CHAPEL OF SAN PONZIO DIACONO
The oldest frescoes of Roero, fascinating witnesses of a distant past
The ancient chapel of San Ponzio stands in the cemetery of the hamlet of Villa di Monticello d’Alba. It should have shown differently to visitors who once came there: the current building, in fact, is what remains of the ancient parish church of Monticello.
Following the raids of Hungarians and Saracen marauders, and the wars that often ravaged these lands, the inhabitants of Montezelo moved from the area surrounding the current cemetery to the top of the hill. They were looking for better protection, provided by the high ground and by the presence of a lost fortified building, called Castellasso. After this transfer, the parish church ceased to be the centre of village life and was partly dismantled. Only the apse was preserved: it had new life as a cemetery chapel, continuing its function for burials.
Some sections of the external masonry bear witness to its ancient past, with the marked alternation of reddish brick and river pebbles arranged in a herringbone pattern, truly surprising for the effect of elegant polychromy.
This particular arrangement of the pebbles is not very common in Roero: we can only find it in other buildings from the pre-Romanesque period, prior to year 1000.
Or in some buildings from the Roman era: sections of the Turriglio masonry, a mysterious monument located in nearby S. Vittoria d’Alba, are created by alternating flat bricks with fragments of stones and pebbles arranged in a herringbone pattern.
It is therefore possible that the chapel of San Ponzio traces its origins to a very ancient past. To confirm this, at the beginning of 1900 Federico Eusebio found in the masonry of the cemetery of Monticello a Christian epigraph dating back to the fifth century: it is a fragment of a marble tombstone of a certain “Asteria”, which bears the inscription ” … CET IN PEACE ASTERIA… N… R… M… PL… M… N… LV ”, that is Hic requiescet in pace Asteria, annorum plus minus LV (here Asteria, fifty-five years of age will rest in peace).
Furthermore, inside the chapel of San Ponzio the ancient architrave is visible, broken into two, perhaps belonging to the original main pediment: it is decorated with acanthus spiral motifs, common in the North West of Italy between 700 and 900 AD and witnesses of the construction phase of this church, perhaps built on the ruins of an ancient pagan seat of worship.
SAINT PONTIUS THE DEACON (late 10th century – first half 11th century)
Entering the small chapel, on the right of the altar we can find the oldest fresco in the Roero area: the depiction of Saint Pontius, a deacon in Carthage, active in the fight against paganism and heresies in the third century. A.D.
In his De virus Illustribus, St. Jerome tells us that Pontius was a devoted deacon to Bishop Cyprian. He endured exile with his bishop in Curubis (today’s Korba in Tunisia) until the day of his martyrdom, which took place in 258 following the orders of the Roman proconsul Galerius Maximus. He wrote a hagiographic volume, the Life of Cyprian, and devoted himself to the fight against paganism and heresies.
His feast is on 8 March: and it should not be confused with the homonymous Saint Pontius, also present in the nearby parish church of Monticello, soldier of the famous Theban Legion. The latter was very popular in Piedmont, but only in a later period.
The fragmented panel is composed of two figures of saints horizontally framed by a band with two-tone geometric ornamental motifs, frequent in representations between the 10th and 11th centuries. The frieze is supported by a portico with slender columns with swollen capitals. On the sides of the central arch there are two Ravenna-type bell towers, which represent interesting and ancient examples of painted architecture and useful references to the dating of the fresco.
The Saint is depicted with a dark complexion: probably a reference to his Carthaginian origins, although the tone was exacerbated by subsequent restorations and retouching, making the saint’s face difficult to interpret.
He is in an upright position, with his arms almost folded over his chest, while holding two liturgical instruments typical of the deacon in his hands: a closed book and a consecrated host. The deacon, in fact, assists the priest during the religious sacrifice: administering the host, infusing the wine into the chalice, handing the monstrance to the celebrant.
Next to Saint Pontius, a small monk with a showy halo almost seems to turn his gaze to the imposing figure on his left. His robe, a white habit and a black cloak, is an important clue to his identity: he is “S.B.”, or St. Benedict, the promoter of Western monasticism.
The little saint is a sign of the influence of the Benedictine abbey of Borgo San Dalmazzo, on which the nearby priory of San Dalmazzo from Ninzolasco and the priory of S. Ambrose (in Santa Vittoria d’Alba) depended. From the end of the 10th century the Benedictines were among the first architects of the rebirth of many lands in the Tanaro valley and in Roero.
