Altering the Tradition: The Traditio legis at the Monastery of Saint John

Document Type


Document Subtype


Presentation Date

Spring 4-15-2011

Conference Name

Midwest Art History Society

Conference Location

Grand Rapids, Michigan


The main church of the Monastery of Saint John in Müstair, Switzerland preserves on its walls an extensive program of wall painting dating to around the year 800. The half-dome of one of its three apses presents a Traditio legis, a theme that had originated in Rome in the fourth century. Although the composition was firm during the first centuries of Christian art, with Paul on Christ’s right side and Peter on his left, early medieval versions more often reverse their placement. The basis for the privileging of Paul – his reception of the law of the spirit in counterpoint to Peter’s reception of the law of the letter – was represented with such subtlety in the early centuries that by the early Middle Ages, lack of comprehension opened up the image to change. Loss of meaning explains why tradition was not respected, but a shared rationale does not explain all examples of this alteration; rather, the particular historical context explains each medieval deviation. In one instance, Peter is the patron saint of the church to which the work with the Traditio legis was given. At Müstair, the reversal serves a broader apostolic program – the Traditio legis with Peter on Christ’s right authorizes Paul as the first apostolic imitator and therefore initiator of the apostolic tradition, the thread that winds through the entire painted program.


Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Art and Architecture

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