With a length of about 67 metres and a width of 25, the cathedral of Modena is not an exceptionally large building. It must, however, be counted among the most beautiful Romanesque cathedrals of Italy. People standing in front of the Duomo are immediately struck by the large rose window, the reliefs featuring sculpted scenes from the Book of Genesis and the campanile called La Ghirlandina, which is over 86 metres high. The cathedral is dedicated to the assumption of the Virgin Mary and to Saint Geminianus. The latter was a bishop of Modena in the fourth century and died around the year 397. Geminianus is currently honoured as patron saint of Modena and his relics are kept in the crypt. Given the religious importance of these relics, it is very likely that a Christian church was built on this spot at an early stage. By the middle of the eleventh century this church was replaced with a larger one, which unfortunately suffered from bad construction and quickly crumbled. On 9 June 1099 the foundation stone was laid for a new Duomo. This event was the start of an important chapter in the history of Modena.
The architect of the new cathedral was a certain Lanfrancus or Lanfranco. His name has been preserved on a thirteenth-century plaque attached to the central apse at the rear of the building. The inscription also mentions the year 1099 and the date of 9 June. The façade of the cathedral has a plaque as well, and this one mentions the name of another important person involved in the project, a certain Wiligelmus or Wiligelmo. There is an interesting theory that the former started the construction of the Duomo at the apse and the latter at the façade. They eventually met somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately very little is known about the two men. Lanfranco was in any case not the Lanfranco da Como who in 1226 crafted a plunge-pool for the Baptistery of Pistoia. This second Lanfranco lived at least a century later. A known fact about Wiligelmo is that he was also active in Piacenza, where he made sculptures for the façade of the local cathedral. Sculptures in Cremona (attached to the cathedral and on display in the baptistery) are attributed to him or his school. There can be no doubt that he crafted his best works here in Modena and these will be given ample attention in this post.
The men who built the Duomo frequently made use of spolia, i.e. building materials taken from destroyed or abandoned buildings in Roman Mutina, the predecessor of medieval Modena which had been founded as a Roman colony in 183 BCE. Work on the new cathedral progressed so smoothly that the remains of Saint Geminianus could be translated to the crypt of the new building as early as 1106. We do not know when Lanfranco and Wiligelmo died, so it is difficult to establish for how long they and their employees and pupils worked on the building. It is possible that the two men completed their activities around the year 1120. The old cathedral had been demolished by then, but the new one was not finished yet. A couple of decades later the job to complete the project was entrusted to a group of sculptors and architects called the Maestri campionesi. These men were from Campione d’Italia near the Swiss border. The Maestri campionesi must have settled in Modena in about 1170. Members of the group were still active in the city in the first decades of the fourteenth century.
Many important additions may be attributed to the Maestri campionesi. They were responsible for the large rose window, the two secondary entrances in the façade and the Porta Regia, an impressive portal on the south side of the building that adjoins the central square of Modena, the Piazza Grande. In 1179 the Maestri furthermore started the construction of the freestanding campanile, of which one Enrico da Campione completed the spire in 1319. In 1322 this Enrico da Campione also made the pulpit in the nave of the cathedral, while towards the end of the twelfth century (ca. 1180) his distant ancestors had already built the raised choir, which includes a beautifully sculpted balustrade (pontile) and a second pulpit. These are attributed to Anselmo da Campione and his team. We know that many members of Anselmo’s extended family were involved in the building activities, including his sons, a grandson and a nephew. The Maestri campionesi clearly operated as a family company. Only specialists can make an educated guess as to who exactly designed, built or sculpted what.
