Modena: Musei del Duomo

Copy of one of the metopes (boy with the young dragon).

The Musei del Duomo can be found in the Via Lanfranco, the street behind the Duomo of Modena that was named after the first architect of the cathedral. There are actually two museums here: the Museo del Duomo, which has a collection of frescoes and religious objects, and the Museo Lapidario, which has all kinds of sculptures on display. The latter museum is by far the most interesting of the two, as here we find the eight original metopes of the cathedral. A metope is basically a decorative element of a Greek temple, but in this case the term refers to the sculpted decorations that were once attached to the eaves of the Duomo. If you take a look at the roof of the building nowadays, you will still see metopes, but these are replicas made by the local sculptor Benito Boccolari (1888-1964). The real metopes were moved to the Museo Lapidario in the 1950s. They are attributed to a follower or student of Wiligelmo called the Maestro delle metope. Experts do not agree on when exactly the works were made. Some claim it was in 1110-1115, others that it was around 1130 or even 1150. However, they all seem to believe that the metopes date from the first half of the twelfth century.

A closer look at the metopes

All eight metopes feature mysterious creatures, some humanlike, others monstrous. It is generally assumed that they all represent the creatures that, according to medieval popular belief, lived in the inhospitable regions on the edges of the world. One of the sculptures features a boy sitting on the ground trying to control a young dragon. The dragon actually looks a lot like a snake. This metope is also known as Lo Psillo, after a king from Greek mythology who ruled over a tribe of snake charmers. The metope next to it depicts a fish eater or Ichthyophagus, which is also known from Greek mythology. This is clearly a fantasy creature. It has both a human and a horse leg, as well as a beak with which it is holding a fish. To the left of the fish eater we see a human head. Is that also a victim of the monster? We simply do not know.

Boy with the young dragon (left) and Ichthyophagus (right).

Downright intriguing is the metope featuring the two-tailed siren. Her pose is rather daring: she has her legs spread and appears to be wearing some kind of medieval panties. The two tails have human feet at the ends. The siren is a dangerous seductress from the Greek folktales. The Greek hero Odysseus had himself tied to the mast of his ship so that he could listen to their singing without getting into danger. His men, on the other hand, were ordered to put wax in their ears, to prevent them from becoming enchanted and sailing towards the sirens, where the ship would dash to pieces on the rocks. If their leader, bedazzled by the sirens’ beautiful songs, would beg his crew to untie him, they had to tighten his bonds.

Two-tailed siren (Sirena bicaudata).

An even more daring image is that of the hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodite is naked and also has its legs spread, so that we can see breasts and male genitals. The latter are largely gone though. Apparently the hermaphrodite was later seen as obscene and offensive, and therefore mutilated. In the sixteenth century soldiers emptied there arquebuses on the metope. As a result the sculpture looks very tattered nowadays. In the past it acquired the nickname Potta di Modena, which means something along the lines of ‘the cunt of Modena’. On the photo below you can see the hermaphrodite next to the so-called ‘long-haired man’. Apart from long hair he also has a beard and a rather conspicuous moustache. His pose looks kind of unnatural.

Man with the long hair (left) and hermaphrodite (Potta di Modena, right).

My personal favourite has to be the metope with the antipodes. The symmetry of the sculpture is very impressive. On the ground sits a woman with a long braid. Her counterpart, a man that is perhaps supposed to represent her husband, was sculpted upside down. His hair is covered by a cap. If you take a look at the sculpture from the side, you will notice a large raptor to the left of the woman. This is a lovely detail. The final two metopes show a woman with a remarkable hat and an enormous third arm, and a woman called la grande fanciulla (‘the big girl’).


Museo del Duomo


After the mysterious, intriguing and beautifully sculpted metopes, the Museo del Duomo came as a bit of a disappointment to me. People who love liturgical objects will, however, have a field day here. A very nice object is the so-called Altar of San Geminiano, which probably dates from 1106 and was made on the occasion of the translation of the relics of Saint Geminianus to the crypt of the new cathedral. Another object that caught my eye was a splendid evangelistarium – a book with sections of the Gospels for celebrating mass – that was made at the beginning of the twelfth century using wood, silver and ivory. And then there is a large statue of Saint Geminianus, patron saint of Modena, made in 1376 by the relatively obscure sculptor Geminiano Paruoli. The artist used copper, bronze and wood. Lastly, the museum has some interesting frescoes, including one of an angel and an apostle from the twelfth century. Unfortunately the lighting in the museum is not very good.

Sources: website Musei del Duomo and UNESCO Modena.

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