Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 1, 1998
Thomas E. A. Dale Relics, Prayer, and Politics in Medieval Venetia: Romanesque Painting in the Crypt of Aquileia Cathedral Princeton University Press, 1997. 282 pp.; 8 color ills.; 160 b/w ills. Cloth $140.00 (0691011753)

With remarkable visual clarity, the apse mosaics of the church of San Marco in Venice proclaim the issues involved in the monograph of Thomas Dale. As Otto Demus discusses and illustrates in his magisterial volumes, four saints stand there beneath an enthroned Christ. Peter and Mark share the central axis. Peter hands Mark his Gospel; Mark acknowledges the gift by his extended right hand and displays it in his left hand. On the right side of the apse, St. Hermagoras turns toward Mark and his Gospel. In the corresponding position at the left stands St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors and also of the Venetian state. The other three are also key figures in the foundation myths that legitimate Venice. Having stolen the relics of St. Mark fairly and squarely in the ninth century, Venice used them to establish itself and its ducal chapel as the principal religious authority in the northern Adriatic. As Peter had passed authority to Mark, Mark in turn passed it to Hermagoras, who became the first bishop of Aquileia. From the fourth century, Aquileia and its impressive double basilica was the principal city of the region centuries before the Venetian islands were inhabited.

But during the early Middle Ages, Roman Aquileia was mostly abandoned, and the nearby Grado assumed control of its relics and ecclesiastical authority. In subsequent centuries, Venice came to support the claims of Grado versus Aquileia, which revived under Carolingian control in the early ninth century. In 1024, Poppo, the patriarch of Aquileia, directed an army against Grado, occupied it, and took away the relics that had been deposited there centuries earlier. Venice, by then politically and economically dominant in the region, continued to back Grado, but Aquileia fought back diplomatically. In 1177, the Pope granted it authority over sixteen other bishoprics, and three years later, Venice agreed to renounce its claims over the relics that Poppo had taken from Grado in the previous century.

It was at this moment that frescoes in the crypt of the cathedral of Aquileia were painted according to Thomas Dale’s detailed monograph, the outgrowth of his dissertation at Johns Hopkins University. The crypt had been built at the beginning of the ninth century, as a result of the Carolingian revival of the church and city. It was rebuilt in its present form by Patriarch Poppo to house the reacquired relics. Dale credits the present frescoes to Patriarch Ulrich II (1161-82) and to the resurgent ecclesiastical status of the city about 1180. The argument is presented in eight chapters, beginning with a brief account of the history of the city, its bishops or patriarchs, and its relics. Here the narrative is condensed to the extent that the reader might be advised to return to the discussion in Demus’s still fundamental earlier volume on San Marco. Next, Dale treats the architecture of this crypt, raised four meters above the original nave floor. A memorial to the principal saint of the city, its first bishop, Hermagoras, and his deacon, Fortunatus, the crypt was also a space for the regular celebration of the Eucharist. Hence it had to satisfy the devotional needs of pilgrims and worshipers and the ecclesiastical ambitions of the clergy.

In the third chapter, Dale argues successfully that the frescoes date to the 1180s and are the product of local painters, who can be traced in other churches in the region. Heretofore the best known of the frescos is a strongly Byzantinizing Descent from the Cross (pl. III; fig. 86). It belongs to a distinctive pictorial idiom that is known as the Late Comnenian Dynamic Style and which flourished throughout the eastern Mediterranean during the second half of the twelfth century. Locally, it is found in certain mosaics of this date at San Marco. At first glance, the numerous scenes of the life of St. Hermagoras appear to be more Western and Romanesque in style. More emphatically Romanesque are the outline drawings that simulate a fictive painted curtain around the lower wall of the crypt. Through careful analysis, Dale demonstrates that all three styles are the product of the same campaign and workshop.

Each manner of painting pertains to a different type of image. The Byzantine style is used for the more devotional images; the Romanesque for the hagiographic cycle, and the simpler drawings for the marginal socle images. Because form matches content, Dale argues that the Byzantine manner is not the result of some vast and vague wave of Byzantine influence, but the deliberate adoption or appropriation of this style in response to the more richly decorated San Marco. An abundant number of black and white illustrations support these formal observations. However, the eight color pictures included, while undeniably needed, are unfortunately inferior in size and quality to the plates included some years ago in yet another of Demus’s fundamental books. One wishes that Princeton University Press had done as well by its author.

The core of the book, as Dale notes (6), are chapters 4-8, dealing with the program and meaning of the decoration and corresponding to the basic parts of the decoration. In the center of the crypt’s vault are hieratic images of Christ, the Virgin, and the principal saints (Chapter 4). Noteworthy here are the separate panels of Jesus and of Mary with the Child. Both sit on the lyre-backed throne of early Christian and Byzantine art. Arranged around this center in clockwise order are twenty-six scenes that document and validate Aquileia’s ecclesiastical claims and pretensions (Chapter 5). Mark is shown receiving his staff of authority from Peter and working miracles in Aquileia (figs. 57-58). Next Hermagoras is elected the bishop of Aquileia (fig. 60) and travels to Rome (fig. 61) to be consecrated by Peter in the presence of Mark (fig. 62). That the latter is the key scene for modern and medieval viewers is attested by the color illustration assigned to it by Dale (pl. II) and by the more elaborate ornamented frame added by the fresco painter. Dale distinguishes this cycle from others in Venice, although both cities agreed on the basic foundational narrative. Aquileia did not deny the significance of St. Mark and his relics, as much as it ignored both in favor of the Hermagoras and the establishment of the patriarchate of Aquileia. The association of frescoes, stylistically dated to about 1180, with the political achievements of Ulrich II of the same date is well argued here.

On the side walls of the crypt are four Byzantine feast scenes: Dormition of the Virgin, Crucifixion, Descent from the Cross, and the Lamentation or, in Byzantium, the Threnos. Dales argues (Chapter 6) that the common element here is the figure of Mary, who serves as the devotional model for the viewer and a kind of protomartyr before Hermagoras and Fortunatus. Below the feast scenes is an illusionistic curtain painted with various secular scenes, e.g. a Christian knight on horseback chasing a Saracen (fig. 97). Adopting the approach to marginal images of Michael Camille and others before him, Dale (Chapter 7) interprets these images as allegories of spiritual warfare. A brief discussion of ornament (Chapter 8) and a concise conclusion complete the main text, which is supplemented with an iconographic catalogue and a description of the crypt from 1724.

The contributions of this monograph are several. Earlier scholars focused on issues of attribution and on details of the program, especially the Byzantinizing Descent from the Cross in the context of the Dynamic Style. Dale treats all aspects of the program and therefore gives a local, contextual interpretation that illumines Aquileia’s response to the burgeoning economic, political, and artistic power of Venice. The result forms a useful supplement to Demus’s work. But it does more, extending to the medieval art in this region more recent approaches (Camille’s interpretation of the marginal and the liminal) and productively considering the function of the Byzantine style in Italy (as Anne Derbes has also discussed lately). One wishes for more in this direction or for a larger framing of the monument within the artistic politics of Venice and Aquileia, but this is to ask for another book. This concisely written study appeared simultaneously with the relevant discussions of the architecture and visuality of saint’s cults that were published in a special issue of Speculum. Here, too, Thomas Dale’s book usefully writes the crypt of Aquileia into a topic, which has been so productive for our understanding of medieval art and religion, from Peter Brown’s scene-setting essay to the recent overview of the political and economic basis of saints cults by Barbara Abou-El-Haj.

Robert S. Nelson
University of Chicago