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The Theodolinda Chapel and the Iron Crown of Monza

It is the 22 of January 627. The queen of the Lombards, Theodolinda, has just died in Monza. The woman was buried inside the Basilica of Saint John in the city she loved, next to the tomb of her husband, Agilulf. Here, she had constructed a primitive temple dedicated to Saint John Baptist (595-600) that, according to the tradition, was directly inspired by God.  

The mythical storytelling [1] tells that when Thedolinda was resting in the shadow of an oak, she received the visit of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This one asked her to build a church Modo (here) and the Queen, like the virgin Mary, answered Etiam (yes). The merge of the words originated the toponym Modoezia. It is the name used by the ancients for naming the current city of Monza. This posthumous mythical-Christian tradition wants to recognize to Thedolinda the merits of having converted the Aryan Lombards to Catholicism.

The queen Theodolinda, from the Nuremberg Chronicles by Hartmann Schedel

Theodolinda conceived her cathedral, a sacred and representative building of a whole people, as a marvel. The sovereigns enriched the construction with precious goldsmiths, whose number and value increased overtime, composing a real treasure. In addition to the collection of Lombards golds, there were also gifts coming from various places, like the ones given by the pope Gregory the Great (603). From that moment on, the future of the so called Treasury of the Cathedral was indissolubly linked to the city of Monza.

The Cross of Agilulf is part of the Treasury of the Monza Cathedral

Theodolinda, an extraordinary choice 

The life of Theodolinda was so extraordinary and andventurous. She was a woman with a great human and cultural depth, who suddenly had to rule the warlike people of the Lombards after the death of her husband, Autari. Certainly, the premature death of the loved king could have thrown the whole nation into despair. Moreover, Theodolinda could not be the leader of an army, which required military competences and political abilities. These motifs led the Queen to accept the marriage with Agilulf, a Lombard noble distant relative.

A scene of the marriage between Theodolinda and Agilulf, Zavattari, Chapel of Theodolinda at the Monza Cathedral

The new marriage was celebrated in Lomello in 590 and allowed Lombards to obtain a continuity of political resolutions, as well as the persist of good defence strategies for the Reign. The 8th century historian Paolo Diacono, in his “Historia Langobardorum”, described the first meeting between the two spouses, in a rather fictionalized way: “But, since the duke had kissed her hand in receiving the cup, she, blushing with a smile, observed that whoever kissed the hand should kiss her mouth. Then, raised for kissing her, he spoke about the marriage and the dignity of the throne” [2].

Theodolinda was then protagonist of a big love and humility gesture, not to Agilulf but to the Lombards. This is why the queen was so loved, whose actions are remembered as epic tales.

A new architectural season 

At this stage, it is necessary to take a leap into the history. 

In the Jubilee year, 1300, the city of Monza was hosting the construction of a new cathedral. The old building was not more sufficient for responding to the ambitions of the expanding city. It was necessary to erect a new building which should have symbolized the citizen power and should have reconnected to the preexisting tradition. Hence, it was decided to construct the Cathedral on the ancient vestiges of the Lombard period, almost completely overwriting them. The Milanese Visconti, who had come to power only few decades before, were the promotors of this new architectural season.

Some stone sarcophagi, under the floor of the Cathedral, are the few remains of the previous building.
The simbology of the spiral 

Firstly, the new building was simple, similar to the Franciscan architecture, with the exception of the gorgeous silver altar by Borgino dal Pozzo (1350).

In 1360 it was transformed, following the Gothic stylistic features that still today persist in the structure. Protomagister of this elaborated phase was Matteo of the Campione Masters. He constructed the wonderful facade, as well as the elegant chapels along the naves.

At the external of the Cathedral a commemorative plaque of Matteo from Campione

Monza Cathedral 

Today, the Cathedral has a Latin cross plan, with three naves. The salient facade has Gothic spiers and summit aedicules, and it is characterized by the marked duotone caused to the alternation of white and black rows. The big rose window, inscribed inside a quadrangular frame, is magnificent. A high prothyrum wraps the main portal, over which the statue of its protector, Saint John Baptist, stands out. The reconstruction of the bell tower was made by the architect Pellegrino Tibaldi during the counter-reform period.

Monza Cathedral

The preservation of the Gothic facade is counterbalanced by the Mannerist and Baroque reworking of the interior.

Jesse Tree in the Monza Cathedral, 1556, Giuseppe Arcimboldo

The original pictorial decorations survived for a short time. A unique and extraordinary exception is represented by the frescoes of the Zavattari family, preserved inside a chapel, known as of Theodolinda.

