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22.06.12 Perchuk, The Medieval Monastery of Saint Elijah

22.06.12 Perchuk, The Medieval Monastery of Saint Elijah

Alison Locke Perchuk’s book is a rigorously researched and elegantly written study of the monastic basilica of Saint Elijah located in the village of Castel Sant’Elia about thirty miles north of Rome. This twelfth-century church was built to serve a male Benedictine community that traced its origins to the sixth century. To historians of medieval art and architecture, the basilica is best known for its tidy Romanesque architectural style and the apocalyptically themed fresco program, which covers much of its apse and transept. These artistic and architectural elements call to mind those of roughly contemporaneous churches in the city of Rome. For this reason, previous art historical scholarship has often treated the basilica of Saint Elijah as emulative of comparably avant-garde artistic trends in the papal city. Perchuk’s volume offers a new and refreshing perspective on the status of Saint Elijah vis-à-vis its Roman counterparts. The author furnishes a wealth of written, material, iconographic, and stylistic evidence to show that the twelfth-century basilica was very likely designed and built by Roman craftsmen, furnished by Roman marble workers, and decorated by Roman mural painters. As such, Perchuk argues, Saint Elijah should be understood as “a wholly Roman structure…transplanted, mutatis mutandis, to the periphery of papal territories” (35).

Perchuk’s book adopts a traditional monographic structure and aspires to be the definitive study of the church and monastic complex at Castel Sant’Elia. The arguments outlined across its seven chapters rest on a solid foundation of archival and on-site research conducted over the course of two decades. Furthermore, the author draws on an array of methodological perspectives to extract the maximum amount of publishable information from the available evidence. In addition to the traditional art historical tools of formal and iconographic analysis, the author also deploys approaches from material culture, memory, and landscape studies. In light of this “maximizing” approach, it is a feat of scholarship that Perchuk manages to present a coherent and streamlined argument that is both readable and (to my mind) highly convincing. I came away with a deep understanding of the basilica of Saint Elijah in its singularity and in its profound connectedness to Roman artistic developments and papal politics.

The hinge on which these two ways of understanding the monument hangs is the basilica’s unusual dedication to the Old Testament figure of Elijah. As a monastic exemplar, Elijah was a type for the Benedictine community’s local saint Anastasius, whose relics are preserved in the basilica and whose death is commemorated in a series of frescoes in the south transept. Yet, in the eschatological mindset of twelfth-century Europe, Elijah could also be seen as a “political” figure. The cultivation Elijah at Sant’Elia was therefore, as Perchuk shows, both devotional and political. The first half of the book (Chapters One through Three) focuses primarily on the local and devotional context. Here, Perchuk examines the ways paintings, sculptures, spolia, and topographical symbolism were deployed in the development of a unique communal identity centered around the cult of Anastasius. Chapter Two includes a brilliant reading of the fresco behind the south transept altar in relation to the community’s liturgical and processional rituals. Perchuk shows how the twelfth-century monks at Castel Sant’Elia were encouraged to deploy their full sensory register--sight, sound, smell, and proprioception--to contemplate their own typological roles in relation to Anastasius and, by implication, Elijah. Chapter Three is especially valuable for its studies of previously unpublished aspects of the monastery, including the fragmentary paintings in the church’s crypt and the carved jambs of its portals.

The second half of the book (Chapters Four through Seven) details the ways in which the monastery’s cultivation of Elijah opened up to more global considerations by examining the extensive fresco cycle representing the Apocalypse on the south and north transept walls. These murals mapped the “spiritual combat” conducted by the monastery’s monks on a daily basis onto the political circumstances of the early twelfth century, marked by the Investiture Controversy and the Crusades. Extending across a hundred pages or so, Perchuk’s incisive analysis of the Apocalypse murals is an art-historical masterpiece, blending art historiography, formal analysis, visual exegesis, and insightful consideration of the spatial arrangement of pictures within the architectural space. Perchuk convincingly demonstrates that the Apocalypse cycle at Saint Elijah is not a “copy” of an earlier pictorial series but instead “a very intentional new creation generated only and specifically for Sant’Elia” (265). These innovative murals, according to Perchuk’s reading, served a dual function. On the one hand, they spoke to local concerns about monastic obedience and “the idea of monasticism as spiritual warfare on behalf of orthodox society” (300). Yet they also harbored a “political and outward looking” undertone, which sought to “integrate the Monastery of St. Elijah into the polemics regarding ecclesiastical reform that roiled Latin Christendom during the latter half of the eleventh and first part of the twelfth centuries” (300). The final chapter further connects Saint Elijah to Rome and papal politics by considering the partly lost fresco of the Madonna della Clemenza on the apse wall directly behind the main altar. According to Perchuk’s analysis, this fresco was designed as a homage to Pope Calixtus II (1119-1124) who had adopted this icon type “as the emblem for the Church under his leadership, triumphant and reformed” (35). This iconographic correspondence, along with the political subtext found in the Apocalypse frescoes, lends support to Perchuk’s contention that the twelfth-century renovation at Saint Elijah was part of a broader effort to shore up the papacy’s territorial control in an area of northern Lazio that abutted lands loyal to the Holy Roman Empire.

The Medieval Monastery of Saint Elijah: A History in Paint and Stone is an invaluable addition to a growing corpus of studies in medieval art history that combine methodological sophistication with historical rigor. Copious praise is also due to Brepols and the editors of the Studies in its Visual Cultures of the Middle Ages (SVCMA) series. The volume is beautifully designed with a pleasing text layout, an easily navigable index, and stunning photographs--the majority of which are taken by the author. On the whole, Perchuk’s bookis the definitive study of the medieval monastery at Castel Sant’Elia, and I suspect it will remain so for quite some time. It deserves to be on the bookshelves of any serious art history library.