The Romanesque in Emilia and its protagonists

During the 11th and 12th century Europe faced a process of political, social and artistic renovation. In this period the feudalism and the communes originated, particularly in Italy. The Romanesque was an architectural and artistic style that mostly reflected the social renovation. It was an ornamental manifestation and had a fundamental role for the Medieval society too. 

The majority of the population was composed by farmers, who could not write or read. These prerogative belonged to the clergy, feudal nobility and to the civil power. The Romanesque cathedrals had the role to ideally remove every social difference. Before the presbitery everyone, either rich or poor, is equal. Moreover, by architecture, sculpture decorations and symbolisms, the cathedrals allowed people to access the “source of life”: the Holy Scriptures. Still today, the Romanesque cathedrals are extraordinary works, full of mysteries and mysticism.  The churches of Fidenza, Parma and Modena, which have a great beauty and a particular history and symbolisms, are extraordinary examples.

Romanesque architecture

The Romanesque cathedrals were built according to precise architectural characteristics: a plan with one or more naves had the role of hosting the faithful who attended the mass. Odd naves were divided into spans delimited by columns and surmounted by cross vaults. Wonderful facades showed portals and sometimes a circular rose window, which allowed the entrance of a sun ray, image of God.

The rose window of Modena Cathedral

The presence of friezes and symbolisms in the facade, portals, capitals of the columns had not just an artistic role. They had a specific function cause most people could not read the Holy Scriptures. In this way, the friezes were the “sculptured Bible” which illustrated scenes of the Old and New Testament. The figurative apparatus allowed the meeting between God and Man. The “sculptured Bible” accompanied the interior path of the faithful, from the entrance to the choir on the apse. For this reason, the Romanesque cathedrals had friezes at the level of the portals splayings, over the lunette below the archivolt, on the capitals along the naves, and on the sculptural decorations of the high altar. 

The masters of the Romanesque period 

The stonemasons masters had a social relevance during the Romanesque age, although little is known about them. They were the architects of the “Romanesque miracol”. They sculpted the stones by the creation of friezes which animated it with deep and unchanged meanings. We know the works of the Comacine Masters and the Lombard Masters from Campione (for instance the cathedrals in Como and Bergamo) or the Pisan Romanesque-Gothic by the Cistercian monks. However, although the several works made by these masters, their name is unknown. 

The facade of Como Cathedral

The reason could be related to the conceptual idea of the artists and art overall in that period. In fact, the modern concept of the artist as a “genius and creator” was born only during the Renaissance. The Romanesque masters were considered simply like copiers, stonecutters. Stylistic licenses were limited, since the authors faithfully represented the Bible scenes, according to well defined rules. The modern idea of sculpture did not exist, because of its architectural function. We have to wait the David by Donatello for admiring the first all-round sculpture. 

Nevertheless, there are some examples of Romanesque authors, like Wiligelmo who made a wonderful figurative cycle in the Modena Cathedral, and Benedetto Antelami that operated in Fidenza and Parma. 

The Romanesque Fidenza Cathedral 

The construction of the San Donnino Cathedral, in Fidenza (1117) is attributed to Benedetto Antelami, an important sculptor and architect of the transition period between the Romanesque and the Gothic. This sacred building presents a three naves plan, separated by cross vaults, and a partially incomplete facade. Antelami did not finish it, since he was asked to work in Parma. However, the sculptural decorations and its friezes are sufficient to understand its historical importance and grandeur.  

San Donnino Cathedral in Fidenza

The Fidenza Cathedral was anciently located along the Via Francigena, the way which led pilgrims towards Jerusalem. Then, it had a fundamental role of spiritual refresh. For this reason Benedetto Antelami sculpted majestic bas-reliefs on the sides of the cathedral. They represent scenes from the Bible or saints’ histories. 

The protiro and the major portal

A first characterizing element is the facade, which have three portals with splayings. The portals are surmounted by protiri, supported by columns-bearing stone lions or telamons at the base. On the sides of the major portal there are sculptures by Benedetto Antelami, two statues representing the king David and the prophet Ezekiel. The first one exposes a cartouche with the writing: “This is the God door; the righteous enter through it”; on the other side, Ezekiel reports: “I saw the door of the Lord house closed”.

