The Via Emilia is Modena’s main thoroughfare, and it is in the centre of this city where the old Roman highway picks up one of its loveliest gems, a building recently added to UNESCO’s world heritage list: the Romanesque Duomo di San Geminiano. Begun with funds and support from Countess Matilda in 1099, Modena cathedral was designed by a master builder named Lanfranco and completed in the 13th century.
Complementing the Duomo’s fine proportions are the magnificent carvings by the 12th-century sculptor Wiligelmo above the three main entrances and elsewhere around the church. Wiligelmo’s followers, and after them the anonymous Lombard sculptors and architects known as the Campionese Masters, carried on the work, making this cathedral a living museum of medieval sculpture. There is some great work from the Renaissance too—altogether, a church one can look at all day and not see everything.
The facade is topped by the strange figure of the Angel of Death grasping a lily. Below this are figures of the Four Evangelists and Samson and the Lion by followers of Wiligelmo, and in the centre The Redeemer, by a Campionese sculptor, directly over the great 24-sided rose window, with four panes of 15th-century stained glass created after designs of Giovanni da Modena.
Below is a loggia, with capitals carved with imaginary beasts and monsters. Some of the more unusual subjects on this façade are carved on four small panels underneath this: an angel with a reversed torch and an ibis, symbolizing Death and Sin; next, a hart with one head and two bodies, taking a drink and symbolizing God knows what; a lion and lioness with lion-headed serpents coming out of their mouths; and on the right another Angel of Death.
Wiligelmo’s four great relief panels of Genesis come next: over the left portal Adam and Eve in Paradise and the Original Sin; to the left of the main portal the Flight from Paradise and the Labour of Adam and Eve; to the right of the main portal the sacrifices of Cain and Abel and the Murder of Abel; and over the right portal the Murder of Cain by Lamech and Noah’s Ark. These reliefs are believed to illustrate scenes not so much from Genesis directly, but from the medieval mystery play on it, the Jeu d’Adam.
All the reliefs in the Portale Maggiore are Wiligelmo’s too: twelve Prophets of Israel, and the familiar medieval subject of the Labourers in the Vineyard, where the grape harvest prefigures the harvest of souls in the last days. At the top, note the unusual intruder in this Christian scene: the two-headed Roman god Janus, still performing his ancient function as guardian of doors and gates. The lions supporting the portal’s columns were recycled from a Roman building.
Wiligelmo also carved the inscription above and to the left of the portal recording the building of the cathedral, on a tablet supported by Enoch and Elijah: ‘As Cancer overtook the Twins, five days before the Ides of June in the year of Our Lord eleven hundred minus one, this house was founded for the great Geminiano.’ The presence of the two prophets here has caused much puzzlement—the two figures of the Old Testament who were translated to heaven without dying, they also play a role in the Apocalypse.
Later hands added another message at the bottom of the tablet: ‘From your work here, O Wiligelmus, it is clear how worthy you are to be honoured among sculptors.’
With its conspicuous position facing Piazza Grande, this side has almost as much good sculpture as the façade. Of the two portals, the one on the left is the Porta dei Principi; its reliefs, by followers of Wiligelmo, were damaged by an Allied bomb in the war. On the lintel, the scenes from the Life of San Geminiano detail the legend of how the saint voyaged to Constantinople to exorcise a demon that was inhabiting the body of Emperor Jovian’s daughter (the demon, who looks more like a winged tabby cat, appears in the third panel). Around the door, facing outwards are interlaced vines concealing charming figures of the professions: soldiers, peasants, smiths, musicians, even a sculptor. These share the vineyard with fantastical animals. On the inside facing the door are figures of the Apostles.
Above the door, to the right, is an inscription of 1184 detailing the consecration of the cathedral, and above that, on the roofline, the builders inserted two sculptures from Roman times, heads of Jupiter and Matrona.
The right portal, the Porta Regia, was added after the completion of the cathedral by the Campionese Masters, who also designed the gabled false transept to the right. The graceful loggia above the door holds an odd 1376 copper statue of the Saint himself, looking like he's about to give a sermon. To the right of this portal, on the transept, is another relief of the Life of San Geminiano, the earliest known work of a great Renaissance Florentine sculptor, Agostino di Duccio (1442), and a lovely balcony carved with rondels with symbols of the Evangelists by Jacopo da Ferrara (1500–11).
