In Tuscania, Medieval Sculpture Splendor Meets Fresco Humor
One of Latium’s most stunning Romanesque churches the Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore in Tuscania was first documented in the mid-9th-century in a Papal bull mandated by Pope Leo IV.
Consecrated in 1206, the church was built in lavic stone, tufo, as Tuscania is not far from Lake Bolsena, largest lake in Europe of volcanic origin.
The church has undergone alterations and restoration various times over the centuries.
The central portale in white marble is bordered on each side by four slender columns with Corinthian capitals which support delicate arcatelle (small arches), fanning out to crown the lunette. It is likely that the columns were “recycled” from previously-existing structures, perhaps a Roman or Etruscan temple which had been on this site.
With serious faces and seeming to observe those who enter, the Saints Paul and Peter (holding the keys, his iconographic symbol) flank the door, the statues restored after an act of vandalism: the head of St. Paul was damaged and recomposed in 1967.
Over the main doorway in the lunette, low-reliefs are arranged somewhat haphazardly. The Madonna and Child in Blessing is flanked by the sacrifice of Isaac on the left and an Agnus Dei on the right.
The feet and gown of the Virgin hanging out over the ledge indicate to archaeologists that the image was probably transferred here from another site
A loggia of marble columns with nenfro bases runs across the facade above the door:
The loggia stretches out between a lion and a griffin, the griffin on top of a terrified man, his claws grasping the man’s cheeks.
A rose window tops the loggia with evidences of an Umbrian influence in the sculptural work according to many historians:
As is typical of rose windows on facades in Umbria, symbols of the Four Evangelists encircle the rosone. St. John’s eagle reigns on top and the angels of St. Matthew and lion of St. Mark on the side, with the oxen of St. Luke below the rose window.
And before entering the church, you’ll want to note the medieval sculptural masterpieces surrounding the doors. To the right on the main door, under the feet of St. Peter, a crouching man, knees bent, seems to clutch the vines which twist below him:
Under St. Paul’s feet, the sculptural work seems to be influenced by Islamic art:.
In the lunette of the door on the left, the image is a monstrous figure, a sort of man-fish surrounded by vegetation sprouting from the mouths of animali fantastici (animals of one’s imagination):
The sculptural splendor of this Romanesque church adorns the interior as well. The tufo capitals of the columns are topped with anthropomorphic images…
….as well as a variety of vegetative motifs:
The 13th-century octagonal baptismal font per immersionem (for full immersion)- also sculpted in volcanic rock – stands in the right nave, currently backdropped by scaffolding as restoration is underway in the church. The font is an indication of the importance of the church as the site for all baptisms in Tuscania.
Each of the naves leads to an apse…..
….and sculptural splendor adorns the ciborium over the altar in front of the apse of the main nave, both in the four sculpted columns of the ciborium as well as in the 8th-century paliotto (altar-frontal) constructed of an 8th-9th-century elegantly-sculpted pluteo (pluteus, i.e., low wall or parapet):
In the upper left-hand corner of the ciborium, the Angel Gabriel is frescoed, asking the Virgin (upper right-hand corner) to be the Mother of God: an appropriate image to reign in the center of this church dedicated to her.
A sculpted altar to note is also the small one in the left nave with a fenestrella confessionalis, an element typical of places of devotion and burials and this church had always conserved numerous relics with burial here of many considered saints: The faithful could look through the fenestrella (“little window”) and view the tomb of the saint or martyr.
But certainly the most important sculptural work in the church is the 11th-century lettorino (lectern) depicting St.John topped by an eagle (his iconographic symbol), attributed to Giroldo da Como ( – and the maestri comacini were esteemed for their sculptural masterpieces):
St. John is on the corner of the magnificent 13th-century ambone (pulpit):
Behind the ambone in the apse, a 14th-century fresco attributed to Tuscan artists, Gregorio and Donato D’Arezzo depicts the Giudizio Universale – or “the Universal Judgement” as Italian appellation for “the Last Judgement.” Cristo nimbato (“Christ in a cloud”) reigns in the top center and with His stigmatized hand, calls the Elect to Paradise. The Twelve Apostles flank Him on both sides, seated in thrones as if forming a united, harmonious court of justice.
Below the Apostles on the left, an array or saints and holy personages – many recognizable by their iconographic symbols – beseech Christ for mercy with hands folded in prayer…
Trumpeting angels swoop down to the left and right of the seated Christ, the instruments of His Crucifixion below on a bright blue background. The sun projects no light:
On the right below the seated Apostles, five angels with spears push the damned towards Hell while devils grab sinners, shoving them towards the jaws of Lucifer who then defecates them into the midst of the flames!And that’s why the Tuscania locals have given this Lucifer a nickname: “Caca Anime.”
I won’t be translating that one for you.
Enjoy Tuscania and Santa Maria Maggiore – where medieval Romanesque sculptural creativity joins 14th-century frescoed humor.