Parma: Museo Diocesano

Floor mosaic (6th century).

“Is that all?” I will not hide the fact that that was my primary reaction when I visited the Museo Diocesano in Parma. The museum, in the basement of the episcopal palace opposite the Duomo, is very small indeed. It basically consists of one large room, a corridor and a couple of smaller rooms. And yet I would certainly recommend a visit to the museum. It has the original ‘golden angel’ of the campanile of the cathedral, several original statues from the Baptistery and a splendid floor mosaic which possibly once adorned the Paleochristian cathedral, predecessor of the predecessor of the current cathedral.

The episcopal palace was built between 1045 and 1055 during the episcopate of Pietro Cadalo, who also ruled as antipope Honorius II (1061-1064) for a while. The palace was completed at the end of the twelfth century under bishop Bernardo II, while bishop Grazia had the present façade of the building erected between 1232 and 1234. If you look closely, you will notice that the arches of the gallery of the ground floor have been bricked up. This was done during the episcopate of bishop Sagramoro Sagramori (1476-1482). In the eighteenth century the palace got a Baroque-style makeover under bishop Camillo Marazzani, and between 1925 and 1935 the façade was thoroughly restored and given back its medieval appearance.

Angiol d’Or.

Golden angel

After buying a ticket the visitor will first come face to face with the Angiol d’Or or Angiolen dal Dom, the weathervane which topped the spire of the campanile of the Duomo for centuries. The Angiol d’Or is a gilded copper statue of the archangel Raphael from the fourteenth century. It is 1.42 metres high.

Angiol d’Or also happens to be the name of a very good restaurant that is situated on the north side of the Piazza del Duomo. In the summer of 2020 we had an excellent lunch here. We also witnessed a rather curious incident. A group of tourists approached the restaurant and began studying the menu outside for at least fifteen minutes. They then decided to enter and were assigned a table. After ordering two bottles of water they again studied the menu for fifteen minutes, after which they apparently concluded that the Angiol d’Or had no dishes to their liking. They told the waitress they wanted to leave. She responded quite professionally and left to get the bill for the water, but the group felt she took too long. The tourists flung a five-Euro note on the table and walked out. The owner of the Angiol d’Or even went after them as he had not seen the money. It was a remarkable incident, which fortunately did not spoil our culinary experience. The food was delicious and the service very friendly.

Statues by Antelami

Solomon and the queen of Sheba.

Now back to the Museo Diocesano. The visitor takes the stairs to the basement and then enters a corridor to the episcopal palace. During my visit I found a big screen here which was used to give more information about the exhibition Antelami a Parma. The museum possesses six original statues which were made by Benedetto Antelami (ca. 1150-1230) and his studio. Follow the corridor and you will come to a much larger room where the statues have been set up. Two of these really stand out. They represent king Solomon and the queen of Sheba. According to 1 Kings Solomon was known for his wisdom. He also built and inaugurated the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. His fame extended far beyond his own kingdom of Israel. The queen of Sheba, which must have been somewhere in modern Yemen, decided to visit Solomon and to test him with questions and riddles. When Solomon was able to answer each and every question, the queen was deeply impressed. She donated him 120 talents of gold and many spices and gems (1 Kings 10:10). The statues of Solomon and the queen were originally painted, but most of the paint has vanished. The text on the king’s scroll has become illegible as well. The statues originally stood in a niche to the right of the northern portal (Portale della Madonna) of the Baptistery. In the twentieth century they were replaced with copies.

The other statues by Antelami represent two prophets and two archangels. The two prophets used to stand in a niche to the left of the Portale della Madonna and they too have now been replaced with copies. The first ‘prophet’ is king David, father of the aforementioned king Solomon. The identity of the other prophet is less certain. He is probably Nathan. According to 2 Samuel God ordered Nathan to tell king David that not he, but his son would build the temple in Jerusalem. That son was, of course, Solomon. Another possibility is that the statue represents the prophet Habakkuk, although Habakkuk was not a contemporary of David. The identity of the two archangels is not debated: they are Michael and Gabriel. Each statue once stood in its own niche above the Portale della Madonna. According to an interesting theory the statue of Michael is only partially Antelami’s creation. It is supposedly essentially a Roman statue, to which the great medieval sculptor only added a head and feet.

Central room of the Museo Diocesano.

Floor mosaic (detail), with the names of Clarus and Decentius.

Floor mosaic and other highlights

In the back of the room we find a large and colourful floor mosaic that probably dates from the sixth century. It was found in 1955 and it is assumed that it was part of a Christian building, making the first cathedral of Parma a likely candidate. The part of the floor that has been preserved features mostly geometric patterns, but also four rather sad looking fish, two dolphins and a large vase or cantharus (see the first image in this post). The lower part of the mosaic has a Latin text that reads:

CLARVS ET DECENTIVS FEC PED CC

Which means: “Clarus and Decentius have made 200 foot of mosaics”. This does not mean that they laid the tesserae themselves; they probably sponsored the work. Inscriptions such as this one are very common in Paleochristian mosaics. We have seen them before on this website (here and here).

Saint Martin sharing his cloak.

In the large room we can furthermore admire various pieces of marble with sculpted reliefs. I especially liked the reliefs featuring Saint Martin sharing his cloak and Samson killing a lion. The four lions sculpted by Antelami are also splendid. They once supported the columns that in their turn supported the pulpit that stood in the cathedral of Parma between the twelfth and sixteenth century. The pulpit was also by Antelami. Of this pulpit a relief featuring the Deposition from the Cross has been preserved, which can still be admired in the cathedral. A staircase gives access to a small room that is dedicated to the frescoes in the Baptistery. Of course the real Baptistery is much more fun and much, much more impressive. Tickets for a visit can be bought at the Museo Diocesano.

Sources: website Piazza Duomo, the information panels in the Museo Diocesano and the brochure ‘Antelami a Parma’.

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