The zodiac at the church of the Purgatory in Tortora

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The Chapel of the Souls in Purgatory once stood outside the city walls of Tortora1. An unbuilt place beyond the inhabited area, it also marked the metaphysical boundary of the world of the living, as testified by its use for funerary purposes. The ancient location of the church, later incorporated by the expansion of the urban context, was not determined by chance, but responded to a conscious anthropological choice. At the same time, it defined a space to be sacralised, even in an apotropaic manner, as it was insecure because it was located outside the city’s shelter, and aimed to delimit the area destined for death. While Tortora was located in the Middle Ages “at the foot of the Tower” of the feudal fortress, as it was called at the time, the Purgatory Chapel remained in the éremos (ἔρημος), in the transcendent solitude.

Purgatory church of Tortora
The Chapel of the Purgatory in Tortora amidst the streets of the village

Eastern monasticism in the Mercurion

Probably Greek-rite anchorites set some of the symbolic elements in the church of Tortora. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, in fact, many Basilian monks from Egypt and Palestine settled there, territories that were conquered by the Arabs and then from Greece because of the iconoclastic struggles that followed the edict of Leo III the Isaurian.

Many of these hermit monks, following the example of, among others, St. Nilus of Rossano, settled in a mountainous area of the Calabrian-Lucanian Pollino2, which was then called Mercurion because of the cult dedicated to Mercurius of Caesarea3. The area became a monastic laura, which was well adapted for this purpose due to its abundance of woods and natural ravines, and also thanks to a political tolerance it benefited under the Byzantines and Longobards. There are many indications suggesting the presence of Basilian monks in Tortora. Their influence probably contributed in some way, if only as a cultural heritage, to the building of the earlier Purgatory church.

The village and the Purgatory Chapel of Tortora

Firstly, the village was on a high spur of rock, about three hundred metres above sea level, it was impervious, reminiscent of a hermit site. The place was chosen by the inhabitants of the Roman colony of Blanda Julia4 who, between the 9th and 11th centuries, had decided to abandon the ancient maritime settlement, too exposed to Saracen raids, and move to an area easier to defend. The population had therefore grouped around the ancient Longobard fortress of the Castello delle Tortore, located inland.

Even the original dedication of Tortora chapel attests to a Greek-Byzantine hermitic ancestry. A notarial deed of 15545 demonstrates its dedication to Catherine of Alexandria, a saint particularly venerated in Egypt and to whom the well-known Monastery on Sinai was dedicated. The reference to Purgatory is due to 18th-century paintings in the church: perhaps to the one on the wooden ceiling of the nave, in which Our Lady of Mount Carmel intercedes for the souls of the dead, or to the now unrecognisable one on the façade, with the same subject.

Furthermore, six reused ashlars in bas-relief still stand out on the door of today’s church, near the archivolt: the Romanesque style reveals influences from Basilian-Calabrian monasticism6. The sculptural symbolism is mysterious and fascinates visitors of Tortora. So, some interpretative hypotheses are required on it.

Purgatory church of Tortora
The church portal

The Purgatory Chapel of Tortora

Most likely an earlier chapel, where the Purgatory church now stands, was built contemporaneously with Tortora village. It was extensively reconstructed in the following years, and perhaps also after some calamitous events, such as the earthquake of 1638.

Purgatory church of Tortora
Purgatory church of Tortora

Today, the chapel has a simple structure with a square plan and a single apsidal nave. The gabled façade, facing south, is surmounted at the top by a graceful bell gable. It seems to be dated 1701 – but the inscription is debated7 – probably placed during one of the reconstructions. The front of the church is divided into two orders by a string-course cornice. The upper portion, once coloured red, is dominated by a flower of life, place just below the bell tower. Two rectangular windows flank a large niche, of which only painted fragments of the original fresco of the Virgin of Mount Carmel are preserved.

Instead, the lower order of the Purgatory Church of Tortora is dominated by the stone portal, carved in bas-relief with figures that are difficult to interpret. Although the wooden component of the door refers to the date of 16888, one can easily deduce that the ashlars used are older. The style, in fact, can be attributed to 12th-century Basilian-Calabrian craftsmen and can be found in the sculptures of the church of Sant’Adriano in San Demetrio Corone and at the Panaghia in Rossano9.

A depiction of the zodiac

The iconography of Tortora portal is not easily readable: the animal figures in the bas-reliefs are partly worn and, where distinguishable, difficult to identify. In addition, the six archivolt ashlars were reassembled in the Purgatory church in an order that does not correspond to the original. Evidence of this is the figurative discontinuity of some elements that are now located in two separate blocks and between which something else is placed. The ashlars contain images that seem to be from the medieval bestiary, flattened, and corresponding to certain constellations of the zodiac, as suggested by Biagio Moliterni10.

