Saturday, July 03, 2021

The Abbey of Pomposa (Part 1)

Our Ambrosian writer Nicola de’ Grandi has been travelling on the Adriatic coast of Italy, in the Emilia Romagna region, and has a huge number of photos from visits to the churches of Ravenna, which we will be presenting over the next several weeks. We begin, however, with the abbey of St Mary in Pomposa, about 32 miles to the north of Ravenna, a beautifully preserved gem of the Italian Romanesque.

The territory on which the abbey sits was originally an island, but the tributaries of the Po which surrounded it have long since dried up and disappeared. There were monastic communities in the area already in the 6th or 7th century; Pomposa Abbey is first mentioned in a letter of Pope John VIII to the Holy Roman Emperor Louis II in 874. The current abbey church was consecrated in 1026, but of course, like all churches of such an age, has undergone many alterations and decorative additions in the following centuries. It was an significant cultural center in the Middle Ages, not only for its important scriptorium, but also thanks to one of its monks, Guido d’Arezzo, the inventor of our modern system of musical notation. After a long period of decline, it was suppressed in 1653; in 1965, the title of abbot of Pomposa was united to the see of Comacchio, which itself was united to the archdiocese of Ferrara in 1986.

The bell-tower, completed in 1063, is 48 meters tall (157½ feet.) As in many tall Romanesque structures, the number of windows increases in the upper stories, partly to reduce the weight of each level as it pressed down on the one beneath it.
Pomposa is typical of the Romanesque in that the decorations, which are often quite beautiful in and of themselves, are added on to the solidity of the architecture, but not essential to it, where in the Gothic, the architecture itself is decorative.
The site of a former cloister next to the abbey, now cut down, but still recognizable from the presence of a well in the middle.
The interior of the church preserves a good deal of 14th-century fresco work by anonymous painters of the artistic school of Bologna; we will see these in greater detail in a subsqequent post. The pavement, also remarkably well preserved, dates in various parts from the 6th to the 12th century; here we see one of the later section in the opus sectile style of mosaic. 
The apsidal fresco by Vitale of Bologna (1310-60 ca.) show Christ in majesty surrounded by angels and saints; to either side of the windows, the Four Doctors and the Four Evangelists, and below, the legend of St Eutachius.
Fresco of Christ with the Virgin and St John the Baptist in the apse of the left nave.
Throughout the Middle Ages, images of the Last Judgment were commonly placed on the counterfaçade of a church, as a reminder to the faithful to practice the virtues inculcated by the liturgy.
A hints of the frescos in the nave and clerestory, which will be the subject of a separate post.
Remains of earlier fresco work from the 10th century. The numerous small lines cut into them were made so that another layer of fresco could be laid over them; the rougher surface gave the next layer of plaster more to grip.

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