A refreshing look at religious symbolism – in Otranto, Italy’s heel

9 Jul

It’s a sad but common ailment when visiting the world’s most beautiful places – burnout.  Whether museum burnout in Paris, temple overload in Angkor Wat or Cathedral overdose in Italy – it’s bound to happen sooner or later.  Yes, although we have a literal embarrassment of riches in the masterpieces in Italy’s churches and piazzas, sometimes you get a bit weary of variations of Madonna and Babe.

If you are in Italy and have reached this point, may I recommend a (lengthy) detour to Otranto, in the heel of Italy’s boot, for a change of pace? The Otranto Cathedral has the most fantastic floor mosaic I’ve ever seen decorate a church, from entrance to altar (the largest in Europe). Built in 1163 (the church itself dates back to 1068), the floor depicts a dizzying blend of catholic, gnostic and pagan imagery – from Adam, Eve & Noah; to mythical beasts consuming each other, to King Arthur, to Greek Goddess Diana – all suspended within a vast Tree of Life.


The trunk of the tree of life


Animals with animals snouts on their feet, devouring other animals


Your standard catholic centaur

These are the just kind of pagan images that eventually would earn their designer a fiery exile from the catholic church (and the early plane) – and in fact scholars are still trying to unravel the meaning and messages behind this remarkable floor.

In fact, that the mosaic has survived at all is a bit of a miracle.  On August 14, 1480, the city was sacked in an Ottoman invasion, and the cathedral was used as a stable for the invaders’ horses.  Oh and by the way, the inhabitants of Otranto were slaughtered in the attack, or sold into slavery or beheaded in a grim religious standoff for  800 martyrs who refused to convert to Islam. This event (“800 martyrs of Otranto) is also memorialized in the church. Go to the back right chapel and as you get closer you start to sense something strange about the the framed images behind the Madonna…

The chapel in Otranto's Cathedral

The chapel in Otranto’s Cathedral

…until you look closer and see….Gah!


…the actual 800 martyrs

Having endured a lot of interminable Sunday school classes growing up in Canada, I have to say that I would have been pretty keen on attending this church as a kid.

If you get tired of pondering myths and mortality in Otranto, you are only 2 minutes away from a gorgeous beach.  Which is straight where most foreign invaders head these days.


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