From left to right we find: a winged animal, similar to a griffin, but more likely a lion to which wings were added to emphasise Christ’s dual nature, terrestrial and celestial. The figure of a ram; a scorpion; an indistinguishable bas-relief resembling two fish; a beast with a bow and arrow, symbol of Sagittarius; a cancer flanked by twin lions.

Purgatory church of Tortora
Portal archivolt of the Purgatory church of Tortora

The order is not that of the sculptor; the arrangement of the ashlars most likely reflects the succession of constellations along the solar ecliptic. In fact, this seems to be suggested by the Sagittarius segment that partially falls into the Scorpio tile. It is not known why only some of the zodiac signs are on the portal and not all. However, this could also depend on the choice to reuse ashlars: we do not know how the original work was made.

Cycles of the cosmos

Having examined the figurative sequence, the question about the iconographic significance of the portal as a whole remains. In particular, why a zodiac, a theme that seems pagan, is depicted on the façade of a Christian church. First of all, this is nothing new: there are many constellations in Romanesque art. This is the case with the mosaics of San Savino in Piacenza or the well-known Portale di Niccolò at the Sacra di San Michele in Val di Susa.

Such figurative cycles imply a cosmological vision of existence, conceived as the repetition of regular cycles in the sky and on Earth. Thus the sun sets in the evening and rises in the morning, the seasons repeat the same every year. Also is for the zodiacal constellations, associated with certain months, which mark the time of sowing, reaping and harvesting. It is in this context of agricultural cycles, to which Medieval peasant society was linked, that the significance of Tortora Portal can be explained. The zodiac, reinterpreted in a Christian perspective since the 9th century11, is no longer connected to pagan myths, but marks time according to God’s will. He is Lord of all creation and to his providence is entrusted the success of harvests, also in an apotropaic sense.

The astronomical symbolism at the church of the Purgatory in Tortora

It is no coincidence that above both capitals of Tortora portal there is a depiction of four-lobed leaves, a symbol of the plant world. In general, phytoform motifs are recurrent in sculptural cycles. A hexapetal flower, for instance, is placed above the figure of the Sagittarius, the sign preceding the period of vegetal emptiness that begins at the winter solstice. It is not excluded, however, that it could be a solar sign.

The stylised lions placed at the base of the jambs belong to the same symbolism. The worn sculptures face each other and, given the orientation of the façade towards the south, are placed one to the east and the other to the west, in the direction of sunrise and sunset respectively. In fact, the animal on the right is surmounted by the symbol of the sun-flower rising in the morning, while nothing appears on the other side. The two lions, image of Christ, thus act as guardians of the sacred space, both during the day and in the deepest night.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Map of places


  1. B. Moliterni, Monica De Marco, Lo zodiaco della Cappella del Purgatorio in Tortora, in Esperide, cultura artistica in Calabria: storia, documenti, restauro, Anno 1 n. 1, gennaio – giugno 2008. Gli autori riferiscono di un’altra citazione della chiesa, contenuta nell’Apprezzo del feudo redatto da Gennaro Sacco nel 1692. ↩︎
  2. B. Cappelli, Il Mercurion, in Il monachesimo basiliano ai confini calabro-lucani, Napoli, Fausto Fiorentino Editore, 1963. ↩︎
  3. S. G. Mercati, San Mercurio e il Mercurion, in Archivio Storico per la Calabria e la Lucania, anno VII, fasc. III-IV, 1937. ↩︎
  4. P. Mollo, Un insediamento greco-romano nell’alto Tirreno cosentino, in Calabria Letteraria, a. XXV-l987; G.F. La Torre e A. Colicelli, Nella Terra degli Enotri: Atti del convegno di Studi Tortora 18-19 aprile 1998, Pandemos, 2000. ↩︎
  5. Ibidem note 1. ↩︎
  6. P. Orsi, Archivio storico per la Calabria e la Lucania, Editrice Monte Giordano, Roma, 1934. ↩︎
  7. Ibidem note 1. ↩︎
  8. Ibidem note 1. ↩︎
  9. B. Cappelli, Recensione all’elenco degli edifici monumentali LVIII-LX, in “A.S.C.L.” n. 10, 1940. ↩︎
  10. Ibidem note 1. ↩︎
  11. Codice lat. 387 della Österreichische Nationalbibliothek di Vienna, figure on page 90v. ↩︎


Samuele avatar

Samuele is the founder of Indagini e Misteri, a blog on anthropology, history and art. He has a degree in forensic biology and works for the Ministry of Culture. For pleasure he studies unusual and old-fashioned things, such as uncertain symbolism or enigmatic apotropaic rituals. He pursues mystery through adventure but that, inexplicably, is always one step further.

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