The stone lions of the major portal protiro have the classical Romanesque iconography: one is eating a heifer, the other one is killing a snake-like dragon. It is the representation of the lion of the Judah’s tribe, an eschatological and prophetic figure of Christ the King. In the biblic symbology, the Christ-lion (Ariel) defeated the serpent-devil.  

One of the stone lions of the protiro

Sculptural decorations of the protiro

The protiro arch has superbe sculptural decorations. A series of human figures follow one another along the border: on the left there are the Old Testament prophets, and the apostles are positioned in the opposite side. At the center, in the keystone, there is Christ enthroned. The symbolic meaning of the representation is fascinating. Christ abolishes the Old Testament law (the prophets) and gives it a continuity by the new Love law (the apostles). The cartouches of the keystone contains the following words: “Hear, Israel, the commandments of life: blessed are the poor in spirit”. The sentence is the starting of the Jewish Shemà and delineates the passed of the old law as a slavery, compulsion. It becomes the new commandment by Christ: what was done as obedience to the law in the past, now is a choice for love. 

The arch of the main protiro

In the architrave of the central portal there is a carved band, which extends to the splayings. It illustrated scenes from the St. Donnino’s life, patron saint of Fidenza. 

The right portal 

The right portal, enclosed by a protiro with an arch and a pediment, is enriched by many sculptures. Over the pediment the sculpture of Raimondino, a local saint known for his charity, is located. At the tympanum there is a blessing archpriest, who symbolyzes the Church. The protiro arch hosts zoomorphic figures which personify the Deadly Sins. 

In the portal lunette the important symbolism of St. Michael killing the dragon is located. 

Right portal: St. Michael and the dragon

Left portal

Like the right portal, the left one has a protiro. Over the pediment there is the representation of Giovanni Pallavicino, one of the most important feudal lords of that time. The tympanum reports the story of Borgo San Donnino, that means Fidenza. The scenes represent the consecration of the cathedral by the pope Adrian II, and its elevation to a “Imperial Church” by Charlemagne. 

Left portal

Lateral buttresses and the apse

The decorative apparatus of the two facade towers are more difficult to be interpreted. On the left tower there are scenes from the Christ’s life: the King Herod enthroned and the Wise Men.

On the right tower a bizarre sculptural representation is located. It is always named “The flight of Alexander”. A legend tells that the Macedonian leader harnessed two griffins to his chariot. To allow them flying, Alexander put pieces of meat on two spears. Then the griffins started to fly, trying to bite into the food. 

The known  “Flight of Alexander”

The external of the apse contains some sculptural friezes with hunting scenes and panels depicting the cycle of months. 

Apse and the bell tower

The scenes of the noble and poor pilgrims 

A sculptural cycle is located on the sides of the niches. The panels host the statues of the King David and Ezekiel; they represent the pilgrimage theme. On the left side of the major portal an angel receives the noble pilgrims in the Cathedrals, and on the opposite side some poor pilgrims are coming. The symbology indicates the equality of all the pilgrims before God, and the Fidenza cathedral is the place of this meeting. The ancient village of Fidenza was located along the Via Francigena, the elected pilgrimage place. 

King David and the noble pilgrims
Prophet Ezekiel and the poor pilgrims

Interior of the Cathedral 

The Fidenza Cathedral is divided into three naves. On the central nave there are wonderful matronea with three-mullioned windows. They are accessible by stairs located in the buttresses, which allow to see the superb raised presbitery. The crypt is located below and is an architectural testimony of the first core of the building (4th century).  At the level of the apse, there is the sculptural cycle composed by the Christ Pantocrator statue, the symbols of the four evangelists and two angels. The representations of the evangelists are attributed to the “Abdon and Sennen Master”, who sculpted the ark which hosts the relics of the two Christian saints at the Parma Cathedral. 

Along the central nave, in the right capital of the first span, “The Expulsion of the Rebel angels from Paradise” by Benedetto Antelami is sculpted. 


The expulsion of the rebel angels from Paradise
The presbytery

Saint Donnino

The Fidenza Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Donnino, a martyr of the primitive Emilia church of the 3rd century. The sculpted bas-reliefs in the facade allow to reconstruct the last moments of the saint’s life. Donnino was a soldier of the emperor Maximian. After he had converted to Christianity, he was forced to escape from Rome due to a death penalty. The imperial soldiers reached him at Fidenza and he was captured, beheaded near the Sidone river. The legend tells that his body rose, picked up his head and crossed the river.  When he reached the opposite side, Donnino laid down letting his soul ascend to heaven. Over there the cathedral was constructed. 

