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The portrait of Abbot Epyphanius (824-42), San Vincenzo al Volturno

Portraits are rare before the High Middle Ages. This makes the vivid portrait of Abbot Epyphanius in the crypt of San Vincenzo al Volturno rather special. He is named in the panel below his full-length picture. His square nimbus indicates that he was alive at the time.

John Mitchell in the crypt at San Vincenzo al Volturno

Found in the 19th century and the subject of studies by all the great European art historians – Toesca, Gombrich, and Belting, to name a few – it has its own place in the canon. Imagine, then, the unease caused by a new analysis by Vincenzo Gheroldi and Sara Marazzani using XRF methods to detect the hidden structure of the famous painting which seems to show that the portrait was inserted into a pre-existing painting (published in Città e Campagna [Archeologia Barbarica 2], 2018). Such techniques have to be welcomed, as in all areas of archaeology and art history, but the results call for critical analysis.

I visited the crypt with John Mitchell, an art historian who has published a ground-breaking study of the paintings. He arrived rather convinced by the new interpretation. But his eagle eye focussed and he wondered.

Traces of an underlying cartoon are plainly evident to the eye. A feint hand with long claw like fingers reaches out far beyond those of Abbot Epyphanius’s today. In fact, the hand sits oddly under the very base of the crucifixion. In other words the final portrait was adjusted to a more normal supplicant position and his arms were appropriately shortened. Carelessly, traces of the working cartoon remained.

John Mitchell focusses upon Epyphanius

John focussed, let his fingers work their way over the fresco and hummed. Yes, he agreed, the portrait came later, but was it minutes or hours, or a decade or two? On balance, given the fine insertion of the portrait into the panel, it looks as though a special artist was called to deal with the living abbot. Surely, we are talking minutes hours or days rather than years or decades?

The science cannot be challenged but its interpretation can be.

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