The great medieval mosaic of the Otranto Cathedral
The grandiose floor mosaic in Otranto’s Cathedral was created for Bishop Gionata by Pantaleone between 1163 and 1165, some eighty years after the Apulian church and seat of the city’s Archdiocese had been consecrated.
The mosaic is one of the most important examples we have of 12th-century art, and prominently features the Tree of Life growing and branching out into aisles, apses and presbytery to represent the theological itinerary of salvation, from original sin to redemption.
With images drawn from a range of sources that include the Old Testament, medieval bestiaries, “Roman d’Alexandre”, and the Matter of France, Pantaleone’s mosaic also mirrors the culture of inclusion that thrived in Otranto in the 12th century, as this crucial hub of maritime trade connected East and West.
Catholics, Greek Orthodox communities, Jews and Muslims lived and worked together in a city that was advanced and international, and where this mosaic in particular could be appreciated and easily understood by anyone who entered the Cathedral.
Alessandro Zaccuri has explained how it is “perhaps the most perfect example of the Middle Ages’ typical iconography at the height of its evolution.” Its general meaning “pivots on the ‘arbor vitae’, the Tree of Life that is also a tree of wisdom, a prodigious shoot growing next to Jesse, David’s father, related to Jesus himself.”
According to Zaccuri, the mosaic makes explicit allusions to Christian salvation, and “while not represented, Christ is announced by Samson cracking the jaws of the lion of sin, and even more clearly by Jonah, resurrecting after three days of being swallowed by a whale” (translated from A. Zaccuri, “In terra sconsacrata”, Bompiani, Milan 2008).
A beautiful story, for a cross-faith Easter celebration.
The Cathedral is open for visitors from June to September 7-12am and 3-7pm, and from October to May 7-12am and 3-5pm.