Thedolinda Chapel and a delicate dinastic passage

The 15th century was a period of enormous changes. In the artistic field the reborn of stylistic Classical rules led to the Renaissance, whilst the Humanism introduced a new vision of the man and the World. The 15th century defined the last times of the Middle Age, as a cultural concept that was declining. However, the new emerging world was still connected with the ancient traditions. For instance, the revival of the Gothic, here defined as international or cortese, so linked to the noble courts of Europe. Among them, the Visconti of Milan had an important role. They were the most enlightened promulgators of the Gothic, commissioning a cycle of frescoes and monumental buildings. An example is the Milan Cathedral (1386) and the Certosa of Pavia (1396), constructed by the will of Gian Galeazzo Visconti.

The Certosa of Pavia

The noble family of the Biscione seemed to govern Milan for many centuries. Nobody could imagine that, very soon,  the Visconti decayed.

The threatened Visconti continuity 

Hence, when Filippo Maria Visconti came to power, he could not imagine that the continuity of the family was in danger. He, an intelligent and reserved man, had not male heirs. The two marriages with Beatrice di Lascaris and Maria of Savoia did not lead to any children. Only one heir, Bianca Maria, was born from an illegitimate relationship with the noble woman Agnese del Maino.

The male succession line of the Duchy was interrupted. Filippo recognized Bianca Maria as his heir: if his daughter  married and generated a son, this latter would guarantee the dynastic continuity. In 1441 Bianca married Francesco Sforza; after three years the long-awaited male heir, Galeazzo Maria, was born.

Bianca Maria like Theodolinda

Bianca Maria seemed as a figure from an epic tale, like the queen Theodolinda. In that sense, it gave to the events of the Visconti dynastic succession an aura of sacredness. Bianca Maria embodied the spirit of the Lombard sovereign, although the contexts and the time was so different.

This is the historical substrate that led to the decoration of the most prestigious pictorial cycle inside the Cathedral. Between the 1441 and 1446 the chapel of the left nave, was decorated with frescoes representing 45 scenes from the life of the queen Theodolinda.

The Theodolinda Chapel 

It is not known the customer of the Theodolinda Chapel. Although it is possible that it was Filippo Maria Visconti, the story could be more complicated. According to the period chronicles, he did not appear so enthusiastic of his son in law, Francesco Sforza, so that he designed Alfonso of Aragona as his heir. Contrariwise, the frescoes were expression of a local clients, who were hoping in the internal succession. The Theodolinda Chapel is then an exceptional tribute to the Lombard queen, founder of the primitive Cathedral, and a vivid testimony of the Visconti dynastic passage.

The frescoes cycle was commissioned to a late Gothic workshop, in vogue in the 15th century in Lombardy: the Zavattari family.

They depicted the epic story of the Theodolinda’s life, extracted from the Historia Langobardorum by the reporter Paolo Diacono and the Chronicon Modoetiense by Bonincontro Morigia. The 45 fresco and dry tempera scenes are distributed over five different registers and seem enriched with precious metals relief finishes, particularly gold and silver. The tecnique used makes the Theodolinda Chapel resemble to a precious illuminated code rather than to a wall painting. Today most of the metal decorations are oxidized, assuming the typical blackish, but the wonder of the visitors of the time could be enormous in the face of all that splendor.

Detail of the Theodolinda Chapel, to note the techniques used

Description of the scenes 

28 scenes represent wedding banquets, referring to the two marriages of Theodolinda. It is not a random choice, this particularity, in fact, suggests the importance of the marriage between Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco Sforza.

The first 23 episodes tell the love story between Theodolinda and Autari, until the death of the latter; from the 24 to 31 the scenes about the marriage with Agilulf are depicted. From that point, the cycle of the Theodolinda stories seems to have stylistic detachment and be commissioned in another time. The story concerning the mythical foundation of the Cathedral by the Queen is introduced. A sort of divine protection seemed to cover the construction: until Lombards took care of it, Saint John would protect the people from enemies. The last scenes, from 41 to 45, depict the failed attempt to conquest the reign by the emperor Costante.

Iron Crown and the Theodolinda Tomb 

The Theodolinda Chapel was remodeled during the 19th century. In this period, the king Umberto I commissioned the realization of a reliquary altar containing the most precious artifact of the Cathedral Treasure, the Iron Crown. Contextually, the architect Luca Beltrami located the sarcophagus of the queen Theodolinda inside the chapel.

