The Duomo of Padova, i.e. the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, is a bit of a disappointment. The building we see today was constructed between 1551 and 1754, replacing an earlier edifice. Its exterior, with an undecorated facade in naked brick, is simple and unimpressive. Somehow the builders never got round to completing this part of the cathedral. The interior of the cathedral is even worse. Yes, this is a huge Duomo – which might impress some visitors – but it is also plain, modern and functional. So to sum up, it is not really worth your time. The Baptistery next door, on the other hand, is a true gem. As with many baptisteries, it is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. Construction of the building started in the twelfth century and it was consecrated by the Patriarch of Grado in 1281. The Baptistery is famous for having a large and very important fresco cycle from the last quarter of the fourteenth century inside. What is most special about the cycle is that most of it has been preserved.
Dome and drum
The frescoes are the work of Giusto de’ Menabuoi. Giusto is a bit of a mystery and his years of birth and death are not known with certainty. We know that he was born in Florence, presumably between 1320 and 1330. This makes it somewhat unlikely that he was a pupil of the great Florentine artist and innovator Giotto, who died in 1337. Giusto could have been a pupil of one of Giotto’s pupils (the name of Taddeo Gaddi has been mentioned), but unfortunately the evidence is lacking. The painter died in Padova around the year 1390. Padova had been ruled by the Da Carrara family since 1318. It was Fina Buzzaccarini (1328-1378), wife of Francesco I da Carrara, lord of Padova between 1350 and 1388, who commissioned Giusto to paint the fresco cycle inside the Baptistery. Buzzaccarini had plans to turn the Baptistery into a mausoleum for the Da Carrara family.
Giusto started the work in 1375 or 1376, completing the cycle in 1378 or thereabouts. Both Fina and Francesco were buried in the Baptistery, but when the Venetians occupied Padova in late 1405, they removed the coat-of-arms of the Carraresi and destroyed the tombs. A visit to the Baptistery is quite an experience. The frescoes are overwhelming, their colours still (or rather: again) quite vivid. The huge fresco of the dome (see above) is especially dazzling, with many sources commenting on the hypnotising effect of the endless rows of angels and saints with haloes. This central fresco represents Paradise. In the middle, we see Christ the Pantokrator, the ‘ruler of all things’. Just below him is Mary, Mother of God. Christ holds an open book in his left hand, and the text on the left page is still legible, a curious mix of Latin and Greek: EGO SVM αω, “I am the alpha and the omega” (Revelation 22:13).
The drum of the dome has various scenes from the Old Testament, from the Book of Genesis to be exact. The cycle starts with the Creation of the World just below the Mother of God and goes all the way round to Jacob wrestling with an angel and Joseph being sold by his brothers. On the pendentives of the Baptistery, we see frescoes of the four evangelists with their respective symbols. They are all flanked by two prophets holding scrolls with texts.
We now get to the walls of the Baptistery. The southern wall has stories from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, while the western wall focusses on the Life of Mary. However, although this wall has scenes showing, for instance, the Annunciation and Mary meeting Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist), quite a few of the scenes are about the Life of Christ. For example, we see Christ among the doctors, Christ entering Jerusalem and Christ at the Last Supper.
In the centre of the western wall are the remains of the tomb of Fina Buzzaccarini. The tomb itself was removed, but Fina can still be seen in the fresco in the lunette. It shows her on her knees, being introduced to the Virgin Mary by Saint John the Baptist (see below). The man behind Fina is Saint Joseph. To the right of the throne are three clergymen. The one with the jug is Saint Prosdocimus, the first bishop of Padova. The man in the green robes has been identified as Saint Daniel of Padova, who was Prosdocimus’ deacon. Interestingly, he has a model of the town in his hands. Below the lunette, where the tomb used to be, is another fresco of Saint John the Baptist, executed by an unknown painter after the Venetian takeover at the beginning of the fifteenth century.
The northern wall has more stories about the Life of Christ. Here we find my favourite scene, the Kiss of Judas, which was obviously inspired by a similar fresco by Giotto in the Cappella degli Scrovegni elsewhere in Padova. Giotto’s original is certainly better, but Giusto did a pretty good job too. Right above the Kiss of Judas is a fresco of the Call of Saint Matthew (see below). The most interesting detail is an image of the old Romanesque Duomo as it must have looked in the late fourteenth century. Finally, on the eastern wall we have a huge fresco of the Crucifixion flanked by several smaller frescoes.
The Baptistery has a small apse just to the right of the entrance. The apse has its own fresco cycle by Giusto, showing scenes from the Book of Revelation on the walls and the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse on the pendentives. The apse has its own dome as well, with a fresco of the Pentecost. It sort of resembles the mosaic decoration of the Dome of the Pentecost in the San Marco in Venice. Christ, here depicted as the Pantokrator again, is in the centre, filling the twelve Apostles and the Virgin Mary with the Holy Spirit.
On the altar in the apse is a fine polyptych, another work by Giusto. It is composed of a frame with 51 separate panels with images. The largest panel depicts the Virgin and Child, with six panels with scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist on either side. The panel above the Virgin shows the Baptism of Christ. What is special about the polyptych is that it still features the coats-of-arms of the Da Carrara and Buzzaccarini families. The Venetians tried to remove all references to these families after 1405, but they must have missed these two.
As with so many works of art from Antiquity and the Middle Ages, time has not been kind to the frescoes of the Baptistery. Dust and smoke from the candles took their toll and the colours slowly began to fade. Fortunately, in the twentieth century the authorities decided to intervene and the fresco cycle was restored by Ottorino Nonfarmale in 1972. Nonfarmale did a good job, apparently reversing a horribly executed eighteenth century restoration. There is now solid evidence that the exterior of the Baptistery used to be decorated in fresco as well, but only traces of these frescoes have survived.
This post is mostly based on the publication ‘Padua. Baptistery of the Cathedral’, edited by Pietro Lievore (the English translation is horrible). Additional information came from Davide Banzato, ‘Giotto en de 14de-eeuwse schilderkunst in Padua’, from my Trotter travel guide to North-East Italy and from Italian Wikipedia.
 She is also part of the scenes depicting the Raising of Lazarus and the Miracles of Christ. Her husband Francesco da Carrara and the poet Francesco Petrarca can be seen there too. See the image on the right.
Update 21 August 2022: text and images have been updated.