The new cathedral of Modena was consecrated in 1184 by Pope Lucius III (1181-1185), which indicates that enough of the building had been finished for it to be used for religious services. Completion of the spire in 1319 must have marked the completion of the Duomo as such. The following centuries saw very few structural alterations to the building. Of course many works of art from later periods, especially the Renaissance, were set up or hung inside the Duomo, but structural interventions were confined to the roof construction: between 1437 and 1455 the original wooden beams were replaced with the cross-vaults we see today. As so much of the original Romanesque building has been preserved, the cathedral of Modena is considered one of the foremost examples of this style. In 1997 the Duomo, campanile and adjacent Piazza Grande were all included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The most famous decorations of the façade of the Duomo are four reliefs by Wiligelmo featuring scenes from Genesis. On the left we see God the Father inside a mandorla supported by two angels. He is holding a book with the text LUX EGO SVM MVNDI VIA VERAX VITA PERENNIS, which means “I am the light of the world, the true way, eternal life”. We then see the creation of Adam (‘man’) and subsequently the creation of Eve (‘life’) from one of Adam’s ribs. Adam and Eve have slightly worn captions identifying them, although the story must have been clear for the illiterate as well (of which there were plenty in medieval Modena). On the far right Adam and Eve are seduced by a snake curled around the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve has her hand on an apple, which appears to be presented to her by the snake using its mouth. Adam is already taking a bite from a second apple, a wonderful detail. Eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil obviously results in the expulsion from Paradise, which is the theme of the second relief. God is holding a scroll with the barely legible text DVM DEAMBVLARET DOMINVS IN PARADISVM, “while God was walking around in Paradise [you committed your sins]”. An angel then expels the couple from the Garden of Eden. On the far right we see Adam and Eve, now fully dressed, engaged in hard work.
The third relief starts with Abel (left) and Cain (right) sacrificing. God is only interested in Abel’s sacrifice, and this leads to Cain killing his brother, the best-known fratricide in history, which is depicted in the centre. On the right Cain is confronted by God. The scroll in God’s left hand reads VBI EST ABEL FRATER TVVS, “where is your brother Abel?”. Cain is subsequently condemned to a life of erring and wandering. The fourth relief tells us how this story ended: there Cain is killed by an arrow shot by his descendant Lamech (for a similar scene, see Pistoia: Cappella del Tau). We see how the mortally wounded Cain still manages to grab the branch of a tree. Then the story continues with Noah’s Ark. Noah and his wife are looking out of the windows of the Ark, but the animals from the story are all absent. On the right the story concludes with Noah and his sons leaving the Ark. Visitors will note that the reliefs have not all been affixed at the same height. For this we should probably blame the Maestri campionesi and their project to create two secondary entrances in the façade. The reliefs likely told a continuous story once, but as a result of the new entrances the first and fourth relief had to be replaced higher up the façade.
As was already mentioned above, the façade also has a plaque with Wiligelmo’s name (see the image above). The text on the plaque is held by Enoch and Elijah. According to Genesis 5:23-24, Enoch was taken away by God when he was 365 years old, while 2 Kings 2:11 states that Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. The two events can be interpreted as prefiguring the ascension of Christ to heaven. Surrounding the main entrance is a splendid vertical loggia (pròtiro) supported by lions. Visitors looking closely will notice more sculpted reliefs attached to the façade. These are attributed either to Wiligelmo himself or to one of his students. We can be certain that it was the student who made the symbols of the four evangelists above the rose window. The rose window was already mentioned above as a work of the Maestri campionesi. These masters were also responsible for the statuette of the archangel Gabriel topping the façade. Another archangel, Saint Michael, was by the way set up on the central apse at the rear.
The Duomo has three side entrances, two on the south side and one on the north side. The smaller of the two southern side entrances is the Porta dei Principi, which has a pròtiro and was wonderfully decorated by a sculptor from the school of Wiligelmo. The decorations consist of an architrave featuring six scenes from the life of Saint Geminianus. The saint is summoned from Mutina to the eastern part of the Roman Empire to heal the daughter of the emperor Jovianus (363-364), who is possessed by a demon. Geminianus travels to the east, first on horseback and then by ship. He subsequently manages to exorcise the demon (a splendid little detail!) and is rewarded with many gifts in the next scene. The final two scenes are about his return and funeral. The sculptures are beautiful, but the story was completely made up. Jovianus’ reign as emperor lasted just eight months, from June of 363 until February of 364. The emperor was much too busy with other pressing matters, so it makes no sense that he summoned a bishop all the way from Italy. Jovianus had to make peace with the Persians and reverse the anti-Christian measures taken by his predecessor, Julianus the Apostate. Perhaps the most compelling argument to ditch the whole story is the fact that no daughter of the emperor is known.
