The church of Santa Maria della Croce is one of most ancient and important Early Christian buildings in Italy. It is known above all for its apse mosaics which, starting from the start of the last century, attracted the attention of such scholars as Haseloff, Bartoccini, Trinci Cecchelli, and Falla Castelfranchi. Some hypotheses hold that the building’s earliest nucleus corresponds to the area of the presbytery, dating to the fifth-sixth centuries AD, as well as the aforementioned mosaics. The church underwent a second, highly important phase between the tenth and eleventh centuries, which saw the addition of a decorative cycle of Byzantine frescoes still visible today. During this time frame, Greece and Salento had intense economic, commercial, but also cultural relations, in which the main players included monks and members of the Italian/Greek clergy. The church of Santa Maria della Croce is thus an important palimpsest conserving within it frescoes covering a period from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries.
The holy building’s element of greatest attraction is the mosaic decoration, surviving today only in the presbytery area – the cupola and the apse vault. On the back wall, one may see some tesserae making up a red halo, perhaps belonging to a Madonna with Child, while on the barrel vault are two rectangular boxes with complicated geometrical patterns, containing within them figurative motifs of plants and animals; all is enclosed by a set of frames with meandering motifs, precious pearls, parallelepipeds in perspective, and so on. The cupola is dominated by a golden cross surrounded by stars; lower down are various plant shoots and other items of vegetation, while elements appearing in the dome’s crest bring to mind a jellyfish or a maritime pine, except for one with an ivy leaf.
The church covers three hundred square metres, and is oriented towards the east. Doubts remain as to its original layout. The building is currently arranged as a basilica, with three naves and polygonal apse. The floor was originally a mosaic; in fact, a small fragment, discovered during the restoration works in the 1970s and currently exposed in the church’s north nave, is preserved. In its current state, the building shows the effects of major renovation work done in the Late Middle Ages, when the façade was modified and enlivened by the addition of the sculpted rose window. The construction is characterized by a typical bell-gable set into the transept’s southern wing. At the ends of the northern and southern side of the façade are two highly corroded statuettes in local stone, depicting Saints Lucy and Catherine.
Date: eleventh century
Inserted into a two-colour panel, Saint Barbara is depicted in a rigidly frontal position, with the fixed and hieratic bearing typical of Byzantine art. As she is a saint of noble origin, she appears richly attired; particularly striking are her necklace of precious stones and half-moon earrings. In addition to the richness of the apparel and ornaments, one is struck by the intensity of the gaze that the artistically talented fresco painter gave to the figure. Written in local Greek in the upper-right area of the painting is “BARBAPA” – whether it is the name or adjective is still subject to debate. On the lower left-hand portion of the painting, against a yellow background, is a votive inscription – unfortunately incomplete – commemorating a certain Giovanni and his children. The fresco is also sprinkled with etched inscriptions, at times mutilated or difficult to decipher; Jacob dated most of these, stating they were done at the turn of the tenth and eleventh centuries.
Virgin with Child
Date: eleventh century
The image of the Theotokos (literally, “the one who gives birth to God”) is set in a purple frame inside a two-coloured background. The Mother/Child group is characterized by a rigorous, immobile frontality and severe features. The iconography of the Virgin may be associated with that of the Theotokos Kyriotissa, which makes explicit reference to the dogma of the incarnation, when the Son is presented to the world. This scheme, in which the Child, instead of resting on the Mother’s arm, empirically supports his own weight, seated and with his face aligned with the Virgin’s, certainly has its origin in Constantinople. A number of inscriptions, unfortunately partially incomplete, appear on the image of the Theotokos. One of these – consisting of 15 lines and situated on the left-hand portion of the saint – is of particular interest because it reports, albeit incompletely, the date of the church’s consecration and the name of the bishop who consecrated it. According to Jacob, the writing etched by the priest Acindino should not be much more recent than the fresco itself; since the years of the announcements of these events are known, the dating is established between 988 and 1033 AD.
