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Members' Research Report Archive

The Monastery of Elijah: A History in Paint and Stone

Alison Locke Perchuk, California State University Channel Islands
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, June 15 – August 15, 2016

perchuk-2016-2017

Sant’Elia, c. 1125, Castel Sant’Elia, Viterbo province, Italy, interior view toward apse. Author photograph

The remnants of the Monastery of Elijah (Latin: monasterium s. Heliae) sit nestled against the side of a deep ravine some thirty miles north of Rome. The best-preserved portion of the monastery is Sant’Elia, a twelfth-century church constructed of local stone and endowed with a complex array of coeval wall paintings, liturgical furnishings, marble pavement, sculpture, and inscriptions. Among the paintings are scenes of the death of the local saint Anastasius, an exceedingly rare depiction of the prophet Elijah as a warrior, an apse program rooted in a very specific Roman visual genealogy, and an uncommon narrative cycle of the Apocalypse. The architecture presents the only example outside Rome of the canonical twelfth-century transept basilica, best known from Santa Maria in Trastevere. Although the cloister is long destroyed, an extant cliff-top chapel marks the site of the theophany that sanctified the monastery’s landscape and gave the monastic community its raison d’être.

Despite this rare material completeness, the monastery has not been the subject of advanced scholarship. On the one hand, the near-complete loss of its textual apparatus has excluded it from historical analysis; on the other, its material complexity has not sufficed to overcome art-historical biases favoring monuments in Rome over those in its hinterland. Art history’s early focus on origins — of styles, motifs, architecture — further distanced the monastery, as its clearly Roman appearance and peripheral location led to its dismissal as provincial and derivative. Most of the sparse literature focuses on stylistic and iconographic identification, mainly in relation to the Apocalypse cycle; nothing has been written about the monastery as a whole.

Recent changes within the field of art history bring a new importance to the site. At CASVA I worked on a revised manuscript of “The Monastery of Elijah: A History in Paint and Stone,” a monograph exploring the historical and methodological import of this monument. Sant’Elia was designed and built around 1125 for a male monastic community with deep ties to the ecclesiastical changes and related political conflicts emanating from the reforming papacy in the early twelfth century. Yet even as the monastery participated in center-organized discourses, it firmly established its own senses of place and of community through its landscape and its twin sacred patrons, Anastasius and Elijah. My research clearly demonstrates that politics and devotion were in no way mutually exclusive, a point frequently lost in analyses of medieval Italian art.

This double inheritance — akin, perhaps, to the duplex spirit Elijah bequeathed to Elisha — underpins the monastery’s ability to contribute to current art-historical discourses. Sant’Elia was constructed during a fraught period in Roman history that culminated in the schism between Pope Innocent II (d. 1143) and his rival, Anacletus II (d. 1138). Analysis of the church’s Roman heritage enables us to see in this peripheral monument aspects of artistic and cultural history elsewhere obfuscated by schism and points to the need to rewrite the history of patronage in twelfth-century Rome. It also calls us to rethink the center/periphery dichotomy: in its artistic contemporaneity, papal or near-papal patronage, and use of imported Roman workshops, Sant’Elia is best understood as a fully Roman church transplanted to the margins of papal territory. Local history and community-specific identity were equally important in determining the monastery’s appearance and function. The incorporation into Sant’Elia of early medieval architectural and sculptural elements demonstrates a unique historical consciousness, both of an imagined late antique past and of the community’s more recent empirically documented historical past. The monastery’s highly unusual dedication to an Old Testament prophet offered another pathway to the formation of communal identity. Not only did Elijah serve as an explicit monastic exemplar within Christian theology; his relationship with Elisha furnished an alternate mode of inheritance and supported the monastery’s claims to a continuity of identity and sacrality from Saint Anastasius’s era to the twelfth century.

Like the site it examines, “The Monastery of Elijah” does not limit these arguments to the visual register. It contributes to current discourse on multisensory interactions with works of medieval art and architecture by demonstrating how wall paintings, architecture, and ritual sounds and actions worked symbiotically to produce and preserve concepts of history and identity. Beyond the church’s walls, the monastery’s natural and built topography were crucial to the generation of communal identity. Here my project draws on interdisciplinary work in the memory and poetics of landscape, which has not yet been effectively integrated into the study of medieval Italian art. As a whole, “The Monastery of Elijah” functions apologetically, advocating, in a moment dominated by diachronic and thematic approaches, for the richness and promise of the monograph.

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