mark making in mediaeval Siena
Look, everything returns, even the signs on the walls.
The crypt of Siena cathedral, where I found this design etched into one of the walls, was originally used by travellers on the via Francigena. It was the place where pilgrims ate, rested and purified themselves in preparation for their devotions in the cathedral proper. Sometime in the 1300's this crypt was filled to its roof with debris, closed-up and forgotten about, only being rediscovered and restored in 1999.
Dotted among the remarkably well preserved and brilliantly coloured murals of the crypt, graffiti-like inscriptions can be found, one of these in particular intrigued me. At first sight the interwoven, interlocking design of this symbol reminded me of a Celtic pattern, but it was clearly not a Celtic cross. So what was it? Back home again after my holiday I began doing some research to see if I could unlock this mystery and was delighted when I discovered a recently published book* on medieval graffiti which had an almost identical symbol on its front cover.
Based primarily on research carried out in churches and cathedrals of England (particularly in Norfolk and Suffolk) not only does this book give a fascinating insight into parish life of the Middle Ages it also transformed my understanding of the role which graffiti played in churches during medieval times. It was not regarded as we would see it today as random or destructive. On the contrary, graffiti had both meaning and function and it was tolerated and respected by church authorities.
In some cases the inscriptions were devotional, in others, votive. Some of them were marks left by guild members or stone masons. In other cases they represented charms, curses or ritual protection marks. Whatever their meaning, they were accepted and acceptable expressions of the life and faith of the local community and, as such, they had as much business being on church walls as did the more officially sanctioned frescos and murals.
The particular design which I had photographed, known as 'Solomon's Knot' or 'Swastika Pelta', is thought by this researcher at least, to be exceedingly rare with less than three dozen examples so far found throughout the whole of England. The author mentions previous research which suggests that the majority of these particular designs are to be found at churches that were either built upon or near ancient religious sites or were located on the route of Roman roads. Apparently the symbol appears on a large number of early Norman church decorations and “... has an ancient pedigree, stretching back well beyond the Roman period… being a variety of endless-knot design that was thought to confuse and entrap evil spirits.”
So, the mystery of the sign has been solved, my initial curiosity has been satisfied but questions continue to multiply: How long did it take to make this endless knot and who was the pilgrim who engraved it? How far had already been travelled on the pilgimage, I wondered? Was the longed-for destination reached, and was the hoped-for protection from evil received? The answers to these questions I shall never know.
Whatever else was intended, this sign was meant to be seen, and it was meant to remain visible for a long time. So I know at least that one of the pilgrim's hopes has been realized. Whoever etched it could never in their wildest dreams have imagined that their work, like some of the art work that decorated the walls of the great cathedral above the crypt, would still be there to be noticed and admired by another traveller from a very different world, some 700 years after its creation.
* Medieval Graffiti, the lost voices of England's churches; Matthew Champion, Ebury Press, 2015