The Parish Church of Gropina and the Lombard pulpit

in , updated on

The Parish Church of San Pietro in Gropina, in the Valdarno, is as bare as a tree shaken by the wind on a winter morning. Nothing shows, except the mighty stone that has stood for centuries. There are no paintings, no colours, only a soft penumbra that pervades the spaces, fills every perspective of spiritual essence. The Romanesque parish church has no rose opening on the austere sandstone facade, but only two monofora and a small mullioned window; an oculus was added in the 16th century.

Also, the majestic apse, which stands on a double loggia with arches, small columns and capitals, houses only tiny holes and, in the upper order, three monofora windows. It almost seems as if the light has to carve grooves in the stone. However, when the sun slowly rises, the mystical presence of the alabaster, a symbolic stone that radiates the light of Christ, is revealed, barely perceived. The apse of the Parish Church of Gropina faces east, so as to catch the first morning dawns: the darkness disperses, the shadows recede. The blessed rays of the sun penetrate through the narrow gaps: they are the eschatological sign of life beyond death, of Christ’s triumph over darkness.

Hence, the interior of the church is revealed: the basilica plan and the round arches on the bordering between the aisles; two rows of sturdy columns, numbering eight, and four square pillars, so that all together they evoke the number of the Christian totality. Twelve, moreover, are the apostles who rule the church of Christ, twelve the tribes of Israel and the stars of the Virgin in the sky1. The truss roof is unexpectedly interrupted in the last side bays, giving way to elegant cross vaults.

The capitals of the Parish Church of Gropina

An arcane silence disappears in the echo of footsteps, slow, along the aisles. The two rows of columns stare inscrutably from the carved capitals. And the gaze turns fearfully to those ancient forms, which Lombard and French masters2 sculpted with ostentatious virtuosity. Here are figures of bears, eagles and lions emerging from the shadows, as daughters of the religious sentiment proper to the Middle Ages. Stone Bibles carved on capitals: iconographic tales for the men of that time, unfamiliar with reading, suspended between salvation and eternal damnation, good and evil, grace and sin. Knowledge is conceived as a function of symbols, metaphors of the human condition that transcend the mechanics of this earth.

The symbolism of the capitals

The creatures of the Medieval bestiary refer to complex, often ambivalent meanings, traceable in fascinating ancient texts, such as the well-known Physiologus3. No matter how pertinent they are to reality: the existence of those animals is placed on another plane, belonging to consciousness rather than to the supersensible world; they are man’s inner demons, sometimes derived from paganism, or transfigurations of Christian virtues. Thus, the bear is an image of greed, but also of awakening after the apparent death of lethargy. The eagle, grasping an unsuspecting prey, is a warning to sinners, since suddenly the eternal rest comes; and at the same time it is a figure of Christ leading deserving souls to heaven. Further, the lion is a symbol of pride, which forces men into a sad struggle, and so two sculpted beasts face each other with vigour and their mighty jaws.

The vine branches are a Eucharistic sign and the horsemen the defenders of the faith4, but one of them is carried by the horse, has he given up the reins of righteousness? Again, the wolf devouring the lamb and the sow suckling her young are images of vices. A little farther on, a devil’s face appears among the acanthus leaves, and a blessing Christ is accompanied by Saints Peter and Paul.

Then there is the carved capital with women suckling the dragon, a symbol of the devil and, in general, of lust5. This is a figurative motif that finds analogies in Nicolao’s Portal of the Zodiac at the Saint Michael’s Abbey in Val di Susa. Also, it has influences from Languedoc6. Moreover, a man keeps his beard: having now reached the age of wisdom, he does not allow himself to be drawn to sin.

The Parish Church of Gropina between Romanesque and Lombard

Everything in the Parish Church of Gropina seems inscribed in an imperturbable immobility, fixed in a statuesque order, immutable before the passage of time. Yet the light, behind the apparent harmony, reveals imperfections, asymmetries, planning errors. This is the case of the columns that, between the right and left rows, do not face each other perfectly. The facade is crooked and the main portal, with its bifora, are not on axis with the roof. This is the result of a forced structural adaptation since the church, located on the top of a fertile hill, was built on pre-existing buildings, mysterious rooms hidden in the shadows.

