Professor Evan Gatti hunts for meaning to church art
Elon University assistant professor Evan Gatti is studying what frescoes half hidden in two Northern Italian churches say about social and political affairs in the 11th century – and what they convey about basic human nature that remains important today.
After visiting the frescoes in Aosta, Italy, during a day trip in 2002 while working on a dissertation, Gatti realized that these little studied pieces could have a greater story to tell.
“Because these frescoes lie on the border between France and Italy and on the margins of two historical periods, not very many people know about them,” Gatti said. “They feel like a secret. You have to go into the attic [of the churches] or sottotetto to see them. So, there is kind of a "Cash in the Attic" excitement to them.”
Gatti presented her ideas in May at the International Congress in Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Mich. Her next step is to sift through documents related to the period in which the frescoes were painted to see if that can lead to any information about why they were commissioned – which, Gatti said, can lead to a greater understanding of their meaning.
“I am anxious to make some connections with European scholars who know the [system],” Gatti said, “but that requires more travel, which requires more time.”
Medieval studies tend to focus on what Gatti calls the “centers” of civilization, or historical places and events that mark a specific change. The frescoes at Aosta are problematic because they lie in a lesser documented region.
“I like that these amazing frescoes are best understood as part of an ordinary experience,” she said. “This makes them not unlike our own ‘tourist’ experiences. Using our contemporary experience as a metaphor for possible meaning, however, actually requires that one places the frescoes as fully as one can into their medieval context.”
The act of placing historical events and items in context is something Gatti said is essential to understanding, studying and preserving history, but it can be difficult, if not impossible.
“I know I can’t put them back together,” Gatti said. “And I don’t want to. We should use them as a metaphor for thinking about what we do have, rather than what we don’t have.”
The work for her dissertation that first brought Gatti to Italy focused on how the portraits of kings and bishops reflected the conflicts and issues of their time and regions.
The frescoes, painted by an unknown artist, appear in two churches in Aosta: Sts. Peter and Urus and the Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta and date as early as 1015. Because they were “caught” between the vaulting and the roof of the churches, they are well preserved, with about a third of the upper-most row of the fresco still in tact.
Many of the scenes in the frescoes are those of safe passage to encourage and comfort the pilgrims and travelers, and those of martyrdom, to remind them of importance of the process and peril of testing one’s faith.
Gatti is working to determine the role Aosta played in the politics of the region by examining the frescoes and other documents from the period.
“We’re trying to figure out if we can learn anything from what’s left [of the frescoes] about the significance of the two churches and this road,” she said. The road is the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route that stretches from Canterbury, England, to Rome. Aosta is the first town on the road once across the Alps.
By looking at these frescoes, Gatti said, scholars may begin to better understand medieval visual culture at the beginning of the second millennium, but in doing so, they may also be able to better understand visual culture at the beginning of the third millennium.
“I have presented two talks on these frescoes and am working on an article this summer so I have only begun talking about them publicly,” she said. “I hope for good things. People seem excited about the project but I have no doubt there will be dissenters.”
Gatti began teaching at Elon in fall 2005 after receiving a doctorate in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that same year. Her dissertation, “Developing an Iconography of the Episcopacy: Liturgical Portraiture and Episcopal Politics in Late Tenth- and Early Eleventh-Century Manuscripts,” focused on medieval portraits of bishops performing the very church rituals that made them essential to medieval culture.
She also has a master’s degree in art history from UNC Chapel Hill. Much of her academic studies have focused on art and the imagery associated with the church and liturgical rites.
- Written by Bethany Swanson '09