Tag Archives: pagan religion

The Serpent and the Siren

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Serpent and the Siren: Sacred and Enigmatic Images in Tuscan Rural Churches by Silvio Bernardini:

Silvio Bernardini's The Serpent and the Siren


This book on the Romanesque pievi differs from the many other studies of the subject. It is less systematic, less academic. Yet the fact that it is based on close observation of the pievi is perhaps a point in its favour. (74)

In the course of this study of Tuscan rural church architecture, author Silvio Bernardini offers two sets of argumentation, one far more persuasive than the other. The less persuasive (and more extensive) concerns the meanings of the ornamental symbolism in the churches under study. These are certainly “enigmatic,” as compared to the typical run of ecclesiastical ornament. The serpents and sirens of the book’s title are joined by dragons, ithyphallic figures, spirals, and men with pointed ears, while the original church stone carvings show none of the more expected saints, angels, or typical icons of later Christian designs.

Bernardini’s explanations draw on a mass of speculative notions about prehistoric matriarchy, where his credulity serves to undermine as much as to support the more immediate influences which he then adduces. He claims that the iconography reflects Etruscan pagan religion of a Dionysian stripe, to which he adds some vague form of Gnosticism (qualified as a rural, non-anticosmic sort). He makes too much out of repeated representations of standing figures with raised hands. This posture (known sometimes as orans) is simply a widespread attitude of prayer, used much by Jews and pagans in antiquity, and adopted by early Christians as well.

Still, there is no question that the spread-legged sirens and their companion icons are provocative, and some of Bernardini’s theories about them are probably close to the mark. At a minimum, he demonstrates that a skilled and productive medieval stonemasonry preceded the arrival of the conventionally ecclesiastical forms and doctrines of Christianity in the Tuscan countryside.

The second set of arguments have to do with dating the pievi (rural church buildings) themselves. Bernardini not only argues from documentary and architectural evidence, but he points out the incoherence in the accepted architectural histories, which often seek to assign the construction of these churches to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This book, by contrast, insists that they were built in the eighth through tenth centuries, and makes a persuasive case for such dating. The two arguments are not completely independent from one another, of course. The study of the exotic ornament supports the dating claims, while the dating makes the significance of the ornament more open to speculation.

The book is amply illustrated with photos, often in color, and it concludes with case studies of seven pievi. Bernardini is a native of the region, and his intimacy with the buildings and their context is evident throughout. While I was sometimes skeptical of his theories, I found the short book an engaging read. [via]



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