Around the back, the slightly listing apse was the first part of the cathedral to be completed. Around the lower, central window, where a figure of the Medusa hides amidst the foliage, medieval Modena carved its standard measures – lengths and brick sizes – to keep the merchants and tradesmen honest.
Wiligelmo’s unknown contemporary, known as the ‘Master of the Metopes’, executed these fascinating reliefs of mythological creatures and allegorical subjects, on top of the buttresses – monsters relegated to the ends of the cathedral just as they are relegated to the ends of the earth (or perhaps, as some believe, mystic allegories, placed closest to Heaven and furthest from profane eyes). Exactly what they represent is anyone’s guess. Four face south, four north. On the south cornice, the first is an upside-down figure that some believed was an inhabitant of the antipodes. Next comes a hermaphrodite, then a bird-headed creature gobbling a fish, and finally a naked girl with a dragon.
The north wall was originally built up with episcopal offices (Via Lanfranco, which runs along this side now, was cut through only in 1898), and consequently there is little decoration. The other four metopes, on the north roofline, show a sleeping woman and a giant arm holding a scroll, a strange bearded man, a giantess with an ibis and a sphinx, and, last, a fork-tailed siren (All the metopes on the cathedral are copies; the early 12th-century originals, which deserve a much closer look, are in the Musei del Duomo).
Also on the north wall is the Porta della Pescheria, with carvings by Wiligelmo’s followers of something else not quite canonical – King Arthur. Stories of Arthur and his knights were familiar in medieval Italy, especially in the south. The Normans and crusaders brought them down originally, and soon Italians were creating Arthurian stories of their own (in Sicily he sleeps eternally not in Avalon but under Mount Etna). This portal (1130's, or according to some much earlier), was meant to be seen only by the clergy as they entered the church; it pictures him with two of his knights coming to the aid of Guenevere, imprisoned in Modroc’s castle surrounded by the sea.
This is the oldest sculptural representation of Arthurian stories anywhere, older in fact than the first appearance in literature of the tale of the Abduction of Guenevere. The versions of the names carved on the relief—'Galvegin' for Gawain, 'Che' for Kay—are Breton; the Modenese must have heard the stories from knights from Brittany.
Beneath this are fine reliefs of the Labours of the Months, along with other fond medieval fancies, like the fairytale scene of the Funeral of the Fox being born off by two giant chickens.
The Duomo's tremendous campanile, the symbol of Modena and the third-tallest tower of medieval Italy, gets its own article here.
The Campionesi masters also added the final touches to Lanfranco’s charming interior, with its rhythm of arches supported by slender columns and ponderous piers. If the Cathedral seems rather austere inside, that was not the intent—most of it was originally covered in frescoes.
The floor level is split in the Lombard style, the altar and choir raised above the rest of the church. To decorate the entrance to the crypt, the Campionese masters created the great Pontile, carved with lion pillars and polychromed reliefs of the life of Christ, and incorporating the ambone, a pulpit with pillars in the shape of telamones with excellent capitals. Behind the altar are intarsia choir stalls by Cristoforo and Lorenzo Canozi da Lendinara, and in the left aisle a polyptych by Serafino dei Serafini.
Underneath it all is a crypt of 32 columns with capitals carved by Wiligelmo and his followers, with more lions, Evangelists and strange devices from the Romanesque bag, including a chimaera and another fork-tailed mermaid. San Geminiano is buried here, in a Roman sarcophagus, and to the right is a terracotta Adoration of the Shepherds (Guido Mazzoni, 1480).
In the right aisle of the Cathedral is a terracotta presepe, made by Antonio Begarelli (1527), and to the right of that an altar with frescoes by Cristoforo da Lendinara, an artist better known for his work in wood intarsia. Among the altars of the left aisle are one with fragments of frescoes by Tommaso da Modena, and another with an altarpiece by Dosso Dossi. Attached to one of the pillars on the left side of the nave, the pulpit is the work of Enrico da Campione (1322), with statues added a century later.
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Images by: Sailko, Unesco, Andy Hay, Roberto Ferrari