main index © Jeff Matthews entry Nov 2008
The "Tree of Life" Mosaic in Otranto
Otranto is on the Adriatic and almost at the tip of the heel of the "boot" of Italy; it is the easternmost city in the nation, a scant 45 miles from the Albanian coast across the waters. Otranto is "Around Naples" in the sense that it was part of the Kingdom of Naples. So there. Besides, if you go to the cathedral and see the Tree of Life (L'Albero della vita) mosaic, you will see what I consider to be a good candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage List in the sense that it fits—or so it seems to me—their criteria as one of the "architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, [and] elements or structures of an archaeological nature, [and] inscriptions...which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science."
The 700-square-foot Tree of Life mosaic covers the entire floor of the cathedral of Otranto (photo, above). It is a diagram of a tree, laid out in the form familiar to genealogists—that is, with images spread throughout the branches. The name of the creator of the mosaic, Pantaleone, is at the bottom, the entrance of the church. Then the tree starts; the trunk rests on two elephants and extends up the central nave to the altar; numerous branches extend out to both sides to fill the floor; there are two smaller lateral trees, as well, at the top of the naves on each side of the altar. The work was commissioned in 1163 by archbishop Gionata d’Otranto and was supervised by the monk, Pantaleone, who employed local and Norman craftsmen as well as artisans from Tuscany. The mosaic took about three or fours years to finish. It was restored quite recently, in 1993.
The branches of the tree contain a welter of images that one would not normally expect to find in a Christian church; that is, while there are Biblical references—Adam and Eve, Solomon, the beasts of the Apocalypse, Cain and Abel, Noah—there are many others: signs of the zodiac, images from the game of chess, an image from The Golden Ass by Roman writer Apuleius, the Huntress Diana and other references to Greek mythology such as an image of Deucalion and Pyrhha (protagonists of the Greek version of the Universal Flood) being rescued on the back of a great fish. There are images of King Arthur, ones from Scandinavian mythology, and even the pre-Islamic Persian lion of the Sassanid empire.
The various interpretations of all these symbols is what makes the Tree of Life "...of outstanding universal value...". Some of the references are Biblical, but there are no specifically Christian symbols except for oblique ones such as King Arthur or the griffin, that eagle-lion chimera often used in the Middle Ages as a symbol of Christ. The images are amazingly eclectic and certainly above the cultural knowledge of the average church-goer in the Middle Ages who saw them. At the very least, they demanded a lot: A worshipper might have seen the bits of Arabic text and been reminded of Muslim epigraphy of the mosques of Islam and of the fact that Muslims had been on Sicily and the Italian mainland since the 800s. (At the time the mosaic was laid down, there were still sizable colonies of Arab Muslims in the south, many of whom would in the 1200s still serve faithfully in the imperial army of the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II.) Also, one of the greatest of all Muslim philosophers, Ibn-Rushd (1128 -1198), known to us as Averroës, was alive and well. Islam was not at all distant or exotic to those who crafted the Tree of Life, and this great mind of Islam would have had no problem dropping by the cathedral in Otranto, seeing the mosaic and feeling a part it. The inscription to King Arthur must have been challenging since this was before the wave of Arthurian literature in Europe. (Perhaps, Pantaleone was in direct contact with the Knights Templar, or had read of the Grail legends in the nearby library of San Nicola da Casole, one of the great libraries of medieval Europe.) There might not have been even a popular awareness of Alexander the Great, who has a prominent place on the tree. This is certainly a tribute to Alexander, the pan-continental mixer of cultures and not simply a conqueror. Maybe going to the cathedral of Otranto week in, week out, year after year was like going to college; you got a chance to learn all that stuff. ("Psssst! Guido! Is that (a) a griffin, (b) the horsey chess piece, (c) a dove with an olive branch, or (d) none of the above? Man, this is tough! Say, who...I mean whom... are you taking to the wine festival, tonight?")
Forget the average church-goer. Not even the most erudite European of the 1100s could have known all the references. Perhaps it's not the interpretation of the symbols that is important; that is, maybe it doesn't matter much if the fish in the Greek flood myth can also be read as the Greek acronym used by early crypto-Christians (ΙΧΘΥΣ= ichthys= fish=Iesus Christos Theau Hyios Soter=Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour). Perhaps it is the "why" of the mosaic that is of interest, and, here, the answer is straightforward. The mosaic is exactly what it claims to be: a Tree of Life, a picture dictionary of The World as We Know It—with no religious or ideological axes to grind—everything we know about ourselves, who we are and where we came from. Perhaps if Pantaleone could have waited a mere century, he might have cashed in on the travels of Marco Polo and draped some images from the Silk Road in the tree. And the Sumerian legend of Gilgamesh is missing, but maybe it is buried in the symbols, too deep for my mental shovel. There is also no reference to the mysterious Harappan culture of the Indus Vally, which was ancient ruins even when Alexander passed though. (Alas, Pantaleone's library had its limits; that one is still a mystery.) But even as it stands, the mosaic is still amazing. Pantaleone was consciously “building for the ages." This had to last—to let those who came after know what we were all about in the 1100s. That is tricky, yes, but at the very least it meant that we were not only at the crossroads of East and West, we were above those crossroads, above that artificial division, above the great Christian schism into East and West of a few decades earlier and even above the division of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Tree of Life transcends all that.
The tree—not the images in the tree, but the tree, itself—grows from and then overarches —transcends— geography, race and history. In our culture the phrase "Tree of Life" is most closely identified with the second chapter of the Book of Genesis: "And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil." A river then "...went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads." Those four rivers are seen by some talmudic commentary on the chapter as the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Ganges—indeed, the Ganges in distant India, where Hindu scriptures speak of their own Tree of Life, Ashwattha, as the symbol of the never-ending universe. The tree as a symbol of life, relationships, beginnings, unity, wisdom, of creation, itself (in the Kabbalah of esoteric Judaism, for example) is well-nigh universal, from the holy sycamore of ancient Egypt to the Norse ash, Ygdrassil, to the Bodhi Tree in Buddhism, to even the Mayan Yaxche, whose branches support the heavens (and which Pantaleone would have given anything to know about); thus, the mosaic in Otranto is much more than "European"; it is as ecumenical, as universal as it could be in the 1100s.
Like most impatient moderns, you probably want an interactive mosaic of hyperlinked images you can "click on" by perhaps stepping on them and seeing them light up and display explanatory text. "Why?" Pantaleone would ask. "None of my parishioners can read, and besides, I've just called and our power won't be on for another 750 years. Also, I don't know what 'click on' means, and why would I waste my time with that when I have a perfectly good library just down the road?"