Parma: The Baptistery

The Baptistery of Parma.

The beautiful Baptistery of Parma occupies the south side of the Piazza del Duomo. The building, clad in pink marble from Verona, is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The lower part has the well-known Romanesque rounded arches and Romanesque sculptures, but higher up these rounded arches have already been replaced with pointed arches in the Gothic style. The little towers or pinnacles of the Baptistery are clearly Gothic as well. The first architect of the building was Benedetto Antelami (ca. 1150-1230), who worked here with his assistants between 1196 and 1216. Antelami’s name and the year in which the construction of the Baptistery started are mentioned on the architrave above the northern entrance. The short Latin text is evidently intended as a piece of poetry:

BIS BINIS DEMPTIS ANNIS DE MILLE DUCENTIS // INCEPIT DICTUS OPUS HOC SCULTOR BENEDICTUS

Which can be translated as: “The sculptor named Benedictus started this work two times two years before the year 1200.” In the Duomo of Parma we have already seen that Benedetto Antelami often signed and dated his work, although in this case he omitted his surname ‘Antelami’. Unfortunately the great sculptor and architect was unable to complete the Baptistery. After 1216 the project seems to have come to a standstill for a long time. It was relaunched somewhere between 1260 and 1270, but Antelami was long dead by then. The new architects were members of the Maestri campionesi, specialised craftsmen from Campione d’Italia near the Swiss border. In 1270 the Baptistery was consecrated, and between 1300 and 1302 the fifth and final gallery, the balustrade and the little towers topping the building were added. The Baptistery was now completed, although some of my travel guides claim the year of completion was actually 1307.

Duomo and Baptistery.

Exterior

The Baptistery is an octagonal building with truly splendid Romanesque portals on the north, west and south sides. The sculptures of the door frames, the architraves and the lunettes are extremely detailed and very impressive. The northern portal is currently used as an entrance for visitors, so let us start there. The central theme of the lunette is the Adoration of the Magi. It is clear that the relief was once painted, and quite a lot of the paint is actually still there. In the centre we see the Madonna and Child, with the kings Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar on the left and Joseph on the right. Most of the figures are accompanied by captions. On the arch above the scene of the Adoration a large number of prophets were sculpted. They are all holding tondos with busts representing the twelve apostles. On the architrave above the entrance we see scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist, and obviously the Baptistery is dedicated to this San Giovanni Battista. On the far left he can be seen baptising Christ in the river Jordan. This scene is followed by the feast of king Herod Antipas in the centre and the decapitation of John on the far right. The door frames have decorations featuring the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

Lunette and architrave of the northern portal.

The northern portal is also known as the Portale della Madonna, while the other portals are called Portale del Giudizio and Portale della Vita. Giudizio in this case refers to the depiction of the Last Judgment in the lunette above the western portal. The central figure is now Jesus Christ, sitting on his throne surrounded by angels. Being the judge, he has both of his hands raised. On the right we see the cross to which the Messiah was nailed and on the left the stick and sponge that were used to offer him sour wine (John 19:29). On the far left sits Saint Paul the Apostle. His position is remarkable: he is the only one of the apostles who has been granted a place by Christ’s side. To the left of Saint Paul, on the arch, we see Saints Peter and Andrew, followed by the other apostles from the lower left to lower right corner. Here too we can see some of the original colours. Below Christ the dead are raised from their graves by two angels with large trumpets. Lastly, the door frames are decorated with the works of charity and the life stages of man with the parable of the vineyard from the Gospel according to Matthew.

Lunette and architrave of the western portal.

While the northern portal was used by the bishop who performed the rite of baptism, the southern portal was intended for those who were to be baptised, the catechumens. The sculptures of this Portale della Vita are very special, if only because they tell a story from the legend of Josaphat and Barlaam. This legend has its roots in India, a part of the world where according to tradition Christianity was introduced and promoted by Saint Thomas the Apostle. Josaphat was an Indian prince who, much to his father’s chagrin, was convinced by the Christian hermit Barlaam to convert to Christianity. In the lunette above the southern portal we see a parable that Barlaam tells to Josaphat. We see a man in a tree trying to get his hands on a honeycomb. He only has eye for the honey and seems to want it badly. The man does not notice the dangerous fire-breathing dragon at the base of the tree. Moreover two creatures – mice according to the website of the Duomo, but they look like wolves to me[1] – are gnawing at the roots of the tree. The tree is flanked by images of sun and moon. The parable is apparently to be interpreted as a warning: those who are distracted by earthly pleasures will not see dangers and, as a consequence, perish.

Lunette of the southern portal, featuring the legend of Josaphat and Barlaam.

Four of the 79 panels of the Baptistery.