Martydom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
This unfortunately fragmentary cycle recounts the episodes in the life and martyrdom of the saint who lived during the reign of Marcus Aurelius Maxentius, the Roman Emperor who ruled briefly over Africa and Italy from 306 to 312 AD. The scenes are articulated on the underside of the central nave’s barrel vault, at left. The story is composed of thirteen scenes, set within boxes of various sizes. The main characters are easily identified thanks to the name written in Latin beside each. In the cycle, noteworthy is the episode of the “disputation with the learned men,” cited in the Passio, who sought in vain to refute the Saint’s arguments as to the truthfulness of the Christian religion; as it happened, the Saint succeeded in converting the learned men to Christianity, which resulted in their being beheaded (see detail). As regards the style, it may certainly be said that drawing is the main element: the figures are rendered with a firm, clear line outlining the contours; colours are uniform and unblended. In particular, they never rest their feet on a defined surface, but are always depicted “in mid-air.” Stylistic examination yields a dating between the 1250s and the 1260s – the late-Swabian artistic heyday.
Martydom of Saint Margaret of Antioch
Positioned on the right-hand side of the central nave’s barrel vault, the paintings tell the story of Saint Margaret (Marina in the Greek “passio”), born in 275 in Antioch in Pisidia, in Asia Minor. Unlike the Catherine cycle, the scenes of Saint Margaret read from left to right – which is to say from the apse towards the back of the building – passing from the upper register to the lower. One of many striking scenes is the temptation by Satan; the legend in fact relates that the saint prayed to God to show her the enemy she was fighting against, and a dragon, symbolizing evil, then appeared before her. The legend goes on to recount that the dragon swallowed Margaret, who managed to escape from his innards, using her cross of martyrdom as a sword. The artist has left us some interesting references to nature, in some cases rendered in great detail: in particular, the palm tree depicted in the pastoral scene, realistically painted, with dates hanging from the trunk. Here, too, the painter has depicted false architectures, palaces, rusticated walls, and crenellated towers, serving the dual function of separating the scenes from one another and of projecting the episode from an environment’s exterior to its interior. The fresco is dated to the second half of the thirteenth century.
Saints Nicholas and Demetrius
On the apse’s northern wall are two iconic figures: on the left is a bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra. He is flanked by a votive inscription in Greek, painted against a yellow background with brown letters set in a frame of the same colour (photo detail); the well-preserved text reads: “Remember, Lord, your servant George and his children. Amen.” The right-hand figure may be identified with Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki, under whose protection the donor by the same name placed himself. Here, too, there is an inscription, unfortunately incomplete. It bears the same votive formula just seen above; only the name is different: Demetrius instead of George. Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki was a fourth-century martyr; the Greek Orthodox give him the title of Great Martyr. He is depicted as a young, clean-shaven horseman, with short hair and a crown in his hand – an attribute of the saint. Based on comparisons with dated frescoes and above all on the votive inscriptions, the work may be dated to the tenth century.
The Christological cycle
The cycle originally consisted of twelve scenes on the walls of the central nave. Only four episodes currently survive: the Last Supper and the Kiss of Judas on the left-hand wall, and the Pious Women and the Anastasis on the right.
The iconographical arrangement of the Last Supper appears strongly anchored to the Byzantine language: we see the typical features of the sigma-shaped table, the parapetasma (a curtain winding around a rod) serving as a background for the Supper, and Christ’s placement at the right end of the table.
In the Kiss of Judas, it is interesting to analyze the appearance of the soldiers, depicted with moustache, armour, and Oriental-type helmets; the long lances point upwards in different directions, giving the scene some dynamic movement. The highly faded episode of the Pious Women follows on the opposite wall, along with that of the Anastasis – Christ’s descent into the Underworld to rescue Adam.
The term “Deesis” (from the Greek for “supplication,” “intercession”) indicates the depiction of Mary and John the Baptist beside Christ the Judge – a typical iconographic style of Eastern origin. Unusually, the scene is articulated with four figures. Seated at the centre of the composition is Christ in the act of blessing, book in hand, with the Virgin to the left; on the right is a haloed figure identified with Saint John the Evangelist instead of John the Baptist, as the more widespread iconographic tradition would have led us to expect. At the far right is an unidentified female saint, throwing the ternary dictus off balance. The poor conditions of the right-hand side of the fresco do not allow us to identify the saint, whose name is not preserved. It may be Saint Margaret (the Byzantine Saint Marina) or Saint Catherine. The fresco may be dated to the second half of the thirteenth century.
The Casaranello Madonna
The fresco was placed on the high altar, and is currently positioned in the right nave. The Virgin offers the Child a flower, and is marked by a tender and affectionate attitude. At the lower left we can make out (the fresco appears to have undergone repainting efforts, making interpretation difficult) the face of a man, most likely the one who commissioned the work.