The second side entrance on the south side is the Porta Regia. It has a much larger and deeper pròtiro, which is conspicuous because of its colour. When the Maestri campionesi built the Porta Regia in the first quarter of the thirteenth century, they decided to use pink marble from Verona. The vertical loggia is supported by lions made from the same material (see the image above). To the right of the entrance is an external pulpit dating from 1500-1501, and to the right of the pulpit we see a relief by the sculptor Agostino di Duccio (ca. 1418-1481), made in 1442. The relief comprises four scenes from the life of Saint Geminianus and appears to be telling the same story as the architrave of the Porta dei Principi. The order of the scenes is slightly different though, and the fourth relief is about how Geminianus prevents an attack on Mutina by Attila the Hun. That story is completely fictional: Attila’s invasion of Italy took place at least half a century after Geminianus’ death. Agostino di Duccio’s relief was once part of an altar.
Lastly, we have the Porta della pescheria, the portal of the fish market, which can be found on the north side. This is the side of the Via Aemilia, the old Roman road that was constructed in 187 BCE. Like those of the Porta dei Principi, the sculptures of the Porta della pescheria are attributed to an artist from the school of Wiligelmo. The door frames feature figures representing the twelve months and above them is an architrave with scenes of both real and fantasy animals. The scenes are related to moralistic stories. Two roosters have for instance captured a fox. The fox pretends to be dead, but will have the two stupid birds for lunch once they untie him (for a similar scene dating from 1140, see Murano: Santi Maria e Donato). Another stupid animal is the crane on the right. It has very helpfully, but most unwisely put its head in the mouth of a wolf to remove a bone from the wolf’s throat. We furthermore see a human riding a seahorse and cranes fighting a snake.
Of even greater interest are the scenes on the arch above the architrave. Here we see a very early version of the Arthurian legend. Six knights on horseback, five of whom are wearing chainmail armour, are attacking a castle. The castle consists of two towers, a wall and a central keep. Two armed defenders protect the gates and an unarmed man and a woman can be seen inside the castle. On the left the attackers are led by ARTVS DE BRETANIA, so by Arthur of Brittany. The man behind him, who is not wearing chainmail, is labelled ISDERNVS, and behind ISDERNVS is a third knight, who is nameless. The gate on the left is defended by one BVRMALTVS, who is wielding an anti-cavalry weapon that looks a lot like a pickaxe or war hammer. The people inside the castle are called WINLOGEE and MARDOC, while a knight labelled CARRADO can be seen galloping from the right gate. He is up against a knight called GALVAGIN, who is followed by GALVARIVN and CHE.
People who only know the classical Arthurian legend will find it difficult to interpret these names. GALVAGIN could be a very early version of Gawain and CARRADO might be Carados. CHE is obviously Kay and WINLOGEE perhaps a forerunner of Guinevere. It is difficult to say which source Wiligelmo’s student used while sculpting the scenes. Some experts claim these are older than The History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1135), the most important work of the cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, which contributed massively to the popularity of the Arthurian legend. However, other experts believe that the reliefs were only made in the second half of the twelfth century.