The edification of the church started after the finding of the saint’s tomb by Charlemagne. Nonetheless, after the earthquake of 1117, the cathedral was rebuilt following the Romanesque rules. 

Near the cathedral there is the remains of the Roman bridge crossed by the headless saint. 

The remains of the Roman bridge and the Cathedral in the background

A Merels Board in Fidenza 

The symbology in Fidenza cathedral has an extreme importance. Behind the right column of the porch a vertical Merels Board is engraved. 

Merels Board of Fidenza

The meaning of the symbolism is debated. Some scholars affirm it is a game spread in the Medieval period: the Filetto. Other ones support the symbolistic meaning. Then, the Merels Board could be an identification exoteric symbol, belonging to monastic orders or congregations of that period. This statement derives from the archaeological discovery sites, mainly Medieval cathedrals or churches.  We suggest the Merels Board could be related to the Cistercians monks and to the Knights Templar, since it could represent the Jerusalem Temple. 

In the place where the Temple destroyed by the general Tito in 70 AC was located, the Knights Templar had their headquarter during the Crusades. The association between the Merels Board and the Jewish building Sancta Sanctorum derives from the temple description provided by the biblic Book of the Chronicles. The Jerusalem Temple is described: “He made the courtyard of the priests, and the large court and the doors for the court, and overlaid the doors with bronze” [Chronicles II, 9]. 

In this sense, the Merels Board of Fidenza has a relevant meaning, since it was difficult to use it as a game due to its particular position. 

The Alquerque of Fidenza

Another symbolism placed in the facade of Fidenza Cathedral is the Alquerque. It is curiously located near the arch of the central portal protiro. Its meaning is linked to the Universe origin and, in the Medieval meaning, it represents the image of God the Creator. 

A similar motif is placed in the floor of the Cathedral. 

Benedetto Antelami in Parma

Benedetto Antelami is one of the most important artist of the Italian Middle Age. Belonging to the Lombard school, he is the author of some of the most emblematic works of the transition period between the Romanesque and the Gothic. Antelami operated in Parma between 1170 and 1230, where he created sculptural and architectural works that delineate this passage: the Baptistery, projected and realized under his direction; the sculptural slab of the Deposition at the Cathedral. 

Parma Baptistery 

The building was projected and realized by Benedetto Antelami between the 1196 and 1216. It is located near the Cathedral and is developed in height anticipating the typical characteristics of the nascent Gothic architecture. It has an octagonal structure, which symbolizes the seven days of the Creation and the 8th day, sign of the eternal life. 

Parma: on the left the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, on the right the Baptistery

In the lower order, the Baptistery has three portals with splayings and round arches. Along the perimeter there are some panels, probably realized by Benedetto. They derive from the cycle of the zoophore, which includes representations of animals, sirens and signs of the zoodiac. 

One of the portals of the Baptistery
Detail of the zoophore by Benedetto Antelami

In the upper part the Baptistery shows four orders of loggias. The building ends with a band of 14th century-blind arches and above some sketched pinnacles. 

Inside the Baptistery there are sixteen arches containing sculptures of the Cycle of Months, realized by Benedetto Antelami and his collaborators. The sixteeen arches are projected on the focal point at the top, where the dome converges. This last is decorated with 14th-century frescoes (by Po valley workers) which illustrate scenes from Abraham’s, Saint Giovanni Battista and Glorious Crist’s lifes. 

The interior of the baptistery and the Cycle of Months
Dome decorations of the Baptistery

Parma Cathedral 

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was built starting from the second half of the 11th century. It is still similar to the original Romanesque structure, with a gabled facade and a latin cross plan with three naves. Among the treasures of the Cathedral, there are the frescoes of the dome by Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio. Under the dome there is the major altar, work of the “Abdon and Sennen master”, whose name derives from the two martyrs whose remains are hosted inside the ark. 

