The foundation stone for the new Cathedral was laid on 9th June 1099, incredibily when the archibishop’s see was vacant. The Modenese community desired a new Duomo to finally put their Patron Saint Geminiano (312-397) to rest.
The architect was Lanfranco; the sculpture-work by Wiligelmo. The construction went ahead fast from the apses, and in 1106 the Saint was solemnly laid to rest in the new cript. Pope Paschal II and the feudal lady Matilde di Canossa attended the ceremony (this is the story told by the Relatio de innovatione ecclesiae Sancti Geminiani ac de translatione eius beatissimi corporis visible in the Museo del Duomo°°).
In 1173 the Congress of the Lombard League (Modena was a member of it) was held here. The official consecration of the church took place in 1184 with Pope Lucius III (the severe auctor of the decretal Ad abolendam against heresy).
From the end of the XII century, replacing the followers of Lanfranco and Wiligelmo, the Maestri Campionesi started working on the Cathedral, remaining here until the middle of the XIII century. They made several Gothic modifications, such as the rose window, the lateral portals of the facade, the Porta Regia on Piazza Grande, the false transept, many internal decorations, the wonderful spire of the Ghirlandina tower).
In the first half of the XV century the ancient wooden trusses were substituted by the cross vaults in brick and the aisles were enriched by works of arts and monuments. The Cathedral has always been at the heart of the town life. For example, the legend says that the Emperor Charles V risked breaking a leg when slipping in the nave, while visiting Modena.
During the Baroque period, the church was considered bare and so it was decorated by ephemeral machines in the exalted style of the epoch. Someone even proposed destroying the Duomo to build a new church: fortunately his whim was not satisfied.
Other alterations were made in the XVIII century, particularly in the central apse of the crypt, and at the end of the following century, when the Cathedral was cleaned up from all the unnecessary trivia. A solemn Te Deum was performed when Napoleon passed through, and another one when the Estense Dukes returned to Modena after being re-enstated.
Recently the Duomo has been restored in order to conserve it in the best way possible, expecially protecting it from smog and subsidence. So, one can admire the Cathedral as thousands of people have done in 1000 years of history.
The Cathedral, as many of the churches of the same period, is built in a west-east direction: so the facade is the western side, the right side the southern one, and so on.
The facade, on Corso Duomo, was planned, like the rest of the edifice, by the famous architect Lanfranco. The height is exactly the same as the width, lending the church a robust but gentle harmony. All around the exterior, it is decorated with loggias closed under arches, and adorned with wonderful capitals and statues. Three doors are open, though originally only the central one existed: modifications, like the rose window, carried out by the Maestri Campionesi, who worked here from about 1170 to 1320.
The four large reliefs by Wiligelmo are exceptionally important, as they symbolize the renaissance of art after the medieval centuries. They were put on the same level as the central ones, so that people who could not read were able to find the illustrations of the biblical stories they had heard about.
Starting from the left, in the first relief: God in an ‘almond’ (symbol of inner life and light) with an open book in his hands, over two angels; Adam’s creation and Eve’s from one of his rips (the caption are still visible nowadays); the orginal sin (the protagonists eating the apple offered by the snake, and covering themself with fig leaves).
Second relief: God points disapproving at Adam and Eve, who tear their hair, while an angel drives them away from the Eden; they are then completely dressed working around a plant, their heads bowed under some arches.
Third relief: the first men after the original sin. Cain and Abel offer a lamb and some ears of corn to God, then Cain kills his brother hitting him on the head and is reproached by God.
Fourth reliefs: Cain himself is killed by the blind Lamech as it was predicted (he shoots an arrow with his eyes closed); Noah and his wife during the Flood in an ark which is vaguely similar to the Duomo (the believers are saved by the church is the message); Noah with his sons Sem, Cam and Iafet go out of the ark to populate the world.
The Major Portal is really interesting and was decorated by Wiligelmo himself. The column-bearing lions are Roman, probably taken from an ancient grave. The extrados is decorated with a rich acanthus tree supported by two male telamons: where men, bizarre and natural beings are hidden (for example, a basilisk, a mermaid, a griffin, vipers, hawks, cranes). The archivolt presents at the top a two-faced Janus, the Roman protector of doors. In the intrados, prophets (in italian: Mosè, Aronne, Daniele, Zaccaria, Michea, Abdia, Abacuc, Exechiele, Isaia, Geremia, Malachia, Sofonia. Their names are in the respective niches).
