The Apulian Romanesque of Ruvo Cathedral

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The Apulian Romanesque Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta overlooks a pretty little square in the historical center of Ruvo di Puglia. Its facade soars towards the sky, with its magnificent circular rose window. The impressive Romanesque portals invite visitors to look for the mystical quietness that is inside the building. Next to the southern side stands the geometric bell tower, a characteristic landmark of the town. Here, in fact, the architectural and even cultural reconstruction of the whole village originated.

Apulian Romanesque
The Apulian Romanesque Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Ruvo di Puglia.

Ruvo di Puglia, introduction and historical context

Ruvo di Puglia, such as other towns in Apulia, went through centuries of uncertainty and sometimes devastation. Thus, in the 5th century the Byzantine city was destroyed by the Goths during the barbarian invasions. Since 847 Ruvo became a military camp of the Saracens. Only with the coming of the Normans in Apulia, after the conquest of the region by Ruggero d’Altavilla in 1040, the village had a period of peace. However Ruvo di Puglia was a city completely to be rebuilt, both architecturally and in its cultural identity. In addition, in the middle of the 12th century, some devastating sieges destroyed what was left standing. For these reasons, it was decided to build a new cathedral to represent Christian values and to restore decorum to the historical center.

Origin and renovations of Ruvo Cathedral

The historical origins of the cathedral are not widely known. However, it is certain that they belong to the 12th and 13th centuries, perhaps during the reign of Frederick II of Swabia. Despite the lack of written historiographical sources documenting its origins, it is possible to deduce them from some details. Among these, a slab [1] preserved in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament seems to indicate that the building was erected at the behest of Robert II of Bassaville (Count of Loretello and Conversano) and Bishop Daniel. Some biographical research has documented that at the death of the bishop after 1183, the cathedral was still incomplete, since his body was buried in another church [2].

Nowadays the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is different from the original project. An in-depth historiographic analysis has shown that it was modified in modern times; the relationes ad Limina Apostolorum of Bishop Gaspare Pasquali reveal the restructuring of the altars. In particular, the construction of a new main altar dates back to 1697, since the previous one was destroyed and replaced with a throne for the Duke of Andria, Ettore Carafa.

Apulian Romanesque
Main altar

Later renovations

The internal chapels were also significantly modified in number and style. Bishop Giulio de Turris, in fact, reported that “the cathedral church […] now appears in more refined forms” [3]. Indeed, a stone slab, located on the right side of the facade, shows the conclusion of the work in 1749. The addition of the chapels, grouped along the right side of the building, caused a lateral asymmetry. So it was decided to widen the facade by 2.4 meters per side, to define a linear perspective towards the square.

On a side of the Cathedral it is possible to see the enlargement of the facade

The additional chapels were demolished during the restorations of the 20th century, in order to bring the church to its original Apulian Romanesque splendor. Therefore, the original spatiality was recreated through the restoration of the ancient perimeter wall. Still today, in a narrow interspace that runs along the right side, from which you can access the hypogeum, you can see traces of the original pictorial cycle.

Apulian Romanesque
The interspace leading to the hypogeum with some remains of the chapels’ wall paintings.

The Apulian Romanesque decorations of Ruvo Cathedral

Ruvo di Puglia Cathedral is an extraordinary example of Apulian Romanesque style, which has been preserved thanks to the accurate restoration works carried out in the 20th century. The facade, which presents the emerging Gothic influences of the time, has three portals. These are flanked by four semi-columns, leaning against the wall, which would have served as support for a portico that was never built.

The central round-arched portal is richly decorated with friezes and bas-reliefs. In the upper arch of the intrados are represented Christ, the Madonna and St. John the Baptist, the twelve apostles and some angels. The central arch is characterized by the presence of the Agnus Dei and the four evangelists. In the internal arch two splendid peacocks representing Christ and the Eucharist appear in the center.  The main portal is then flanked by two narrow columns resting on lions, in their turn supported by telamons, and ending with griffins. The keystone of the portal is carved with an eagle. A recurring motif of the building is the presence of hanging arches supported by corbels carved with zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures and plant motifs.

Ruvo Cathedral
The main portal

Some details of the façade

The Apulian Romanesque style is also evident in the facade. Its upper part shows a large rose window with twelve radiating columns. The rose window is surmounted by the arcane figure of the Sedente (“Sitting One”). This is a human figure seated on a throne, which originally could hold the model of the cathedral. It has been hypothesized that it is a representation of the financier of the church. The figure wears a tunic with a belt and could portray Robert II of Bassaville [4]. However, it is not excluded that it is Frederick II of Swabia, who approved or financed the construction of the cathedral.

Under the rose window, the facade opens through a mullioned window on which the figure of St. Michael the Archangel stands out. A statue of the Risen Jesus is placed on top of the facade.

