Santa Maria in Valle Porclaneta: Another Example of Romanesque Orderings

Readers of Liturgical Arts Journal will already know that I have a particular passion for the paleochristian and Romanesque orderings of churches. Churches such as these generally include impressive ambones from which to proclaim the readings, ciboria over their altars, balutstrades separating the presbytery from the rest of the church, sometimes (though not always) a walled off schola cantorum, open trussed ceilings and basilica layouts with their triple naves lined by columns or arcades. Churches such as these show especially well the common roots' of Christian East and West and can also provide a better understanding of some of the later developments seen in Catholic architecture.

Recently I came across another example of this type, the Romanesque church of Santa Maria in Valle Porclaneta located in Abruzzo, Italy.  The church is part of a former Benedictine monastery that fell under the jurisdiction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino and construction on it began at the turn of the second millennium, sometime between A.D 1000-1050. The monastery is long gone, but the church yet remains.

The exterior of the church is relatively simple, so much so that one might easily miss it or pass it by -- which would most certainly be a mistake. It is certainly a good example of the axiom of not judging a book by its cover in action, which is so often the case with Romanesque buildings that have not had their facades re-constituted in later styles. These churches tend to be humble on the outside.

The rear is actually more artistically impressive than the facade, including some Romanesque detailing (though this is about as ornamental as Romanesque exteriors typically tend to get):

Turning our attention to the interior however, the story begins to change. Here, friends, if your model of "noble simplicity" -- which has little or nothing to do with minimalism. 

Here we can see most of the aforementioned elements that make Romanesque so very interesting and appealing -- at least to this writer.  It is an arrangement whose various parts and pieces cry out speaking to the building's fundamental liturgical purpose and the various aspects and acts involved in the 'performance' of the liturgy. 

Lets begin with the ambo from which the readings would be proclaimed. It is made of carved stone that has then been covered with stucco and carved scenes embedded into it. It stands on four pillars and its decorations includes familiar themes seen in other ambones of the period, such as the theme of Jonah and Whale -- understood as a typological reference to Christ, His Death and Resurrection. It is attributed to the workshop of Master Nicodemus. 

As we proceed past the ambo toward the presbytery, we are greeted by the balustrade which separates the chancel and presbytery from the rest of the main body of the church. The balustrade itself is comprised of carved scenes and pillars in a style typical to this period. 

Rather more uniquely, however, is the carved wooden piece that tops the balustrade which some hypothesize was intended to symbolize the Temple of Solomon -- which is understood to have foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ and the Christian liturgy. 

As we move past the balustrade we enter into the chancel and presbytery itself where the schola, the monks and the the clergy would reside.  

Looking from the presbytery back toward the nave:

This twelfth century ciborium found here is particularly impressive. also attributed to the Master Nicodemus. It is square in its footprint and covered by two octagonal coverings on top. It's form is, all said, a typical example of the period. 

Simple columns form the supporting structure but one will also take note of the Arabic inspired arches that form part of the design. 

The altar and ciborium viewed from the side

All of this are of great interest, but it is the carving found on the ciborium that is especially impressive, containing naturalistic and zoomporphic motifs throughout. 

I should note that in terms of the altar itself, it is not clear whether it is original to this church or if is a modern installation utilizing older parts and pieces. What I can say is that at one point an altar of more baroque dimensions had been placed under the ciborium which has since been removed:

(Image source)

Finally, we'll conclude our considerations with just a couple of other general views of the church to give you a better sense of the overall look and feel of it. 

It is truly an impressive structure that has itself been defined by the shape of the liturgy.

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