On the left of the Portal, a wonderful inscription, supported by the prophets Enoc and Elijah (symbol of long life for the Cathedral), commemorates the laying of the foundation stone (6th june 1099) and Wiligelmo, the creator of the sculpture work: «Inter scultpres quanto sis dignus onore claret scultura nunc Vuiligelme tua» (in Latin). Also at the sides of the Portal, two panels by Wiligelmo represent angels leaning on upside-down torches (in the left one with an ibis, probably symbol of the sinner’s death). At the corners of the avant-corps, on the left two deer are wrestling with a single head, on the right, two lions trying to break free from a snake (symbol of the man against sin).
Higher than the rose window, the so-called Saint Geminiano cross has a really particular shape. Under it, the images of the four Evangelists, a Christ in ‘almond’ shape by the Campionesi and Samson with the lion. An angel on the top and two turrets (finished in the first years of the XX century) complete the astonishing facade of the Duomo.
The arches with galleries continue on this side of the Duomo, decorated by original figures sculptured in the stone. After the calle dei Campionesi, the narrow street on the right of the facade, behind a little gate, the Porta dei Principi (that is Princes’ door) stands, through which the persons to be baptized passed into the church. The portal was by the so-called Maestro of Saint Geminiano, a contemporary follower of Wiligelmo, modelling it on the major one in the facade. Besides the two column-bearing lions, in the intrados one can see the Apostles (where Matthias replaces Judas the traitor); in the extrados, an inhabited spray. The architrave is decorated with six episodes from Saint Geminiano’s life: he sets off to the Orient on horseback and by ship to exorcise the daughter of the Emperor Jovian (a curious winged demon is liberated); he then receives gifts and returns to Modena, where he dies and is buried like a mummy. The intrados of the architrave itself is particular, as a lamb is kept up by two angels flying in the sky, and looked upon from the corners by Saint John the Baptist and Saint Paul.
On the right of the prothyrum, the Fight between Jacob and the angel and Truth wrenching the tongue of the fraud. Then, a big incision commemorates the consecration of the Duomo of Modena, in 1184, by Pope Lucius III. A text also commemorates the visit of Pope John Paul II in June 1988.
The side open to the Piazza Grande is dominated by the Porta Regia, built in the first years of the XIII century by the Maestri Campionesi. Wrought in red Veronese marble, it is characterized by an extraordinary embrasure with interlaced columns and roses and by the two lions with prey under their paws. The stucture is surmounted by a niche with a statue of the Patron Saint Geminiano (the original one is in the Museums of the Duomo°°) and an incredible bone of a whale. The balcony is completed with a lion at the top.
Going right, the dummy transept is visible, made by the Maestri Campionesi while building the internal choir, culminating in another lion. In 1501 the pulpit was added by Jacopo and Paolo da Ferrara, representing the four Evangelists, whereas the relief realized in 1442 by Agostino di Duccio was placed here in 1584. It tells the same stories of Saint Geminiano as the Porta dei Principi (the recovery of the Emperor’s daughter, the gifts and the funeral with the miracle of the fog which saved Modena from the barbarians). Between the pulpit and the relief, two plaques commemorate the oath of Pontida on the field of Legnano, when the Lombard League was born against the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and the creation, in 1855, of the ecclesiastic province of Modena thanks to Pope Pius IX.
Already finished in 1106, the year of the translation of Saint Geminiano’s corpse (according to the Relatio conserved in the Museums of the Duomo°°), the three apses are one of the things to notice about the Cathedral. Here one can appreciate the design of the loggias (which run all around the perimeter) and the splendour of the twenty different types of stone which cover the church.
In the central one, a plaque praises the architect of the Duomo and surmounts a window decorated with flowers. The Modenese measures which are carved in the wall are really interesting: the merchants in Piazza Grande could come here (where the ‘Buona Stima’ office stood) to control the goods against fraud. From the left, the brick, the step, the pole and the pantile: the whole Duomo was built following these measurements, and in fact it bears them out exactly.