Interior of Ruvo Cathedral

The cathedral has a Latin cross plan with a nave and two aisles, separated by cruciform columns. The aisles are cross vaulted, and the nave has a wooden trussed ceiling. Even the capitals of the columns are finely sculpted with phytoform and anthropo-zoomorphic figures, typical of Apulian Romanesque. The spatiality of the interior is emphasized by the light that passes through the mullioned windows and illuminates the gallery along the central nave.

Ruvo Cathedral
View of the interior from the central portal

The bell tower

The bell tower is a pre-existing element. It dates back to the year One Thousand and it was originally a defensive tower. The fortified structure was not damaged by the devastation of the 12th century and has been incorporated inside the cathedral with the addition of two floors [2].

Symbology

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, in addition to its architectural and stylistic importance, is also rich in symbolism. There are several elements that recall the corpus of mystical and decorative symbols of the Romanesque and Gothic periods.

The lion

Among these is the figure of the lion. Symbol of Christ guardian of the Church while supporting the columns of the main portal, also is present as a decorative sculpture on the facade. The lion also has the apotropaic function of keeping evil spirits away. It also has a admonishing function: it is a figure of the Messiah and of God’s judgment. Only the deserving man can enter his house, terribilis est locus iste. 

Ruvo Cathedral
A stone lion at the main portal

The eagle and the griffin

Even the eagle is a figure of Christ, since it symbolyzes the heavenly nature. The symbolism of the animal is present in Ruvo Cathedral, on the archivolt of the central portal. Moreover, the symbolic and exegetical representations of the lion and the eagle merge into that of the griffin. The griffin represents the double nature of Christ, celestial and terrestrial. This ancient symbol, with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion, could also have a negative meaning. Sometimes, because of its feral nature, the Church identified it with the devil. This is why the griffin is often found on the sides of the central portal. It is the figuration of Christ who welcomes the faithful but also of the devil, confined outside the church as a reminder against sin.

Ruvo Cathedral
Side view of the central portal, masterful example of Apulian Romanesque style

The lamb

On the central portal there is the sculpted figure of the Agnus Dei with the cross. The symbolism of this animal dates back to the early Christian period, and has retained its original connotations until today. It is Christ, the lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53,7), who sacrificed himself for the remission of the sins of all.

Ruvo Cathedral
Details of the main portal

Wheel of Fortune of Ruvo Cathedral

Below the mullioned window with St. Michael the Archangel on the facade there is a small group of sculptures, probably a reused element from the earlier cathedral. It could be a representation of the Wheel of Fortune. It is opened centrally, like a miniature rose window, by a circular element that imitates the petals of a flower of life. Around it there are plant motifs and an inscription showing the verse from Matthew 11, 28: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest”. 

Little rose window or Wheel of Fortune, Ruvo Cathedral

On the lower part of the Wheel of Fortune in Ruvo Cathedral there is a dragon, symbol of the devil and eternal perdition. It welcomes the souls of those who do not follow the will of God. On the opposite side, there is the figure of the Creator, unfortunately very deteriorated. Finally, there are two angels on the sides.

Hypogeum of Ruvo Cathedral

During the restoration of the Cathedral in the 19th century (1935), it was required to lower the floor of the transept and the aisles. However, the works were not very successful, since the floor became covered with humidity. Only in 1975 were carried out topographic and stratigraphic analyses on the subsoil of Ruvo. The investigations provided the cathedral was built on some pre-existing constructions, dating back to the Iron Age [5].

Ruvo Cathedral
Hypogeum

In particular, there is archaeological evidence that the area was used as a necropolis since the Peucezi period, one of the most ancient pre-Roman peoples of Apulia. The hypogeum, which can be accessed through a narrow passage in the right aisle, was reused by the Romans. Testimonies of this phase are the traces of floor mosaics, belonging to a Domus of the imperial period.

Ruvo Cathedral
Floor mosaic of the Imperial period, with wide spirals and plant motifs, dating from the 3rd century BC.

In the Middle Ages, while the cathedral was being built, the entire building was reserved for Christian burials.

Christian burials

The graves were found intact. They contained a rich funerary outfit consisting of crucifixes, earrings, rings and fibulae of that period.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

[1]  Italia Sacra, Ferdinando Ughelli, 1643

[2] Ruvo, La Cattedrale,  Bucci Cleto, Pubblicità e Stampa, 2003

[3] Visita ad Limina, Giulio de Turris, 1749,

[4] Il Sedente della Cattedrale Romanica di Ruvo di Puglia, Bucci Cleto, 1989.

[5] Frammenti di Storia della città dallo scavo della Cattedrale di Ruvo, Cassano Raffaella in Epigrafia e Territorio, 1987.   

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