In four niches on the north side of the Baptistery we see a number of statues that were also made by Antelami and his colleagues. The statues represent the archangels Michael and Gabriel (above the northern portal), two prophets (to the left of that portal) and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (to the right of it). It should be noted that the statues are limestone copies. The originals are kept in the Museo Diocesano. The 79 panels that run all the way around the lower part of the Baptistery are not copies. Four of them feature Virtues and the other 75 have images of humans and animals, but also of fantasy creatures such as griffins and dragons.

Interior

Visitors entering the Baptistery will immediately be impressed by what they see. Both the sculptures and the many frescoes are of high quality. In the centre of the building we see an octagonal basin with a second basin inside it that is shaped like a four-leaf clover. This basin was a font intended for baptism by full immersion. A second, much smaller baptismal font can be found in a niche on the southwestern side of the Baptistery. This was used for baptism by affusion, which had by the fourteenth century become the most common way of baptising. Unlike in, for instance, Florence the large baptismal font has fortunately not been removed. The altar of the Baptistery is in a niche on the east side of the building.

Interior of the Baptistery.

Flight to Egypt.

Inside the Baptistery we can also admire beautifully sculpted reliefs in the lunettes above the three entrances. The scenes we see are simpler than outside, but here the colours have been either very well preserved or restored in a very convincing manner. A Flight to Egypt with dozens of stars has been placed above the northern portal. The western portal has a lunette with King David playing his harp and above the southern portal a Presentation in the Temple was sculpted.

The statues of the months and of two of the four seasons sculpted by Antelami and his assistants are truly world-famous. Of the seasons only Winter and Spring were actually made. As Summer and Autumn are missing, it has been hypothesised that the cycle was never completed. It is conceivable that this was partly caused by Antelami’s death around the year 1230, although it should be noted that work on the Baptistery had already been suspended by 1216. In the past it was sometimes assumed that the statues were originally made for the façade of the cathedral. However, the information that was provided during the exhibition Antelami a Parma (2020-2021) makes clear that this theory has been abandoned. Although according to this information we do not know where the statues were originally set up, it is certain that they were sculpted for the Baptistery and not for some other building.

The months of January, February and December – Benedetto Antelami.

The months of November, October and September – Benedetto Antelami.

The months and seasons can nowadays usually be found in the internal galleries of the Baptistery. But in the summer of 2020 the statues were all brought down and set up on the floor for the aforementioned exhibition Antelami a Parma. This makes it much easier to admire the fine details of the sculptures. Each month is accompanied by a sign of the zodiac, which is sometimes part of the statue itself. In other cases the sign is affixed high up against the wall, below the galleries. The months of February (Pisces), November (Sagittarius) and September (Libra) have their own sign, but to see the others sharp eyes are required. The cycle of the months reminded me of a similar series of sculptures, made around 1225-1230, that is on display in the Museum of the Duomo of Ferrara. The statues in Ferrara were part of a portal that is attributed to Niccolò (Nicholaus) and Antelami. It is very well possible that the Master of the Months of Ferrara, to whom the statues of the Ferrarese portal are attributed, was inspired by Antelami. He may have even known the cycle in Parma.

The months of August, July and June – Benedetto Antelami.

The months of May, April and March – Benedetto Antelami.

One of the things that makes the Baptistery such an impressive building is the fact that its interior is almost completely covered in frescoes. Most of these were made in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The dome frescoes are older than the frescoes on the walls, as is evidenced by their style, which is still very Byzantine. The inside of the dome is divided into sixteen segments by marble ribs. The surface is also divided into six circles, of which the inner two are only decorated with symbols that refer to Heaven. The third circle has apostles and evangelists, followed by a fourth circle featuring Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist and prophets. The scenes of the fifth circle are much more detailed. Here we see episodes from the life of Saint John the Baptist. Lastly, the sixth circle has a series of episodes from the life of Abraham. It is difficult to say when exactly the frescoes were painted, but it must have been after the year 1260. Sometimes it is claimed that Grisopolo da Parma and his associates were the painters.

Dome of the Baptistery.

Wall frescoes, including a Saint Catherine attributed to Buffalmacco (on the right).

The makers of many of the wall frescoes have remained anonymous as well. In additition, most of the painters whose names are known, have never become famous. A name that might ring a bell is Buonamico Buffalmacco (ca. 1290-1340), who was also active in Pisa. In 1330-1336 he painted the fresco of Saint George and the Dragon, directly to the right of the main entrance. The fresco of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and her breaking wheel is attributed to him. The other frescoes are of good quality, but they do not appear to tell a continuous story.

Sources: the website of the Duomo, Italian Wikipedia, the information panels in the Baptistery, the brochure ‘Antelami a Parma’, Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 26-27 and my Trotter Travel guide for Northeast Italy.

Note

[1] In chapter XII of the story, as told by John of Damascus (ca. 676-749), the creatures are two mice, one white and one black. The story also mentions a ferocious unicorn and four asps, but these were omitted by Benedetto Antelami.

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