Along the northern side of the Duomo via Lanfranco was opened at the end of the XIX century, separating the church from the other edifices of the sacristry and the presbitery (where now the Museums of the Duomo°° are housed). Here one can admire the longest perspective of the architectonic motive with arches and gallery which characterizes the whole Cathedral. There are also wondeful metopes and capitals: each one is different from the other, representing imaginary and naturalistic subjects.
Near the Ghirlandina tower, the Porta della Pescheria (that is ‘Portal of the fish market’) or “delle Donzelle” was the place where pilgrims coming from the via Emilia°° entered the church. This is the reason why the sculptures are of international and pagan subjects. The name derives from the market which once stood here and from the fact that it was the door dedicated to women. A covered passage connects the church to the sacristry, whereas the preceding arches were built in the Gothic style probably in 1338, to avoid the bell tower leaning towards the Cathedral.
The portal is characterized, like the others, by a pair of column-bearing lions. The sculpture is of an exceptional interest. In the extrados telamons hold up an inhabited spray. In the intrados, the months of the year are represented: January cures a pig; February is wrapped in a blanket in front of a fire; March cuts the grapevine; April brings flowers; May leads a horse as it was the period when wars started; June cuts the grass with a sickle; July reaps the wheat; August thrashes it; September makes wine in a barrel; November sows and December cuts the wood. The cycle of the seasons is so represented, as was the unescapable rhythm of life at the time.
In the architrave there are fables of French origin: a Nereid hunts a Triton; two cocks bring in a fox pretending to be dead; the storks are trying to free themselves from a snake; a wolf and a crane belong to Phaedrus fable.
However, the most incredible subject is the one of the arch. In the keystone, Mardoc holds Guinevere prisoner in a castle, while knights are trying to free her. Among them, King Arthur and Galvagino, as the caption explains: it is the story of the Arthurian legend (or of the Knights of the Round Table). The astonishing thing is that the first known written edition dates back to 1136, whereas the portal was made twenty years before! So it is the most ancient representation of the legend in the world, brought across Medieval Europe by the pilgrims.
The interior of the Duomo is entirely built in brick, apart from some elements (like the capitals), which are in marble. Reflecting the exterior – they were planned as one – it is divided into a nave and two aisles. Looking down the middle, pillars and columns alternate, creating four cross vaults and a dummy transept near the choir, just before the apses. At half height, windows with three lights open on a false women’s gallery, never carried out. Higher, big windows give light to the church.
Starting from the left aisle, on the wall the tomb of bishop Roberto Fontana by Tommaso Loraghi and Ercole da Ferrara (1652); then, a wooden statue of the Patron Saint Geminiano, from the first part of the XIV century by the Campionesi and a marble door leading to via Lanfranco. The great Altare delle Statuine (1440-1) was entirely made in terracotta by Michele da Firenze; on the altar, the Madonna della Piazza or delle Ortolane, a fresco removed from the wall of the Cathedral, painted in 1345 (the name is due to the fact that it was put in the square for the devotion of the market people). In a sculptured marble altar, Saint Sebastian between the Saints Jerome and John by the famous artist Dosso Dossi (1518-21) surmounts a frontal in silver and gold copper of the early XIX century.
On the portal of the nave, the tomb of bishop Francesco Ferrari (1510), among various reliefs, is under the wonderful rose window, the stained glass designed by Giovanni da Modena. Two holy-water stoups originate from really ancient Roman capitals. The most important families of Modena also have their coats of arms cut in the keystones of the vaults (finished in 1453). On the left, around the second pillar, the Pulpit by Enrico da Campione (1322), painted in the following century with stories of Saint Ignatius’ life and sculptured with standing figures along the parapet (XV-XVII century). Over it, Madonna col Bambino, a fresco of the middle of the XIV century; under it, Madonna del latte. Near the second pillar on the right, a little wooden seat, today folded up, is known as the seat of the executioner, probably because he used it during cerimonies. The symbol of the Modenese archdiocese hangs from the third arch.
