Portraits, the Cult of Relics and the Affirmation of Hierarchy at an Early Medieval Monastery: San Vincenzo Al Volturno

By Mitchell, John; Hodges, Richard | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Portraits, the Cult of Relics and the Affirmation of Hierarchy at an Early Medieval Monastery: San Vincenzo Al Volturno


Mitchell, John, Hodges, Richard, Antiquity


San Vincenzo al Volturno is an early medieval monastery in the high province of Molise, southeast of Rome, and site of most substantial excavations over the last 15 years. The publication of portrait wall-paintings from the crypt of its great church, San Vincenzo Maggiore, is occasion to examine the place of the individual in that religious society.

Portraits, images of particular individuals, whether in a naturalistic or a purely generic idiom, are among the most alluring and at the same time most intractable and difficult of artefacts. This is especially the case with Roman antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The portrait of the individual promises so much: the possibility of transcending the general, the impersonal and the anonymous and of entering into the public or private life of a person for whom historical evidence is minimal or utterly lacking; the chance of discerning something of the person's social affiliations and aspirations, even of gaining access to the individual's intellectual and pschychological occupations. But these possibilities are rarely realized. It is often difficult to progress beyond the establishment of galleries of types and details of provenance. And yet both individuals and institutions in the 1st millennium AD used personal imagery extensively as a means of political and social promotion. Individuation, commemoration, social status and corporate identity were closely associated, and for much of this period the portrait played a very obvious role in promoting these concepts. By the Carolingian epoch the relics of saints had become the most venerated objects of religious devotion and therefore major focuses of power and pre-eminent vehicles of social control (Geary 1990). Parallel to this cult of relics and of the saints represented in them, institutions encouraged the elevation of prominent earthly alumni and benefactors to heroic status and cultivated their memories in elaborate and often public fashion: to establish a hierarchy of house-worthies whose fame could throw lustre on their successors in office. Monastic communities were among the leading exponents of strategies of this kind, and some recent discoveries at the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno, in Molise, some 200 km southeast of Rome, show vividly how portraits of contemporaries played a significant role in the promotion of hierarchy in elite institutions in the early 9th century.

Archaeological excavations over the past 15 years have brought to light the spatial character of the monastery at San Vincenzo. Nearly a hectare of 9th-century buildings have been excavated. These include the distinguished guests' quarters, the monks' refectory, various other rooms of the claustrum, the workshops, and parts of the lay cemetery and the lay servants' village. The present excavations are concentrated on the great abbey-church, San Vincenzo Maggiore [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] (cf. Hodges 1995; Hodges & Mitchell 1996).

The excavations demonstrate the introduction of comprehensive spatial stratification with the creation of a monastic city in the early 9th century. The 8th-century monastery was a small nucleus covering about half a hectare, tightly arranged around a small abbey-church, 21.5 m long (Hodges 1993: chapter 9). By contrast, the 9th-century monastery extended over some 6 hectares or more and was organized in a hierarchy of planned modules connected by corridors. A hierarchy of building types and materials was employed: post-built structures, buildings with cob walls, thatched stone-walled buildings, tile-roofed structures made with undrafted stones or with ashlar. Similarly there was a ranked typology of floors: bright polychrome opus sectile, a more sober opus sectile in grey and white marble, terracotta tiles, coccia pesto (mortar with an aggregate of crushed tile), mortar, stone cobbles, beaten earth, natural rock. An ubiquitous feature of the monastery was the painted decoration of the walls.

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