The dating of the San Ponzio fresco is controversial. Some scholars, such as Perotti, even trace it back to the Carolingian era (9th-10th century). However, from 900 onwards the Monticello area was severely devastated by the raids of Hungarians and Saracens, and it seems unlikely that the sacred building could have survived, bringing the fresco inside it intact to us. Some scholars point out that the hand holding the host is of the thirteenth-century style, but this could be an alteration due to the restoration of the building made in the thirteenth century, or to the heavy retouching carried out in 1935. Moreover, from the thirteenth century onwards, devotion to the soldier Saint Pontius rose in vogue replacing that to the deacon. If the fresco had actually been painted in the thirteenth century, it would probably have had the martyr of the Theban Legion as its protagonist and not the Carthaginian deacon. More likely, the fresco was made following the reconstruction of the church, attested by documents dating back to 1041.
SAINT ELIGIUS (first half of the eleventh century)
Entering the chapel of San Ponzio, a frame with an ochre and brown background is clearly visible on the left. Inside, a saint carries blacksmith tools in his hand. The epigraph at the top of the fresco suggests a clue to the identity of the character: “AL LO” is the abbreviation of the French “Alloi”, meaning Eligio.
Indeed Saint Eligius, venerated on December 1, is the patron saint of goldsmiths and farriers: born in Chaptelat in France in 588, he learned the art of goldsmithing from Abo and was the protagonist of a curious legend. The king of the Franks Clotaire II gave him a certain amount of gold, enough to make a single throne. With mastery, the skilled Eligius managed to make two of them. In this way he won the sympathies of the king, becoming his goldsmith and monetary and enjoying great fame also with his successor Dagobert I, of whom he was treasurer. He founded the monastery of Salignac in 632 and was elected bishop of Noyon by the people in 641. He spent his episcopate spending himself to found hospices, monasteries and convert the pagans, who were numerous in the North of France. After his canonization he was revered above all as the patron saint of farriers, goldsmiths and peasant winemakers.
The patronage of farriers is evident if we look at the tools in the fresco: a hammer, a box for nails, a horseshoe, an anvil and pliers. The shoeing of horses and the care of wagons were two fundamental activities in medieval times, as they represented precious means of transport and help to peasant activities.
According to Mario Perotti, the cult of Eligius in Monticello was due to the influence of the Benedictine monks, with whom he was popular as an anti-pagan saint – just like Saint Pontius the deacon, to the right of the altar. After contributing to the reconstruction of settlements and basic economic activities in the area, the monks probably felt the need to leave some “guide” figures for the people in places of worship, symbols of anti-pagan and constructive activism.
Saint Eligius also underwent heavy retouching in 1935, but the quality of the fresco and the simple character of the lines, enhanced by the ochre background, remain evident. The latter may be a reference to the golden backgrounds of Byzantine art, revised in a “simplified” key, or to the gold of the goldsmiths that Eligius protected.
Also in this case the dating is not simple: for Perotti it is a very ancient fresco, dating back to the 10th century. Molino and Accigliaro more correctly date it around the 11th century. Quasimodo and Semenzato even approach it to the Gothic style of the first half of the 14th century.
The reason for this disparity of judgment is due to the difficult reading of the fresco. On the whole surface there is a widespread pattering, and the heavy retouching carried out in 1935 has made the style uniform with the more recent frescoes present in the chapel.
However, the differences remain evident: in the use of chiaroscuro, in the setting of the figures and in the friezes that delimit the three different frescoes.
Unlike the Crucifixion and the Virgin and Child, in fact, the pictorial surface of Saint Eligius of Monticello is not delimited by any frieze: only by a darker band.
Still, there are other clues. The writing “AL LO” is composed in Luxeuil characters, a type older than the Gothic characters of the epigraph below the Crucifixion. Furthermore, Saint Eligius is usually depicted in two possible variants: the “goldsmith bishop” and the more “humble” blacksmith. If the first iconography is more appropriate for the ecclesiastical and noble orientations of the fourteenth century, the second – the one we find in Monticello – is older and refers to local monastic movements, such as that of the Benedictines who we have already seen very active in the reconstruction of the area .
FRAGMENT OF A SEAT WITH A TWISTED COLUMN AND PINNACLES (circa 1360-1375)
In some spaces of the wall to the left of the altar, other fragments of painting appear. The largest is placed above the Virgin and Child: a composite geometric motif in white, yellow, red and green. The frieze seems to frame a scene of which only a twisted column and part of a throne structure with pinnacles can be glimpsed.
It is a fragment of considerable quality, which cannot be connected to anything else in the cemetery chapel of San Ponzio. The precious details of the frame, the elaborate character of the pinnacles and the small column with Corinthian capital suggest the Gothic works of the so-called Master of Meinardi, active in the Cuneo area between 1360 and 1375.