A reproduction of the Iron Crown

The Iron Crown 

One of the most important Lombard artifact is the Iron Crown. The millenial history assumes a mystical value since, according to the tradition, it is partially realized by one of the nails of the Christ cross. This double valency had inevitably had a great influence. The Iron Crown was used for the coronation of the Italian kings. Particularly, the emperors of the Sacred Roman Empire had to conquer three crowns: the iron crown, the silver crown of Aachen and the gold one directly provided by the Pope in Rome. For instance, Frederick Barbarossa received the Iron Crown in Pavia in 1155, at the Basilica of San Michele.

Why iron crown? 

At first sight the crown does not seem made with iron. In fact, it is composed by six gold plates, embellished with precious gems: sapphires, amethysts and garnets. The adjective iron derives from the presence of a metallic ring of 15cm of diameter, in the internal part.

According to the Christian tradition, referred by the Milano bishop Saint Ambrogio during the funeral of the emperor Theodosius in 384 [3], the iron ring was obtained by melting one of the nails of the Christ crucifixion. The Saint referred that the relic had been found by the emperor Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, in 326. Hence, she had inserted the extracted iron in a helmet-diadem for her son. Finally, the helmet had been moved to Milano by the emperor Theodosius, who lived there.

Effectively, some representations of the diadem on Early Christian medallions are similar to the Iron Crown.

A medallion representing the emperor Constantine. Perhaps, Saint Helena inserted the Sacred Nail inside the helmet-diadem. Image by Dietrich.Klose – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Iron Crown in Monza 

It is not known how the crown arrived to Monza. An accredited hypothesis points out that it was initially preserved inside the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milano, and then moved to Brianza by the will of the archbishop Ariberto da Intimiano [5]. He referred about the miraculous power of the relic, that had alleviated his bodily suffering. Alternatively, the Crown was brought from Constantinople after the fall of the Roman Western Empire, and only afterwards it was moved to Monza by Theodoric the Great. In fact, here the Italian King had his summer residence.

Recent studies and hypothesis about the Crown 

Some recent studies have demonstrated that the internal ring plate is in silver. Therefore, it was hypothesized that the metal of the Sacred Nail was composed by two iron arches, which had the function of fixing the crown to the helmet of Constantine. Effectively, the Iron Crown has two holes which could be compatible with this reconstruction. Moreover, they reveal the presence of iron oxidation, that means rust.

It is not clear where the arches are, and even if they exist, since the crown was reshaped overtime. For instance, Theodoric added several precious stones; further, in origin the relic had eight plates, that were reduced to six in 1300. After this time, the crown appeared tighter and inappropriate to gird the head of a man. According to some scholars, in 1345 the goldsmith Antellotto Bracciforte repaired the artifact which had lost two plates, by adding a silver plate.



A possible scientific dating of the Crown 

The historiographical sources concerning the Iron Crown are abundant. Nevertheless, they concentrate on the use of the royal diadem, whilst nothing or a few is known about its origins. Recently, the artifact was subjected to dating with the carbon 14 method [4]. The results are ambivalent: some elements refer to the 5th-6th century, whereas other ones to a period between the 7th and 10th century. Hence, it is probable that someone repaired the artifact during the Caroligian period. In particular, it is hypothesized that a restoration of the stones had been realized on the occasion of the coronation of the Charlemagne’s son, Pippin.

The cult of the Iron Crown, from Saint Carlo Borromeo to Napoleon 

After a short period in Avignone, during the Pope crusade against the Visconti, the Iron Crown came back to Monza. Very soon it became an object of popular devotion. The official acknowledgment occurred in 1576 by Saint Carlo Borromeo. However, the veneration of the crown, which is still conducted on procession on the third sunday of September along the streets of the city, was bounded to a condition: even the Sacred Nail preserved in the Milan Cathedral has to be conducted on procession.

The Crown was also used by Napoleon Bonaparte who, the 26 of May 1805, crowned himself as an emperor, saying the famous phrase: “God gave it to me, woe to anyone who touches it!”.

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)


[1] Chronicon Modoetiense, Bonincontro Morigia

[2] Storia dei Longobardi, Paolo Diacono, Edizioni Studio Tesi, 1990.

[3] Orazione funebre De obitu Teodosii, Sant’Ambrogio.

[4] La Corona Ferrea, C. Bertelli, Ginevra-Milano, Skira, 2017.

[5] La Corona Ferrea: corona o reliquia?, in Studi Monzesi, C. Bertelli, 2002.

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