Suddenly, the noisy echoes of a distant and now-forgotten past, were heard beneath the trampling floor, awakening from the oblivion of time. At the end of the 1960s it was discovered that the present Parish Church of St. Peter was not the first one in the site, and that a part of history was still hidden. There was some suspicion since a Diploma of Charlemagne from 780, preserved in the Nonantola Abbey Archives7, attested that the Parish of Gropina was ceded to the Modenese monastery. Nonetheless, the current Romanesque building of St. Peter’s was not built until the 12th century.

The pre-existing buildings

Archaeological excavations between 1968 and 1972 traced the previous church, with two apsidal naves separated by columns, built not before the Liutprandean renaissance (712-744). Tombs, pluteuses and crosses of Lombard style thus re-emerged, and so the evidence that the right aisle was an 11th-century addition8. Has everything finally been revealed? No, because next to the Lombard building there was another church, unknown at the time of the excavations, consisting of a single nave with apse, certainly dating from the early Christian period (6th century?). And again: the discovery of the base of a Roman amphora suggested the presence of a domus here in ancient times….

The builders of the Romanesque parish church of Gropina, therefore, had to cope with the centuries-old stratification of the place, the rise of the new being modeled on the basis of the old. Certainly, the previous Lombard church remained intact and functional for decades while, all around it, the architecture of St. Peter’s was being constructed.

This explains the imperfections and asymmetries of the Parish and makes dating the construction phases very difficult. The building was built in the 12th-13th centuries, but some of its parts reveal different construction periods. Was the apse raised first9 or, exceptionally, the facade with the nave10? Even more enigmatic is the pulpit, a uniqueness in terms of architecture and stylistic components, poised between Lombard and Romanesque art. However, the construction work on the parish church did not continue beyond 1233, a terminus ante quem affixed on an external stone of the bell tower attesting to its completion.

The Lombard pulpit and the knotted columns

Placed against the fourth column on the right, the Parish’s pulpit transmits a subtle restlessness. It is the feeling one gets when faced with the vague, the uncertain. The artifact seems to come from another dimension, as we do not know of any other similar ones. Some scholars have attributed the pulpit to a pre-Romanesque style, but from the perspective of a local artistic evolution we should rather speak of Late Lombard. This is how Mario Bucci expressed it11:

“When rough Romanesque is on the Lombard way, it is Lombard; it is a pre-Romanesque of Lombard origin.”

The ambo is from the pre-existing Gropina church, from which it was disassembled and reassembled in its current location, probably because it was considered to be of special artistic importance. The later supports confirm this process. In fact they are made of reused blocks, on which we find battered bas-reliefs with spirals, flowers of life and animal figures.

The pulpit base and the ophitic columns of the Parish Church of Gropina

In the anterior part the base of the pulpit consists of two knotted columns surmounted by an unusual capital with twelve figures turning their arms towards the sky. A tall abacus contains repeated geometric patterns, perhaps the stylization of tongues of fire. This is the key to understanding the figurative representation of the base: the twelve apostles, sculpted near the capital, receive Pentecost in an attitude of prayer.

They rest on two knotted columns, a figuration of the mystery of the Trinity12; the Holy Spirit is the knot that unites God the Father and Christ his Son in love. The knotted column is a recurring symbolic motif in Romanesque art, but the Gropina pulpit, as we have seen, is earlier; it may, therefore, be the earliest use of it we know of. Two other knotted columns were later placed in the apse, built in the Pisan-Lucchese style13, between the raised arches of the outer loggia.

The symbols of the tetramorph

“Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit […]”.

Acts of the Apostles 2, 3

The Pentecost episode, narrated in the Acts of the Apostles, is the work of the evangelist Luke. And in fact we find on the abacus, between the tongues of fire, the only representation of the ox, while the rest of the Tetramorph is placed in the upper part, introduced by a decorative band with oak branches and leaves. The symbols of the other evangelists, the lion of Mark, the angel of Matthew and the eagle of John, arranged in columns support the lectern.