The interior of the Parma Cathedral
Major altar of Abdon and Sennen

Deposition from the Cross by Benedetto Antelami

In the right transept there is the most important work by Benedetto Antelami: the Deposition from the Cross. The work was realized in 1178 and it is the only signed sculpture by the author. The slab contains these words: “ANNO MILLENO CENTENO SEPTVAGENO / OCTAVO SCVLTOR PAT(RA)VIT M(EN)SE SE(C)V(N)DO // ANTELAMI DICTVS SCVLPTOR FVIT HIC BENEDICTVS” that means “In the year 1178 (month of April) a sculptor realized (this work); this sculptor is Benedetto known as Antelami”. 

Deposition by Benedetto Antelami

The slab describes the evangelic episode of the Deposition from the Cross of Christ. The body of Christ occupies the centre of the scene. It shows the classical iconography: Nicodemus on a ladder and Joseph of Arimatea who hold the body of the Savior. On the left there is Longinus, with the spear and the Holy Grail. The slab reproduces also a singular epidose: the Roman soldiers who play dice the tunic of Christ. The Deposition by Benedetto Antelami has an intrinsic teologic as well artistic value. By this masterpiece the pilgrims who moved along the Via Francigena contemplated the life and passion of Christ. For this reason, the Deposition is at the same time a mystical and didactic work. 

Modena Cathedral

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and San Geminiano, in Modena, is an extraordinary example of the Emilian-Lombard Romanesque (1099-1319). Located in the centre of the city, it was projected by the comacine architect Lanfranco, who joined Wiligelmo in the construction of the facade and the sculptures.

The facade of Modena Cathedral

Probably Wiligelmo had Lombard origins, and his sculptures are linked to the ones of other Emilian churches, like the Piacenza and Nonantola churches. The Modena Cathedral hosts his most famous and relevant works. The contribution by Wiligelmo is celebrated by an epigraph that tells «Inter scultores quan/to sis dignus onore, cla/ret scultura nunc Wiligelme tua» («How much among the sculptors you are worthy of honor is evident, Wiligelmo, for your sculpture»). These words are engraved on a cartouche, supported by the prophets Elijah and Enoch, on the left of the central portal in the facade. 

The cartouche of Wiligelmo

Facade of Modena Cathedral 

A salient facade provides a feeling of magnificence and serenity. The majestic rose window is wonderful. Below there are three portals, the central one decorated with a porch containing column-bearing lions and an aedicule. The sculptoral decorations located inside it are very important. They were created by Wiligelmo and his collaborators illustrating scenes from the Genesis, probably part of an ancient lost pulpit, zoomorphic and vegetal figures.

The central portal. Over the arch of the portico there are two panels representing zoomorphic figures. On the left side two deer with a single head turned down in the act of drinking are represented. They indicate the need of God by Man; Psalm 42: «As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs after You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God». On the opposite side a lion and a lioness fighting against two snakes, representation of the fight of man against the sin.
Expulsion of Adam and Eve
Detail: a telamon sculpted on the central portal.
Detail of the internal splaying of the central portal: representation of the prophets.
Left portal: representation of God at the internal of an almond supported by two angels, and the Creation of Adam.
Right portal: Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Heaven.

A big rose window

The big rose window is located on the portion above the central portal. It constitutes the most majestic decorative element of the facade. It is divided into sixteen portions by columns that branch off from a central clypeus. Inside it there is a representation of a cross. Above the rose window there is the sculpture of God enthroned. On the sides there are the symbols of the four evangelists: the lion of Saint Mark, the angel of Saint Matthew, the eagle of Saint John and the ox of Saint Luke. 

The Cathedral is decorated with three side portals: the Porta Regia and Porta dei Principi overlook the Piazza Grande; on the northern side there is the Porta della Pescheria.

Porta Regia

The original structure was modified starting from 1167, with the construction of the Porta Regia by the Masters of Campione. The decision to build a new entrance to the Cathedral originated by the need of provide a larger entrance to the church. In fact, new civil palaces were built near the Cathedral, so its monumentality was reduced. For this reason, the new sourthern entrance in front of the square was realized. The square represented the center of the commercial and municipal activities. The simple style of Lanfranco was abandoned. It was characterized by carved jambs, an architrave and an archivolt, which were substituted by the richest Lombard style. 

