Sant'Angelo in Formis

Today, we rented a car to visit several remote churches on the way from Naples to Rome. We visited the incredible Benedictine basilica of Sant'Angelo in Formis. I knew I had to visit this church, but it caught me totally by surprise. I had no idea the beauty and mastery I would encounter on these walls. I was so impressed by this magnificent church. There are no words that can express the beauty of the frescoes. The 12th century frescoes are painted exquisitely. The lines and forms are masterful and the colors are vibrant. The large eyes draw one into communion with the Lord and his saints.

The church was originally built in the sixth century. It reused many columns and capitals from a nearby pagan temple dedicated to Diana. In the twelfth century, it was rebuilt and frescoed. The 900-year-old frescoes remain well preserved. 

Christ Pantocrator reigns from the eastern apse above the sanctuary, surrounded by the four living creatures (Man, eagle, ox, and lion, from Ezekiel and Revelation), representing the four Gospels. Below him are the three Archangels Michael (central, the patron of the church), Gabriel (left), and Raphael (right).

The upper walls in the central nave show a detailed cycle of the life of Christ in three registers. The lowest register tells the story of Christ’s Passion. Below, on the spandrels above the columns between the arches are Old Testament prophets and sibyls (pagans who foretold the coming of Christ). I loved the use of one spandrel to enlarge the Lord’s Crucifixion.

The west wall shows the Last Judgment in magnificent detail. The walls of the aisles tell the story of Genesis.

I’m so thankful I could visit this beautiful church. I would love to spend more time here, but the sun was setting, the church was getting dark, and the caretaker said it was not possible to turn on the lights. I stayed until closing when I was kicked out. On my way out, I bought a couple books to add to my reference library. 

As I'm visiting churches (and looking at photos, books, etc.), I'm always considering what I can actually use in my own work. Some periods and styles are just not in my idiom. There is plenty I can reference from the Norman mosaics in Sicily, but it's somewhat limited since I paint rather than create mosaics. The frescoes at Sant'Angelo in Formis are perfectly within my idiom, while also being thoroughly western. I look forward to thoroughly referencing these frescoes in my own work. There is so much potential to be unlocked from the so-called Romanesque period. Living in the West, I think it is important to appropriately reference the authentic Christian sacred art of our ancestors in our contemporary Orthodox churches. From a programmatic standpoint, I think this basilica is more appropriate than the churches in Sicily. Christ’s life occupies the prominent central nave, and the Old Testament stories are in the aisles.


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