It is now time to enter the cathedral. The Duomo was built in the shape of a classical Roman basilica. It has a nave and side aisles, but no transept. On the left side of the nave visitors will immediately note the aforementioned pulpit made in 1322 by Enrico da Campione. It is decorated with statuettes of saints, but it is difficult to establish who they are. Behind the high altar is a second pulpit. It is circular in shape, about 100 years older than Enrico’s creation and decorated with reliefs featuring Jesus Christ, the symbols of the evangelists and church fathers. The pulpit is supported by slender columns, which are in their turn supported by bases shaped like lions and humans. Behind the pulpit is the balustrade (pontile) from about 1180, already mentioned above. The interesting thing about the five scenes on the object is that they are still painted. Thanks to a restoration carried out in 1984 we can now more or less see the scenes as someone in medieval Modena must have seen them. The series starts with the washing of the feet, followed by a large scene representing the Last Supper. An interesting detail is the place at the table given to Judas: he sits directly to the right of the Messiah, who puts a sacred host in his mouth. Then we see the kiss of Judas and arrest of Christ, Christ before Pilate and Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross.
After inspecting the balustrade, we can go either up or down. Down below is the crypt containing the remains of Saint Geminianus. Here we also find an interesting sculpture group comprising the Madonna and Child, two kneeling faithful and a maid. The group is known as the Madonna della Pappa, the ‘Madonna of the porridge’. The maid is holding a bowl of porridge and a spoon, and can be seen blowing over the hot porridge to cool it down a bit. It was long thought that the two kneeling people were Joachim and Anne, the Virgin Mary’s parents. However, it is now assumed that they are the couple that commissioned the sculpture group, Francesco and Polissena Porcini. The group was made around 1480-1485 by the local sculptor Guido Mazzoni (1450-1518). All statues were made of terracotta and painted later. The colours – no doubt retouched later – look very fresh.
Equally fresh are the colours of the neo-Byzantine frescoes that we can admire if we go up behind the balustrade. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century an unknown artist painted these frescoes in the conches of the three apses. The frescoes are actually supposed to imitate mosaics. One of them (in the right apse) is a direct copy of the famous mosaic in the church of San Clemente in Rome, another appears to be a simplified copy of the apse mosaic of the Coronation of the Virgin in the Santa Maria Maggiore in the same city. The frescoes do not get marks for originality and they are rather mediocre, which might help explain why the name of the painter was forgotten.
The Coronation of the Virgin is also the theme of a polyptych by Serafino de’ Serafini (1323-1393), made in 1385. It was placed in the left apse on an altar that incorporates a sculpted relief from the ninth century. The relief is from the first cathedral of Modena. As far as I know, it is the only surviving element from that cathedral. It may have once been part of a pluteus (balustrade). If we walk back to the entrance along the wall of the left aisle, we pass by a statue of Saint Geminianus made around 1442 by the aforementioned Agostino di Duccio. The saint is holding a child by the hair. The child has fallen from the Ghirlandina and was fortunately saved by Geminianus.
We then come to an enormous terracotta altar, which is called the Altare delle statuine after the multitude of statuettes that are part of it. Once these were all painted, but only traces of the colours remain. The altar is a work of Michele da Firenze (ca. 1385-1455) from 1440-1441. On the other side, in the right aisle, the Cappella Bellincini from ca. 1472-1476 is worthy of note. Cristoforo Canozzi, also known as Cristoforo da Lendinara (ca. 1426-after 1477), was responsible for the colourful fresco of the Last Judgment. The painter was a follower of the more famous Piero della Francesca. And so the Duomo of Modena has a lot in store for interested visitors. The exterior may in fact be more interesting than the interior. All in all, we may conclude that the inclusion of the building in the UNESCO World Heritage List was more than justified.
- Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 68-69;
- Trotter travel guide for Northeast Italy;
- UNESCO Modena;
- Visit Modena;
- Wikipedia (English/Italiano);
- World Heritage List.
 The plaque was commissioned by one Bocalinus, who between 1208 and 1225 served as massarius (financial administrator) of Saint Geminianus.
 The attribution of the balustrade to the Maestri campionesi is apparently under pressure nowadays. According to the UNESCO Modena website (see sources) scholars now assume that a group of Maestri padani made the pontile between 1165 and 1184.