The portal is decorated with splayings, twisted columns and rhombuses. Inside them there are zoomorphic elements. Moreover, it is surmounted by a protiro with an aedicula. This last hosts a copper statue of Saint Geminiano, to whom the Cathedral is dedicated. Two stone lions in the act of devouring a prey support the columns of the protiro. They have the carrier function, a uniqueness with respect to the decorative function of the lions of the Porta Maggiore and Porta dei Principi. One of the columns supporting the protiro is knotted: it is a rare symbolism which refers to the meaning of the Trinity. 

Porta Regia

Porta dei Principi

It was introduced after the construction of Modena Cathedral (1106-about 1110). The structure is simpler than the Porta Regia: two columns with Corinthian capitals with acanthus leaves decorates the portals. The friezes of the architrave describe the hagiographic events of the bishop Saint Geminian, patron of Modena. 

Porta dei Principi

Porta della Pescheria

The peculiarities of this portal are the friezes representing scenes from the Arthurian cycles. The sculpted archivolt shows a captive woman in a fortified castle. Near the castle, a battle is taken place: a violent fights between the knights could delineate the future of the woman. Among the knights there is the king Arthur, whose identity is revealed by an inscription. 

The surprising aspect of these sculptures is they could belong to an antecedent period respecting to the Arthurian Britain literature; it could be one of the first sculptural representation of the oral stories. At the center of the architrave there is the symbolism of the Knot of Revelation, which is linked to the Jewish Merkavah and to the four evangelists. Further, there are scenes from the fairy tales Le Roman de Renart. Along the internal portal jamb the Allegorie dei Mesi are represented.


Porta della Pescheria

Interior of the Cathedral 

The Cathedral has three naves and a raised presbytery. Along the side naves there are matronea and above the clerestory, where the light arrives through the wonderful trifora. The coverage of the naves is marked by cross vaults. The three naves ends with an apse. At the central nave the choir is decorated with an extraordinary pontoon with pulpit, realized by the Masters of Campione (1165-1225). Among them there is the work by Anselmo da Campione and his students who raised the pontoon on ten columns, supported by stone lions, horses and telamons. 

The sculpture illustrates scenes from the Old Testament, saints and doctors of the Church, Christ’s Passion on the parapet. The pontoon ideally divides the central nave in a lower one, characterized by the crypt, and an upper one, accessible by stairs. Here, at the apse, there is a marble altar, the wooden choir and an extraordinary fresco representing the Coronation of Virgin Mary. 

In the left nave, the famous work by Dosso Dossi (1468-1542), the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, is located.

The via Francigena in Emilia, symbolisms and the Knights Templar

The extraordinary way from Canterbury, England, to Apulia (Brindisi) was the transit of many pilgrims who, for many decades, wanted to reach Jerusalem: it is the Via Francigena. Along the way there are some of the most important Italian Medieval cities. Among them, Fidenza, Modena and Parma. The architecture of the flourishing Emilian cities is intertwined with the historical events of that period, like the Crusades. 

This explains the presence of a chivalrous cycle at the Porta della Pescheria of Modena Cathedral. The sculpted knights of king Arthur protected the passing pilgrims and the sacred places of the Via Francigena. Probably the promoter of the sculptural cycle was Matilde di Canossa, who superintended the laying of the first stone of the Cathedral. Matilde was also one of the promoters of the first Crusade, and her grandson in law, Goffredo di Buglione, led the army until the conquest of Jerusalem (1099). 

The presence of the Knights Templar

Among the various Jerusalemites orders who were born after the first Crusade, there were the Knights Templar. They had the role to protect and assist pilgrims along the way. Their name derives from the sacred area of the ancient Jerusalem Temple. The presence of the Templars along the Via Francigena is attested by the various inscriptions and symbolism. In Modena there is a street dedicated to them, Via Masone, that corresponded to the town mansion. This explains the vast number of symbolisms at the Cathedral, the core of the religious and political activities.

Crypt of Modena Cathedral: the siren

An extraordinary example of the presence of the Knights Templar could be the Cross Pattée, a significative element of the Jerusalemites order. Another element could indicate their presence: the knotted columns which support the protiro of the Porta della Pescheria. The origin of this symbolism is related to the lost Temple of Jerusalem, like the Merels Board of the San Donnino Cathedral, in Fidenza.

A Cross Pattée in the internal of Modena Cathedral

In the Emilian cathedrals art, the great Romanesque masters, history and mystery blend in an inimitable, fascinating narrative unicum, to be discovered yet.  

Samuele Corrente Naso and Daniela Campus

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