Nunziatella -  Byzantine frescoes from the 12th century

 

The Church of S. Maria Annunziata is located not far from the S. Maria dell'Itria matrix in via Etnea in Nunziata, a hamlet of Mascali (CT). Also called "Nunziatella", the church has acquired a certain notoriety thanks to the Byzantine frescoes found in the apse.

 

The church has the basilical shape with the apse oriented to the West.  Main elevation : an entrance door and a window above;

above the bell gable with two connecting volutes.

Nunziatella, Prospectus

Nunziatella, Prospectus

 

South side elevation overlooking the street, has three windows at the top, a lower window on the far left, a side entrance opening and traces of another lower round opening. To the west the nave ends with an apse . 

 

Nunziatella, apse side view

Nunziatella, apse side view

 

The current basilica form dates back to the Norman period. This indicates the comparative study of the site's frescoes with contemporary paintings.

The church perhaps belonged to a Basilian monastery that managed to coagulate a small inhabited center giving it its name. 

The execution of the frescoes is attributable to the second half of the 12th century and are an example of pure Byzantine painting; technical affinities with the frescoes painted in the Byzantine Empire towards the middle of that century.

There is little information on the history of the Nunziatella in the following centuries. We know that it became a priory perhaps already in the seventeenth century and that the community built around the church had grown to equal Mascali from where the inhabitants of Nunziata came from. In the twentieth century it appeared as a modest nineteenth-century church, its Byzantine past had remained hidden under the plaster.

It was Professor Enzo Maganuco, professor of Art History at the University of Messina, who discovered in 1939 the existence of Byzantine frescoes under the white plaster of the walls. Despite having seen only a small fragment of the ancient painting, he made the right observations about the time, the execution and above all the artistic value of the hidden paintings.

Restoration works were undertaken by the Superintendence of Cultural and Environmental Heritage of Catania in the years 1985 - 1990. The removal of the plaster allowed us to see the ancient wall structure. The masonry has two techniques: the lower part - large squared stone ashlars interspersed with regular rows of terracotta elements (a type of masonry characteristic for Greek and Orthodox churches), the upper part is composed of small stones with a greater quantity of mortar (this is a further elevation). Following the internal excavations, a square layout with a narrower apse than the current one was found. This suggests that the current church was built on the site of an older one.

Of greater importance is the discovery of fragments of frescoes in the  hollow of the apse  and on  the south wall . These frescoes are of great artistic and historical value. The hollow of the apse needs further restoration work and it is possible to find other details still hidden under the plaster. But the visible part is already sufficient to provide a precise idea of ​​the artistic and historical value, as well as the iconographic program.

 

Nunziatella, interior towards the apse                                                                                                               Nunziatella, interior, south wall

 

In 1939 the professor Enzo Maganuco, professor of History of Art at the University of Messina, following an inspection of the surviving churches after the lava flow of 1928, discovered in the church of the Nunziatella a " small fresco  that is found at the beginning of the right side of the apsidal dome ". The Professor thought that it was a cycle of images "of the life of Christ of which this fragment would be an initial step, that is, Christ among the doctors". 

  Nunziatella, Christ Child

(from Enzo Maganuco, "Cycles of frescoes ...", 1939)
(from Enzo Maganuco, "Cycles  of frescoes ...", 1939)

 

Following the restoration work, various fragments of frescoes were brought to light in the  basin of the apse . The fragments of the painting found provide reliable information on the composition and artistic and historical value, as well as on the religious significance of the painting.

 

Nunziatella, Conca dell'apside

 

Two fragments of frescoes are found on the sides under the hollow of the apse. It seems that the basin forms a distinct register in the decoration of the apse. The two fragments in the lower part seem to be part of two distinct compositions which, together with others, decorated the wall of the apse. It is possible that these are narrative images with theological significance. It is the  nimbata head  of a saint on the left edge of the apse and on the opposite side the  Mother of God with Child. 