In the right aisle, after the funeral monument of Lucia Rangoni by Marco Antonio da Morbegno and Anelino da Mantova (1515), there is the imposing Cappella Bellencini: in a beautiful frame of terracotta, the Last Judgment was painted by Bartolomeo and Agnolo degli Erri or by Cristoforo da Lendinara in the XV century (notice the half-naked men at the bottom, the triptych, the angel with sword and scales and the Saints). In the chapel there is a nice baptismal font in rose marble. Then, the interior of the Porta dei Principi, the subtle Crib in terracotta by Antonio Begarelli (1527) and the grave of Francesco Molza (1516, by Bartolomeo Spani).
At the end of the aisles, descending some steps, there is the crypt of the Patron Saint Geminiano. Here many graves fill the walls and the floor, but the characterizing elements are the capitals of the numerous columns (sometimes recuperated, sometimes preceding Wiligelmo himself). In the right apse, the Madonna della Pappa or Porrini crib by Guido Mazzoni in painted terracotta (1480-5). A parapet indicates the area of Saint Geminiano’s grave, visible under a crystal shrine: the columns which substain it (IV century AD) once allowed the believers to pass under it as a sing of devotion. The whole apse was decorated in the XVIII century with marble work. Finally, the left apse conserves a Crucified and a golden urn.
Back in the nave, the wonderful parapet and ambo were sculptured and painted, in the years 1165-1225 by the Maestri Campionesi. In the first, from the left: the washing the feet, the Last Supper, Judas’s kiss, Pontius Pilate and Jesus, the flagellation and Cyreneus. In the second, from the left: the Learned Men of the Church and the benedictory Redeemer among the Evangelists, Jesus and Saint Peter. The whole structure is borne by four column-bearing lions (one of them being bitten on the neck by its prey, two are clawing at knights in armour with swords, the fourth traps maybe a dog) and by two telamons, symbolizing the pain of hard work. Capitals, reliefs and marble roses fill the entrance to the crypt.
With backs turned to the rose window, one can go up to the third level of the church, through the left stair way: this raised area is occupied by the presbytery. On the wall, the tomb of Claudio Rangoni, by Niccolò Cavallerino, based on a project by the famous Giulio Romano (1542). Then, two pieces of sculpture: a marble Madonna col Bambino and Saint Geminiano saving a child falling from the Ghirlandina by Agostino di Duccio (1442). Under a modern organ, four pieces of inlaid woodwork with the Evangelists by Cristoforo da Lendinara (1477) and the wooden high-backed chairs. In the apse, a precious Polittico con Incoronazione di Maria, Corcifissione and Saints by Serafino Serafini (1385) surmounts an altar dating back at least to the X century. The door which is opened near the stair conducts, through a raised passage, to the astonishing sacristry, painted in 1507 by Francesco Bianchi Ferrari and furnished with stalls inlaid by the Lendinara (XV century). There are also canvases by Modenese artists such as Francesco Vellani and Bernardino Cervi.
In the nave, there is a XIII-century enclosure with little pink and white columns; on the top, the latin inscription “IESUS CHRISTUS HERI ET HODIE IPSE ET IN SAECULA”, and near it a beautiful spiral marble column. The floor, decorated with marble designs, the XVII-century wooden lectern and the monumental wooden Crucified hanging from the vaulting (second half of the XIII century) are unforgettable. On the wall, the high-backed chairs inlaid in wood by Cristoforo and Lorenzo da Lendinara (1465), of which the central two have also a little cupola. The main altar, dating back to the XIII century, supported by six pairs of columns and by a bigger spiral one, symbolizing Christ among the Apostles. The painting in the apsidal conch is recent: it was carried out in the XIX century by Forti and Migliorini, inspired by the classical themes of the Roman mosaics.
In the right apse, apart from the many windows opening into the dummy transept over Piazza Grande, there are rich candelabrums, a marble altar and the golden XIX-century tables with Santa Lucia and Sant’Eligio. The handrail finishes with the head of a lion, whereas on the wall there are still now remains of the paintings which once covered the interior of the Duomo (XIII-XIV century). Here opens the Porta Regia, the main access to the church from Piazza Grande.
[images by the Author with the kind permission of the Duomo]