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The Façade of S. Nicolò di Spoleto

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Though plain enough when it was built in the early 14c, the church has become plainer still by losing its rose. (The façade is slightly cropped by the parapet in the foreground; see page 1 for an alternate, rather more attractive view, and for close-ups of the door.)

This is a pretty large building; those small dark grey knobs of stone in a sparse band across the building just below the level of the frescoed lunette, to which I've attached the small red numbers, are actually sizable sculptured corbels; lions all:

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To the left and right of the door, the ones I labeled 2 (above) and 3 (below).

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[image ALT: A stone sculpture of a lion wrestling with what may be a dragon, a basilisk, or a cockatrice. It is a corbel on the façade of the church of S. Nicolò in Spoleto, Umbria (central Italy).]
I was unable to get a good shot of the fourth lion on the façade — the narrowness of the street that it fronts on makes the church quite difficult to photograph properly — but it appears to be a pendant of the first one, that I show here.

Now our lion is studiously ignoring a little animal that is teasing it. It's the calm before the storm: if he's like almost every other lion in churches thruout central Italy he will suddenly pounce on it and turn it into a meal. But what kind of animal is this?

To some, the scaly appearance and the sharp toothy snout of the creature will suggest a dragon, but dragons are large, and this is not; and most of them are four-legged. A look at one of the nearest of those other churches will help. A few centuries earlier, but only a mile or so from here at the southeastern edge of Spoleto, a master-carver illustrated the wonderful Romanesque façade of S. Pietro with this; which helps us identify the animal in front of us, the way I see it: we can now confirm that those are wings on this small coily-tailed two-footed creature. Not a dragon — nor is it a "griffin-chimera" (the curiously hybrid description of the S. Pietro panel given in the TCI guide to Umbria presumably by way of hedging their bets): both griffins and chimeras have four legs, and a chimera is part goat and part lion, to boot. No, you're looking at a wyvern (maybe) or, much more likely, a cockatrice or a basilisk, which are both small animals. They were often confused in the Middle Ages, and by now it's hopeless distinguishing them; but Psalm 90(91):13, in Jerome's translation at least, speaks of treading on the asp and the basilisk: we're on fairly safe ground seeing here a type of Christ conquering evil.

About the only thing that little animal cannot be is a chicken, in case that had occurred to you. Lions, according to Aelian, and after him everyone else, are terrified of chickens; and when Camerarius, a scientifically-minded experimenter of the 16th or 17th century of much the same species as the literary élite welcomed in this church by the Augustinians, tested the proposition by tossing a chicken to a lion (who promptly ate it), at least one man had the intelligence to realize that this proves nothing: that particular lion must have been insane. (Read all about it here.)

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Site updated: 12 Jun 12