Otranto Cathedral or the Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata (Saint Mary of the Annunciation) is the most important Christian church in the Italian city of Otranto and is the seat of the Archdiocese of Otranto. It was consecrated in 1088.
The mosaic running the whole length of the nave, sanctuary and apse is 12th century in date – it was commissioned by the first Latin archbishop of the city, Gionata, and created between 1163 and 1165 by a group of artists led by Pantaleone, a Basilian monk from the monastery of San Nicola di Casole. It shows scenes from the Old Testament and chivalric cycles, as well as figures from medieval bestiaries, arranged alongside a ‘tree of life’, showing human experience from the Fall to salvation.
A great mistery of art and faith has been kept for eighteen centuries in Otranto. This small town, at the tip of Salento, is famous in Mediterranean history for being besieged, conquered and sacked in 1480 by the Turks who attempted to build an Ottoman bridgehead on Christian Land. The last 800 men who withstood the attack were decapitated. The Otranto’s Martyrs’ skulls are stored in glass shrines by a side altar of the cathedral. Muslims demolished its facade but they didn’t dare to destroy the inside, with its most precious treasure: a monumental mosaic covering the entire floor of the cathedral like a lavishly decorated carpet of colorful stones. It stretches for 16 meters, from the entrance to the altar. Crafted between 1163 and 1165, it is the largest in Europe, almost intact, resilient to the damage and wearing effect of time.
Thus, under a visitor’s feet a fabulous, old time cartoon is shown. A spectacular encyclopedia that in the central nave revolves around the Tree of Life, a very long trunk with several rows of parallel branches. Two minor trunks run throughout the aisles. Among the ‘vegetable spaces’ biblical stories are depicted: Adam and Eve driven out of Eden, the building of Noah’s Ark, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba…And hidden among them, central characters from medieval tales can be found unexpectedly: King Arthur and Alexander the Great, as well as pagan myths such as Samson, Diana and Atlas. In a series of circles the twelve months of the year are depicted with their various seasonally-related working activities, in other words earthly everyday life. Elsewhere life in the Next World is evoked in Heaven and Hell. Some sixteen medallions hold the whole medieval bestiary with its ambiguous symbolism, while domestic, ferocious, exotic animals and bizarre creatures run around like in a fantasy free zoo. Along the path queries grow. Why are the Tree of Life’s roots not sunk in the ground but rested on two elephants, a male and a female? Where does the cat in boots come from? What does a bearded centaur do with a chessboard on his head? What’s the meaning of the writing PASCA next to a winged griffin?
Among many obscure meanings that divide scholars, the overall message is hard to understand. The creator – the mosaic’s director- was a monk named Pantaleone, while Gionata was the Bishop who commissioned it. Who was Pantaleone really? He maybe lived close to Casole monastery, a prestigious center of study and prayer during the Middle Ages: a bridge between the Mediterranean’s Eastern and the Northern Europe’s Western cultures. Veritably, the pavement is a pictorial document of a hodgepodge of learning and tradition occurring in multifarious cultures, during the time when Byzantines and Normans chalenged each other. Perhaps a valid suggestion that does not explain, though, what Arnold Willemsen, a great German scholar, has called “the enigma of Otranto”. In medieval churches visual decoration (frescoes, mosaics, icons, scrolls) served the dual purpose of proselytizing and educating the worshippers. The mosaic tells with folkloristic vividness about the main Christian preaching on the world’s origin, the battle between Good and Evil, virtues and vices that have been marking the human condition and its spiritual outcome. However there are other hidden meanings, religious, moral and political in nature. Lately, the esoteric trend brought up by novelists such as Umberto Eco and Dan Brown, as well as by movies and TV shows, has fostered obscure interpretations: the Holy Grail, Kabbalah, the heresy of Gnostics…
Compelling stories that risk, though, taking over the real emotion. A direct and personal experience that no 3-D Avatar style movie can beat, because it is mind and eyes engaging, it excites memories, imagination and knowledge. Like an Ipad or an Xbox emerging from the darkness of the Year One thousand.
The layout of the monthly activity / Zodiac roundels, which are just to the west (underneath) of the crossing and span the entire width of the nave. January is top left, then read as you would script to December in the bottom right hand corner.