This sculptural group is of particular interest not only for its figurative aspect: on the scroll placed between the angel’s hands is an inscription, which could allow the pulpit to be dated. Unfortunately the epigraph is incomplete, but we report here the reconstruction by Carlo Fabbri14, who sees in it the scriptural style used in Nonantola Abbey:

[…]q[…] [presbit]erv(m) Bernard(vm)[…] m(ise)r(i)chord(em) a(nno) D(ominice) i(ncarnationis) DC[CC]XXV I.R.f(ecit).

C. Fabbri, Il pulpito della pieve di Gropina, in Le balze. Una storia lunga centomila anni nella valle dell’Arno, Firenze, Editoriale Tosca, 1996.

Thus, it turns out that the artifact was probably commissioned by Abbot Bernard in 825.

The body of the pulpit

The circular body of the pulpit is completed by five bas-relief panels. They were recomposed in the Romanesque period, not necessarily in the original order, but the overall symbolic representation was preserved. The iconographic theme concerns the salvation of the soul, and in an eschatological sense the depictions of sins and temptations, which listening to the Word of God makes it possible to ward off, should be interpreted.

In one of the panels a bicaudate siren is the personification of lust: her evil nature is expressed through the image of a sinner devoured by serpents. Opposed to evil is the saving work of Christ, in the next panel depicted as the Agnus Dei and the griffin, appearing among the six great wings of a seraphim15. The griffin, a mythical creature that in iconography has the head of a lion and the body of an eagle, represents the dual nature of the son of God16, terrestrial and heavenly, human and divine.

There are also decorative motifs related to creation: flowers, spirals and a representation of Christ as sol invictus. He is the One who illuminates the Parish at dawn, who dispels the darkness of sin and death. Four rays depart from the sun in the direction of the cardinal points: the Word of God, which was proclaimed from this pulpit, brings salvation to all corners of the Earth.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Map of places


  1. Book of Revelation 12. ↩︎
  2. G. Tigler, Precisazioni sull’architettura e la scultura del medioevo, in Arte a Figline. Dal Maestro della Maddalena a Masaccio, 2010. ↩︎
  3. Anonimo, Physiologus, written by Alessandria d’Egitto between the 2nd and 3rd century. ↩︎
  4. V. Moretti, Il pulpito longobardo e i capitelli romanici della pieve di Gropina, Cortona, Calosci, 2004. ↩︎
  5. C. Fabbri e L. Fornasari, La pieve di Gropina. Arte e storia, Fiesole, Servizio Editoriale Fiesolano, 2005. ↩︎
  6. F. Gandolfo, San Pietro a Gropina, in W. Angelelli, F. Gandolfo, F. Pomarici, La scultura delle pievi. Capitelli medievali in Casentino e Valdarno, Roma, Viella, 2003. ↩︎
  7. Archivio abbaziale di Nonantola, Chartae Latinae Antiquores 29, n. 883. ↩︎
  8. Ibidem note 2. ↩︎
  9. Ibidem note 6. ↩︎
  10. M. Salmi, La pieve di Gropina, in Rivista d’Arte, XXIX, 1955. ↩︎
  11. M. Bucci, Introduzione alla pittura e alla scultura in diocesi di Fiesole, in AA.VV., Fiesole. Una diocesi nella storia: saggi, contributi, immagini, Fiesole, Servizio Editoriale Fiesolano, 1986. ↩︎
  12. Ibidem note 4. ↩︎
  13. M. Salmi, Civiltà artistica della terra aretina, Novara, Istituto Geografico De Agostini, 1971. ↩︎
  14. C. Fabbri, Il pulpito della pieve di Gropina, in Le balze. Una storia lunga centomila anni nella valle dell’Arno, Firenze, Editoriale Tosca, 1996. ↩︎
  15. Isaiah 6,2-3: “Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” they cried one to the other. “All the earth is filled with his glory!”. ↩︎
  16. Ibidem note 5. ↩︎


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 ancient things, such as unclear symbols or enigmatic apotropaic rituals. He pursues the mystery through adventure but inexplicably it is is always one step further.

error: Content is protected !!