Here I am next to a13th Century fresco that inspired my work for Icons & Talismans exhibition in Boston. The fresco is located in an underground crypt/chapel used by Crusaders centuries ago. The entry to the carved-out-of-rock chapel is located in a field that's on the side of a rural road. The exposed outside building, where you enter, looks like a farmer’s storage shed. The devotional space is accessible through a barrel-vaulted staircase.
Once you’ve made your way down the steep steps, you can't help but to admire the low ceiling. It's covered with paintings of Crusaders’ shields–alternating the patterns of the black cross symbol of the Teutonic Knights and the red cross symbol of the Templars. Also painted on the ceilings are stars, plants, and real and imaginary animals, such as a Gryphon and a large Hydra from Greek mythology.
There are four areas of frescos. Some are more damaged by moisture and time than others. Visits to the Cripta are by reservation, which isn’t that difficult but speaking Italian helps. Contact the Ugento Archeological Museum a day before you would like to see the wall paintings.
(Records indicate human presence in the surrounding area from at least the fourth century B.C. Cripta del Crocefisso is located on the Via Sallentina, a route of the Messapian and Roman ages that connected Otranto to Taranto.)
Another underground Byzantine crypt in Salento that contributed to my research is located in the ceramicist town of Grottaglie. Mimmo Vestita discovered the treasure under his property while remodeling his garage. In order to see these remarkably intact wall paintings, you call Mimmo. I believe he shows the discovery to visitors June through August.
For the past handful of years, I have been tracking down Byzantine frescoes and Crusader hideaways in the Salento region of Italy, with the intention of making monotypes inspired by the imagery and the journey. The Saint Barbara (who appears everywhere in Puglia) in the marvelous Church of Santa Maria della Croce is perhaps my favorite. Her bindi, extravagant jewelry, nose ring and countenance are simply gorgeous to behold.
The delightful cats on the ceiling of Cripta del Crocefisso in Ugento are godparents to this pair of cat sculptures. Using the Byzantine colors and cartapesta technique from Puglia, I created "Moshe and Maria" for the Icons & Talismans exhibition. They now live in my house.