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Montecchio di Giano (PG):
Church of S. Bartolomeo


[image ALT: zzz. It is zzz of the church of S. Bartolomeo in Montecchio near Giano dell' Umbria (central Italy).]

This church started out life as a 10c castle; I have no further details, but that explains the long windowless wall you see here.


[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the entrance of the church of S. Bartolomeo in Montecchio near Giano dell' Umbria (central Italy), looking towards the main altar.]

Here we've walked up the road, turned right thru the castle gate into the tiny old town, only about two blocks in extent; and are now looking at the church from the other side. (If you like, you can get a closer look at the door.)

Well worth looking at from much closer up, though, is the door's Romanesque tympanum. Carved in low relief out of a variety of limestone that tends to spall, it hasn't worn very well; but it's one of the more unusual medieval sculptures in Umbria.

[image ALT: zzz. It is the tympanum over the entrance door of the church of S. Bartolomeo in Montecchio near Giano dell' Umbria (central Italy).]

The subject is straightforward: Christ's Epiphany, when the Magi, the three kings of our Christmas carols, came and lay their crowns before the newborn Child and his Mother. The inscription on the arch reads ALFA ET ω: Alpha et Omega.

Below, the date is clearly readable: ANNO DNI MCCXXIII: Anno Domini 1223.


[image ALT: zzz. It is a detail of the tympanum over the entrance door of the church of S. Bartolomeo in Montecchio near Giano dell' Umbria (central Italy).]

A closer look shows one of the Kings giving Mary a fleur-de‑lys. Most of us naturally associate the symbol with France, but in fact it's a generic symbol of kingly power that seems to have been appropriated by the French from classical Antiquity: see this article on the Greek and Roman scepter and my footnote there — noting that Dante is not very much later than our carving. A particularly beautiful example, also on the exterior of an Umbrian church, is offered by Maitani's carving of the Annunciation on the façade of the Duomo of Orvieto.

In our context here, the meaning is clear: the kings of the earth are conceding their authority to the Universal Sovereign. The oversized bird fits less well into this iconography: it must surely be the Holy Spirit, though, who inspired the Magi to recognize Christ in the newborn child.

Continuing to zoom in, the last bit I've got to share with you still has me puzzled. Though the first half of the inscription below the relief is quite clear, giving the date, the second half takes a bit more work:

[image ALT: zzz. It is a detail of the tympanum over the entrance door of the church of S. Bartolomeo in Montecchio near Giano dell' Umbria (central Italy).]

The remainder of the principal inscription reads . . .XIT ON III PP.

The date of 1223 makes it clear that ON III PP can only be Pope (H)onorius III; but what did the Pope do that should be commemorated here? Or put a bit more technically, what is the past-tense verb in -xit for him to be the subject of here? Among the shorter verbs, there aren't that many possibilities: rexit, unxit; the even less likely dixit, vixit. . . . None of them fit too well.

Though a native of Rome, Honorius III was closely involved with Umbria. He was elected in Perugia; and in terms of Umbria at least, he is remembered for having approved St. Francis's Rule — in 1223. Montecchio is only about 130 kilometers from Rome: did the Pope ever stop here on his travels, maybe consecrating S. Bartolomeo?

This last solution tempts me the most, since I can't remember ever having seen a pope commemorated over a church door anywhere in Umbria (and that, at least, is undoubtedly the case here). Still, (a) we'd have to read UCXIT and (b) ungere, "to anoint", is normally used only for the consecration of people, not churches. So I'm still dissatisfied; if you have better ideas or better information, please drop me an e‑mail, of course.

The three remaining letters, M AG, are a simpler puzzle.

On the surface of it, two abbreviated words, m. . . ag. . . . Nothing suggests itself.

More likely, it would seem at first, MAGister, "master", not infrequently found with the name of the sculptor (see for example the façade of S. Maria at Ponte) — if so, though, where's the sculptor's name, which is of course the whole point of a signature?

Finally I prefer the obvious solution, even if the sculptor has to be accused of not understanding what he carved and unnecessarily dolling his text up with abbreviation marks: MAGi, "Magi".


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Page updated: 2 Apr 06