 

Nunziatella, Head nimbata, left side of the apse                                                  Nunziatella, right side of the apse, Mother of God with Child

 

Maganuco did not see the face of the Virgin and for this reason he thought of the theme  Christ among the doctors ; the face of the young Christ impelled him to this. In Byzantine art the Child is represented in his divine nature and appears to us as a blessing Lord and bearer of the Law, consequently the face is not that of a child, but a mature face, full of divine wisdom.

 

The position of this detail on the wall of the apse suggests that it was part of a composition in which it occupied the upper right side. It could have represented the Adoration of the Magi - the image that has the theological meaning of the Incarnation of the Word - a recurring theme for the area of ​​the presbytery. As for the  nimbata head  on the left side of the apse, it is difficult to trace the meaning of the composition of which it was part. 

 

In the hollow of the apse we observe  Christ Pantocrator  with the cruciferous nimbus, he blesses with his right hand and holds the book with his left.

Nunziatella, Christ Pantocrator, visible part

 

At the bottom left of Christ a  bust with the nimbata head  of an angel clearly visible; at the top right of Christ a winged angel with his hands covered as a sign of reverence before Christ. 

 

Nunziatella, Angelo, cap of the apse

 

Nunziatella, cap of the apse, winged figure of the angel.

 

 The fresco fragments found first indicate that it is Byzantine painting in its pure Greek form of the Comnenian period, 12th century. With these frescoes we are faced with the true Byzantine art of its classical period.  

 In Byzantine churches the image of the Pantocrator usually occupies the dome, the highest place in the Byzantine church. In Italy in churches of the basilical type, in the absence of the dome, its place is in the apse: bust in the cathedral of Cefalù (Constantinopolitan mosaic), enthroned in the apse in Sant'Angelo in Formis and here in Nunziatella.

We find the face of Christ by Nunziatella closer to that of the church of San Pantelimone di Nérézi (Macedonia) built in 1164. The main feature of that period lies in an advanced stylization of the folds of the vestments, a harmonious linearism that tends to flatten the volumes ( example ). At the same time, the paintings retain the delicate features of  Greek faces  with a certain freedom of movement and psychological concentration. In terms of the style of the treatment of the forms, the proportions, the harmony of the lines and details, the paintings of the Nunziatella belong to the Greek art of the XII century.

A reconstruction of the composition of the apse basin is possible. The Christ Pantocrator is visible  , the  cushions  of the throne on which he sits,  the feet  resting on the oval that encloses the whole figure, a  winged Angel  supporting the oval with one wing at the top left, while the  other at the bottom   right performs a similar function. On the intrados a zig-zag ribbon delimits the composition.

Nunziatella, basin of the apse, Christ Pantocrator, visible upper part

 

 

Nunziatella, Christ Pantocrator, cushions and arm of the throne

 

Nunziatella, Christ Pantocrator, detail with the feet resting on the oval that surrounds the figure of Christ.

 

Nunziatella, cap of the apse, winged figure of the angel.

 

Nunziatella, Angelo, cap of the apse

 

 

Summarizing these elements in a  drawing  and completing it, with the awareness that the composition had to be symmetry, we obtain the  reconstruction  of the composition.

 

Nunziatella, visible fragments of the composition of the apse basin

 

 

Nunziatella, reconstruction of the composition of the hollow of the apse

The detail of the fresco found on  the south wall , discovered during the restoration works, constitutes a strong argument in favor of an iconographic program extended to the entire interior of the 12th century church; it is to the right of an opening with a round arch ( south wall ).

 

Nunziatella, interior south wall, traces of fresco, Nunziatella system                                                                                    , interior south wall

of masonry with the use of terracotta shards.

 

 

The careful observation of the colors of this  fresco fragment  and of the technical execution gives the certainty that it is done by the same painters who frescoed the apse. This means that the basilica form of the church existed at the time of the execution of the frescoes. 

 

Nunziatella, interior, south wall, fragment of fresco, left foot and the hem of a saint's tunic


Bibliography:

 

1. Enzo Maganuco, Cycles of medieval frescoes in Randazzo and Nunziata di Giarre, Catania, Tip. Studio Edit. Modern, 1939