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S. Maria at Ponte:
The 12c Façade


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Cars are a blight; parking is tight in Ponte.

This simple façade owes most of its classic beauty to the rose window. Surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists (counter-clockwise from the upper left: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the rose escapes total conventionality, however, by its ninefold symmetry. Most rose windows in this part of the world are examples of 6-, 8-, or 12-fold symmetry; this one is geometrically harder to construct, and maybe trickier to convince a Board of Directors to fund: or at least, inside the church there's a fascinating indication of something like that.

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A slightly unusual feature of the rose window is that it includes a salutation to the Virgin Mary; but in other medieval churches the Ave Maria is occasionally met with in a similar place (normally on the tympanum over the front door, as in the church of S. Maria Laurentia at Bevagna in another part of Umbria). It's her church, after all:

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· AVE MARI|A · Gratia · Plena · Dominus · Tecum

A considerably more unusual feature of the façade can be seen, rather prominently too, just beneath the window:

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The man is usually identified as Samson. If you remember your Bible, this Jewish strong man saw his hair, the source of his strength, cut while he slept, and was easily taken prisoner in Gaza: he let his hair grow long again, regained his strength, then wrecked the heathen temple by bringing down a supporting column.

I don't find this explanation plausible here. Our man is supporting the rose in honor of the Virgin, doesn't look like he's about to destroy anything, and an allusion to wrecking the place of worship of the pagans would be completely out of place. Samson has, that I know of, no particular connection with the Virgin Mary, either.

On the other hand, a man in britches turning his back to us right in the center of a Christian church is most peculiar, or even . . . out of place. But although no other explanation readily suggests itself, I'd rather have none at all than a very poor one; and since a flight of fancy on the part of the sculptor — an easy "explanation" — would surely not have been tolerated in such a prominent place, for me he remains a mystery.

There's more to a church than its façade, though! Even if it's closed, you can still walk around it; if you don't, you'll usually miss something: and with Romanesque churches in particular — as is the case here — the apse is often very beautiful as well. 
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Page updated: 29 Mar 05