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Not Much Farther Than the Door


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The front door of S. Maria Maggiore, the main church of Spello.

Photography, even senza flash, is strictly forbidden inside S. Maria Maggiore: or at least it was until recently. The reason for this can be laid to the existence within its walls of a single small side chapel frescoed on all three sides and the vault by Pinturicchio: the Cappella Baglioni is one of his three great works; some say the greatest.

If there is one thing I have heard more conflicting nonsense about, it is the reason why flash photography is here and there prohibited. One hears all kinds of arguments, usually boiling down to this: light damages paintings. Alas, I may have grown cynical in middle age, but I've noticed that the professional restoration of frescoes is often done for hours on end under the brightest of lights, often quite close to them — and I also notice that wherever there is a prohibition to use flash photography, there are local photographs for sale. Conversely, I was actively encouraged to take flash pictures of frescoes at least one memorable time, by an expert, of his own church: see my diary, Aug. 14, 2000. But yes, here photography was forbidden, and with a vengeance: a potentially discreet table overflowed onto an adjacent chapel, the altar of which during my most recent visit was serving as a convenient easel substitute over which to drape large prominently priced (and attractive) posters.

Now that I've got that off my chest, let me back up and be fair. The Pinturicchio masterwork is surely costing the parish, thru no fault of its own, a fortune in controlled environment, lighting, security and insurance. The Italian government must be picking up some of the tab, but it really is never enough; and I'd much rather have the Cappella Baglioni protected and unphotographable by us mere mortals, than in the condition say of the monastery church of S. Simeone near Stroncone.

So I may have chafed a bit, but this church is the house of the Lord and private property: I followed the rules and you will find no photographs of the interior of S. Maria on this website. Well, almost none. . .

Update, 2012. Photography has been allowed for a few years now: so you can treat yourself to the handsome detailed site on the church at KeyToUmbria, whose author took advantage of it.

Much of the medieval church was torn down and rebuilt in the 15c and 16c, so the door of S. Maria is in fact one of the chief beauties of the church, right up there with Pinturicchio's frescoes. While the statue of Mary at the top is a sentimental work of the 18c, the broken pediment she stands in must be late 16th or so, the actual carved wooden door panels seem to be several centuries old; and the really wonderful stuff is the 12c carving, attributed to Rodolfo and Binello, a pair of sculptors who left much beautiful work, some of which is featured elsewhere on this website.


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The center of the entablature

Smack over the door though this may be, surely there's no point in looking for symbolism here, just exuberant whimsy: what on earth would those two necking camels on the right symbolize?

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The lower portion of the left jamb (sideways: up is to the right).

The lively and elegant sculpture speaks for itself.

But notice also something else: rather characteristically for the period, the jambs are intentionally asymmetrical: while on the left we have a single piece of continuous and dynamic scrollwork of animals leading the eye upwards, the right jamb is formed of a series of separate and very static floral medallions.

Spello's taste for asymmetry at this particular period sometimes appears in other contexts, such as the columniation of churches: see this example in S. Claudio.


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Page updated: 13 Aug 12