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S. Maria in Pantano
The 14c/15c Façade


[image ALT: zzz. It is the façade of the medieval church of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy).]

To the older building of the 7c/8c which we looked at more carefully in page 1, in the 14c a new façade was applied, of a type very similar to those of the wonderfully simple churches of the Abruzzo: S. Vito at L' Aquila, only 84 km from here, will serve as a good example, but many are closer still.

Technically speaking mind you, the façade was applied none too well, or at any rate it now leans forward away from the body of the church by a good degree or more (photo): a scary thing in earthquake country, which this is, as you can tell by the six reinforcement bars seen in this picture, taken in 2004. S. Maria in Pantano was hit at least three times by important earthquakes in the last quarter of the 20c: the Assisi earthquake of September 1997, a smaller but much closer precursor earthquake a few months before that; and the Rieti earthquake of 1979. Major restoration work has been undertaken, though: the first time I saw the church, in October 1997, there were only two reinforcements (photo).

The handsomely carved ogival door is worth a closer look; the neat border of classical rosettes and the firmly pointed arch suggest later rather than earlier, maybe 15c:

[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the door of the medieval church of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy).]

[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the door of the medieval church of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy).]

A detail of the long border of rosettes, from the left side of the door (photo rotated).

The lunette was once frescoed: the painting is irrecoverably lost. And yet . . . a careful look might just tell us something:

[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the door of the medieval church of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy).]

Why is the meticulously executed stone border, the unit clearly preserved as it was originally carved, suddenly asymmetrical? While intentional asymmetry in churches is a feature seen from time to time in Umbria (as for example in the door of the church of S. Maria Maggiore in Spello), we're now a couple centuries later, and no other part of this door is asymmetrical. Looking carefully at the carved motifs, we have palms on the left, roses on the right: what more natural in a church dedicated to Mary, than an Annunciation over the door? The scene is almost always depicted with the angel on the left and Mary on the right; the angel very often holding a palm, and Mary is the Christian Rose par excellence.

Sacrifice of Iphigenia

As it turns out, though, at S. Maria in Pantano there is no escaping ancient Rome. The most interesting bit of stone to be seen as we look at the façade of the church is embedded in the attached building (now used as a grocery store): a bit of Roman spolia, probably a piece of a sarcophagus or a funerary altar, under the little square window seen at the far left of the photo that leads off this page.

[image ALT: zzz. It is a view of the south wall of the medieval church of S. Maria in Pantano near Massa Martana, Umbria (central Italy).]

The blue pen is exactly 14 cm long; the stone thus measures 1076 × 624 mm.
And if you want to look at this closer up, a much larger scan is available (1.1 MB).

In the center, we see the small figure of a child being led to a pillar-like altar, while three other adults on the other side look on; at least two of them hold spears.

At first glance, this being a Christian church, our minds naturally run to the Sacrifice of Isaac, a similar subject; the semi-circular thing hovering above the altar even looks like a commonly-seen representation of the Holy Ghost. But in the Sacrifice of Isaac we should have at most four figures (Isaac, his father Abraham, the ram, and sometimes an angel or God the Father): here the scene is too busy, and men with spears don't belong to the Bible story. Finally, Isaac is usually depicted about to be laid on a rock, certainly never on a pagan-type altar, one of the few parts of this depiction that is completely clear: among the many small Roman altars that you might find online, see these characteristic examples in nearby central Italy, at Spello (just 29 km from here) and Pollenza.

The story told here is instead the Sacrifice of Iphigenia, which the iconography fits — the child Iphigenia being led by her father Agamemnon to the altar, the army of the Greeks schematically represented by the three men with spears: if you are unfamiliar with the legend, it is detailed here — to say nothing of the age of the stone: a common subject of Roman times, whereas our Judeo-Christian candidate was very rare at the time and confined, as far as I know, to wall painting.


And with that, it's on to the interior of the church.


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Page updated: 6 Mar 11