VIRGIN AND CHILD (last quarter of the 13th century – first quarter of the 14th century)
On the far left of the wall there is a fresco of a Virgin and Child of which few fragments remain: the dark dress and a part of the surrounding frieze, in a black and white checkerboard pattern – medieval symbol of death and eternity – which is sometimes grafted onto a twisted frieze.
The Madonna holds her Son with her, he is standing upright and observes and blesses her. The colours of the fresco are sober. In the rigor of the scene, the Child’s hairstyle stands out, in the manner of the French models of the time of Louis IX called The Saint (second half of the 13th century). The presence of Angevins in Alba is attested at that time, on the other hand the mercantile relations between Piedmont and France were always flourishing, harbingers of monetary, cultural and artistic exchanges.
CRUCIFIXION (around 1325)
As soon as we enter the small chapel of San Ponzio we are greeted by a majestic representation of the Crucifixion.
It is a fresco whose dating appears difficult: scholars oscillate between the end of the thirteenth century and the early fourteenth century. Probably the fresco was painted before the infeudations of the Malabaila (1341) and the Roero (1376) in Monticello, when the church of San Ponzio was listed in the possessions of the Bishopric of Asti.
The scene is simple and intense. Christ is on the cross, with the weeping Virgin on the left and St. John the Apostle on the right.
The three figures are rendered with a prevalence of cold, almost ashy colours, even in the case of complexions. The only touches of warm colour are due to the robe of St. John, the wide loincloth of Jesus, the ochre-coloured flat earth and the halos. Nothing else appears in the scene, which thus acquires an essential and strong character. It is interesting to note how the cross, in its upper part, “comes out” from the checkerboard frieze that surrounds the scene, as if to break through the two-dimensionality of the fresco.
At the bottom, in the brown band, there is a partially legible epigraph that says “DIE III MENSIS AP [RI] L [IS] HOC OPUS FECIT FIERI …. CUS”. If it had been complete, it would have revealed the author and year of the work.
Christ is arranged in a peculiar way: the head is in three quarters view, reclined on the right shoulder. The chest is wide and outlined with few marks, with slight traces of chiaroscuro nuance to render the volumes. The anatomy of the figure is rendered with indicative features, with some particularities, for example the ribs: seven on the left side and ten on the right. From the waist down the body changes position and attitude. The feet in the foreground are very large, while the hands, despite being nailed to the Cross, assume a blessing position. Despite the terrible torture, there is no trace of blood, wounds or blows: only the mouth reveals a grimace of suffering.
Our Lady appears pained but composed, with her mouth slightly deformed by pain and her hands joined in silent prayer at face level. She wears a green robe and a long brown / grey cloak, decorated on the shoulder with an eight-pointed star. This could simply be a decorative quirk of the painter, or a symbol of fate, good and bad luck, as well as a reference to the comet that guided the Magi from the East to Bethlehem. The underside of the dress features a decorative black and white shield pattern.
St. John, the favourite apostle, is depicted grieving on the right of the Cross. He wears a white robe surmounted by a large yellowish cloak. He supports his head while with one hand he points to the Cross, from which, according to tradition, Christ commanded him to take over the sorrowful Mother.
The formal quality of the painting is remarkable, and the scene conveys a strong emotional impact. The figures are crystallised in a moment of pain, with the predominance of cold colours only slightly attenuated by the ochre hues of the drapery and the sun. The scenography is essential, flat: the very ground on which the Cross stands is arid, partially crushed at the foot of the Cross. The sign has a prominent role, the chiaroscuro are only sketched and the details in general are not of great importance: a reference to French taste and its links to Lombard Gothic.
The scene of Monticello’s Crucifixion is therefore resolved in this triptych of essential characters, strong representations of the Christian belief. The main one is of course crucified Jesus, the Savior who accepts martyrdom for the redemption of men, flanked by the Virgin – always an object of strong popular devotion – and by St. John, author of the homonymous canonical Gospel and the Apocalypse. It is one of the oldest pyramid-shaped iconography that has come down to us: many ways will change from the fourteenth century, including the way of representing the Crucifixion.
The entire scene is framed by black and white checkerboard friezes, while the sun and the moon peek out over the transverse part of the cross. In medieval iconography, the two stars symbolize the passing of time and the rhythm of the days and nights. The moon is the popular measurement of peasant time and is also used in the Christian calendar for anniversaries and commemorations, such as the Passion of Christ. The sun, on the other hand, is the main star in the sky: in Christianity it symbolizes immortality and resurrection, since the sun rises every day in the East. Christ is also Chronocrator, Lord of Time, and especially in Romanesque art He is associated with the Sun which sets the length of the day, with reminiscences of the Sol Invictus of pagan memory.