Sunday 13 November 2016

The Enigma of the Otranto Mosaic

Situated on the very “heel” of the boot of Italy, Otranto is a small town in the region of Apulia bordering the Adriatic Sea in the east. To the north the region extends as far as Monte Gargano the oldest shrine in Western Europe dedicated to Saint Michael following a visitation by the Archangel around 490 AD. The capital city of Apulia is the city of Bari, the departure point for the First Crusade.

The Cathedral of Otranto
Indeed, Bari was governed by the Byzantines until the arrival of the Normans, first reported in southern Italy in 999 on return from pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, the account of the Norman chronicler William of Apulia refers to Norman pilgrims arriving at the shrine of Michael the Archangel at Monte Gargano in 1016.  The Lombard nobleman Melus of Bari persuaded them to join him in an attack on the Byzantine government of Apulia. The following year the Normans are recorded as spreading southwards. By the mid-11th century they had recovered Sicily from the Saracens and by mid-12th century the Normans had conquered all the territory on the Italian peninsula south of the Holy Roman Empire, Malta and regions of North Africa.

A strong Norman-Byzantine-Arab culture advanced in the Kingdom of Sicily, and the Normans started constructions using a unique style of architecture known as 'Norman-Arab' by incorporating the best practices of Islamic, Lombard, and Byzantine building techniques into their own scheme. One of the best known examples of this new style is the Cappella Palatina, in Palermo, the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily, which combines a variety of styles where Arabic arches compliment the Norman architecture and decor with Byzantine dome and mosaics.

The Cathedral of Otranto was founded in 1068 by the Norman Bishop Guglielmo, said to be built on the site of a Roman domus, a Messapian village and an earlier Christian church, in a mixture of Byzantine, early Christian and Romanesque architectural styles. The cathedral was consecrated twenty years later and dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

Yet, the Cathedral of Otranto records a dark day in the history of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. On 28th July 1480 an Ottoman fleet under the command of Gedik Ahmed Pasha landed on the shores of Apulia destined to invade Rome. Within two weeks, on 14th August, Otranto fell and 813 citizens, known later as the “Martyrs of Otranto,” were beheaded after refusing to convert to Islam. The mass execution is regarded as a milestone in European history as as the last significant attempt by a Muslim force to conquer southern Italy.

A year later on 13th October 1481 the bodies of the martyrs were found to be uncorrupt and were translated to the Cathedral of Otranto where their relics can still be seen today in a side chapel. Beautified in 1771 (the first stage of sainthood) The Martyrs of Otranto were finally canonised by Pope Francis on 12th May 2013.

Interior of the Cathedral of Otranto
The Ottoman attack damaged the cathedral facade but left the inside and its most precious treasure undamaged. Stretching for 200 feet from the entrance to the altar, covering the cathedral floor is the Otranto mosaic. Commissioned in 1163 by the archbishop Gionata, the mosaic was the work of a group of artists supervised by Pantaleone, a Basilian monk from the monastery of San Nicola di Casole, one of medieval Europe's great libraries and a veritable meeting place of cultures from the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Western Europe. The mosaic is the largest in Europe, largely intact and remarkably resilient to the passage of thousands of feet over eight centuries.

Covering the nave, the two side upper aisles, the apse and the presbytery, the 700 square-foot mosaic is constructed of polychrome tesserae cut from hard local limestone. Pantaleone used the 'Tree of Life' to represent the never ending struggle between Good and Evil, illustrating the story of man from the Fall to Salvation, featuring a range of scenes from the Old Testament and chivalric cycles, as well as figures from medieval bestiaries; the story of the world with a folkloric slant.

Two large elephants hold up the Tree which runs along the nave to the altar with parallel branches supporting angels, devils, beasts of the Apocalypse, signs of the zodiac and monstrous creatures with biblical and mythological characters, such as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Diana the huntress, and King Arthur.

Constructed after Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (before 1138), but significantly before the wave of Arthurian literature exploded in Europe in the late 12th century following Chretien de Troyes Story of the Grail (around 1180). The mosaic securely establishes that the stories of King Arthur were circulating in Europe some years before the literary tradition, as attested by the Arthurian scenes on the archivolt at Modena Cathedral.

King Arthur on the Otranto mosaic
On the Otranto mosaic King Arthur is clearly identified by the inscription 'Rex Arturus' and shown wearing a crown (added in the 19th century), holding a sceptre or (doubtfully) a long club. Arthur appears with Cain and Abel in what has been described as an allegory of the Fall of Mankind. He is depicted riding on what is clearly a goat-like creature, horned with cloven hoofs, and confronting a giant cat.

The Celtic scholar Roger Sherman Loomis has described the goat-riding figure as a representation of Arthur as a supernatural lord of the Otherworld, a fairy king; as such an element of the 'immortal Arthur' based on the many cave legends that tell of him sleeping in a magical subterranean kingdom entered through a cave, such as Mount Etna in Sicily, Mount Snowdon in Wales or Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England.

According to a 14th century Majorcan poet the wounded Arthur dwelt in a Mediterranean island and was kept alive by an annual ministration of the Holy Grail. Certainly legends of the immortal Arthur dwelling in a subterranean kingdom were established in Sicily by 1190. Loomis argues that among the Welsh and Bretons, at least one conception of the Otherworld was an underground region peopled by a race of noble dwarfs whose supreme king is portrayed as riding on a goat; it should not be surprising to find Arthur astride a goat in the Otranto mosaic of 1165.

It would appear probable that the tale of Arthur as ruler of a subterranean Otherworld realm depicted riding a goat was brought to Italy by the Normans. But when considered with the goat-riding king fighting a monstrous cat it becomes almost certain.

Beneath the depiction on the Otranto mosaic of King Arthur riding the goat toward a monstrous cat rearing up in front of him, is a similar big cat mauling a similarly dressed man about the neck. This fearsome creature has been described as the Chapulu or Palug's Cat (Cath Pulac in Welsh). In one French version of the Chapalu tale Arthur engages in combat with the cat at a swamp where he is killed by the creature, which then invades England and becomes king.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Thomas Green, Concepts of Arthur, Tempus, 2007.
Norris J Lacey, editor, The Arthurian Encyclopedia, Garland, 1986.
Norris J Lacey and Geoffrey Ashe with Debra Mancoff, The Arthurian Handbook, 2nd Edition, Garland, 1997.
Roger Sherman Loomis, Wales and the Arthurian Legend, University of Wales Press, 1956.

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