share
the same model for this scene; the one of 
the Flight into Egypt, below, however,
comes from a different one than that
used in Santa Maria.

This fresco from sometime between
the 6th & 8th centuries in Santa
Maria Antigua, in Rome is 
somewhat similar in style to those
we are discussing, but this "simi-
larity is only like saying a 1955
Borgward is similar to a 1955
Cadillac. If we are comparing it to
a 2010 Prius, then yes, it is "similar"
The "similarity" is only from
a lack of additional items with 
which to compare it. This illustrates
the problem of art history. Sometimes
we have nothing much to compare
(All pictures for this article sourced
from Wikipedia and the "web".)

Regardless of the whom and the when of these frescoes, they are indeed the remnants of a master artist, and give us a tantalising glimpse of how churches, and even small chapels were decorated in the early Middle Ages. Nearly 1500 years have come and gone since these paintings were finished, but part of a Christmas Miracle remains in that they still live and we are again able to view these works today. Thanks to the power of the internet, even those who have no ability to travel to Italy can now, too, view them.

Happy Christmas.

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