Lost Churches of Terracina – Appendix 1 – The frieze of the Cathedral

A little digression in our journey in search of the lost churches of Terracina. A Spasso con Sara to discover the frieze of the Cathedral.


It decorates the lintel (the horizontal surface that rests on the columns) of the Cathedral. Some have called it a bestiary, others a succession of fantastic figures. But what is it represented and what message is hidden behind the frieze of the Cathedral of San Cesareo? Let’s try to discover something more.


The left side: what we have lost

The left side of the frieze, still present in a 19th century engraving and in some early 20th century photographs, has been completely lost.

Details from recent restorations allow us, however, to hypothesize what was represented there. A fragmentary inscription on the upper edge of the entablature mentions, in fact, Caesareus, Consul Leontius (one of the protagonists of the Saint’s passion) and Bishop Silvianus, another terracinese martyr, whose remains, together with those of his father Eleuterius and those of his sister Rufina, are kept in the Cathedral. It is therefore highly probable that the missing section of the frieze depicted local saints and martyrs.


Photo from the National Institute of Archaeology and Art History of Rome, Ricci fund. In the photo, taken between 1911 and 1912, you can still see the left side of the frieze of the Cathedral.


The right side: what’s left

The right part of the frieze, that is to say the one behind Palazzo Pironti (formerly Venditti), has been preserved. It consists of a series of figures that, alone or in small groups, stand out against a white background.

Qualitatively and technically speaking, it is unique in the panorama of marble workshops in southern Lazio between the 12th and 13th centuries. The execution technique adopted, all played out on the skilful alternation of stone tesserae and glass paste and on the use of inlays that mark the course of the frames, gives a strong naturalism to the animals (of which extraordinary details are defined, such as teeth, tails and claws) and to the vegetable elements depicted.

Detail of the frieze of the Cathedral of Terracina. Two peacocks and a bird in a cage in the middle. From the detail it is possible to admire the composition scheme and the executive technique adopted (Credits: flickriver.com).


The narration, proceeding from left to right, presents a pistrice, the large fish in whose belly the prophet Jonah remained for three days and three nights, in a kind of prefiguration of the Resurrection of Christ. We then find an eagle with extended wings, the symbol of John, the author of the Apocalypse. Followed by a pair of deer faced on the sides of a tree, an early Christian reference to the soul that foretaste the joys of eternal life. And then a bird in a cage with a pair of peacocks, which Orietta Sartori wanted to interpret as the symbol of monastic life that protects the soul from the temptations of the world. Three demons also appear, two of them armed with swords and spears and flanked by two bulls with a central sacred building with a bell tower and a candelabrum next to it. And then the most famous scene of the entire cycle: knights armed with a spear and banner, faced at the sides of a cross on a small relief (Golgotha?) with a duck at their feet, are followed by a large rowing boat led by a helmsman. The representation is also accompanied by an inscription that perhaps indicates the patrons of the work: the Milites Goffredo di Egidio and Pietro del Presbitero. Finally, two griffins follow at the sides of an ansato vase, two magpies drinking from a cantaros and a basilisk, emblem of the temptation to lust.


Detail of the frieze of the Cathedral of Terracina. Names of the clients of the frieze? (Credits: medioevo.org).


But how to interpret this succession of figures? Di Gioia, already in 1982, pointed out that the animals and figures represented would allude to the eternal struggle between good and evil.


Detail of the frieze of the Cathedral of Terracina. Armed devils and a church with a bell tower on the right (Credits: mapio.net).


The general message of representation

The entire mosaic frieze, also considering the theme of the left section, now lost, would therefore like to provide the following message: the salvation of the soul of man is possible only through Faith, witnessed by the blood shed by the martyrs.


Posted by Sara Pandozzi

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