You can live in a place all your life and still be surprised, from time to time…at the end of last april, my daughter and I registered for a guided tour of a very specific area in the Cathedral….always a pleasure, because it’s really stunning!
A little bit of history: the construction was begun in 1059 by bishop Cadalo, later antipope with the name of Honorius II, and was consecrated by Paschal II in 1106. A basilica existed probably in the 6th century, but was later abandoned; another church had been consecrated in the rear part of the preceding one in the 9th century by the count-bishop Guibodo. The new church was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1117 and had to be restored. Of the original building, remains can be seen in the presbytery, the transept, the choir and the apses, and in some sculpture fragments. The wide façade was completed in 1178: it has three loggia floors and three portals. Between the central and the right doors is the tomb of the mathematician Biagio Pelacani, who died in 1416. The Gothic belfry was added later, in 1284-1294: a twin construction on the left side had been conceived, but it was never begun.
Two great marble lions guard the entrance to the Cathedral: they were sculpted by Giambono da Bissone in 1281 and are among the symbols of the Cathedral. The door is by Luchino Bianchino, who carved it in 1494. A closer look at the lions reveals that they are not perfectly symmetrical. On the contrary. One is red and the other is white. It seems that this difference may be interpreted as the dual human and divine nature of Christ. The two lions represent the Lord and embody his strength, his ability to support his own Church and victory over death.
All the visitors, once inside, are attracted by the painted ceiling, very up above their heads, a real catalyst for everyone’s attention….
but the real protagonist is the dome……
The Assumption of the Virgin is a fresco by the Italian Late Renaissance artist Antonio da Correggio decorating the dome. Correggio signed the contract for the painting on November 3, 1522. It was finished in 1530. The composition was influenced by Melozzo da Forlì’s perspective and includes the decoration of the dome base, which represents the four protector saints of Parma: St. John the Baptist with the lamb, St. Hilary with a yellow mantle, St. Thomas (or Joseph) with an angel carrying the martyrdom palm leaf, and St. Bernard, the sole figure looking upwards. Below the feet of Jesus, the uncorrupt Virgin in red and blue robes is lifted upward by a vortex of singing or otherwise musical angels. Ringing the base of the dome, between the windows, stand the perplexed Apostles, as if standing around the empty tomb in which they have just placed her. In the group of the blessed can be seen: Adam and Eve, Judith with the head of Holofernes. At the centre of the dome is a foreshortened beardless Jesus descending to meet his mother. Correggio’s Assumption would eventually serve as a catalyst and inspiration for the dramatically-illusionistic, di sotto in su ceiling paintings of the 17th-century Baroque period. In Correggio’s work, and in the work of his Baroque heirs, the entire architectural surface is treated as a single pictorial unit of vast proportions and opened up via painting, so that the dome of the church is equated with the vault of heaven. The illusionistic manner in which the figures seem to protrude into the spectators’ space was, at the time, an audacious and astounding use of foreshortening, though the technique later became common among Baroque artists who specialized in illusionistic vault decoration.
Cantelli Chapel: the neobizantine decoration of the walls and vault is due to Gerolamo Magnani (1881-82), who in the medallions of the vault represented the four evangelists. Various gravestones are found in the walls, including the one in the right pedestal that remembers the primitive chapel (probably an altar hanging on the wall with the family tomb, as the chapels, as we see them now, were built during the ‘400s) made in 1285 by Bartolo Cantelli, with coat of arms of Count Giuseppe Cantelli, chamberlain of Maria Luigia, who died in 1845. The carved and golden niche, containing the statue of St. Joseph with the Child, dates back to the end of the 18th century.
But now our solitary walk was interrupted by the guide who grouped us up to climb up there…..near the vault….along the arches of the matroneum to admire the medieval capitals….
An encyclopedia of images engraved in stone: this is how one can describe the countless medieval capitals that can be discovered while walking along the aisles of the cathedral, and we were lucky enough to see them from very near. Most of the capitals in the Cathedral are of the Corinthian-type, with vegetal decoration. But there are also capitals with different decorations, such as hunting scenes, mythological tales, Bible stories and scenes drawn from daily life. The capitals used to be polychromatic, but today bare stone and 16th-century gilding prevail.
An imposing cycle of frescoes that accompanies worshippers along the entire central nave….they tell the story of the Life of Christ and also depict episodes from the Old Testament. And to see them so close was really an experience! Both the right and left wall are entirely covered by frescoes, which follow a precise thematic organization. The frescoes between the arches and the women’s gallery (matroneum) depict scenes of the Old Testament, those between the women’s gallery and the lunettes images from the Gospel, while allegorical figures appear in the lunettes. This imposing work bears witness to Lattanzio Gambara‘s apprenticeship with Giulio Campi, but also to the influence of the painter Giulio Romano.
After descending the stone spiral staircase, we didn’t stop at ground level, our descent continued to the crypt….
A dense interweaving of columns and groin vaults that can be compared to a “stone garden”. Here are preserved the relics of San Bernardo degli Uberti, patron saint of the Diocese. It is thought that the columns used in this crypt were taken from the ancient Roman town, thus establishing an ideal continuity between the ancient town and the Cathedral. Of particular interest is the statue of Saint Bernard at the centre of the chapel dedicated to him and altered over the centuries. From the crypt one gains access to two precious Renaissance chapels: the Rusconi chapel and the Ravacaldi chapel.
Ravacaldi Chapel: here one can see the fresco of the Annunciation and a cycle of paintings about the life of the Virgin, evidence of the fine narrative taste of the workshop of Bertolino de’ Grossi. This chapel is also named after its patron, a canon whose figure seems to be included in the Annunciation fresco. The particular attention given to details and faces makes of these frescos an interesting example of 15th-century painting.
Rusconi Chapel: this side chapel located at the right of the crypt contains elegant frescoes commissioned by Bishop Giovanni Rusconi in 1398. A magnificent votive fresco dominates the chapel. This fresco shows the Bishop kneeling by the throne of the Virgin and absorbed in prayer. The rest of the chapel shows depictions of the prophets, attributed to Padua workshops, and images of the Evangelists enclosed in elegant frames. Of particular interests is the depiction of the Trinity through the superimposition of the three divine faces, which at the time was considered an unorthodox choice.
The visit led us behind the main altar, in a series of rooms used by the priest to change them for Mass and where we could admire some precious wood carved closets used to store priests’ clothes, religious adornments, Mass books, ect…
Our visit finished passing before the Bishop’s throne, under the golden tabernacle….
The throne is adorned with a symbolically rich marble group in which scenes from the Scriptures are intertwined with anthropomorphic figures and episodes drawn from hagiographic stories. From a symbolic point of view, the bishop’s throne represents the Bishop presiding over liturgical assemblies within the Cathedral, which takes its name from this seat (“cathedra”). The arms are symmetrical and consist of two human figures crushed by lions that embody the victory of Christ over death. Other episodes are depicted on its sides, such as the battle between Saint George and the dragon and the conversion of Paul.
We couldn’t exit the Cathedral without paying tribute to the most (maybe) famous piece inside….the Deposition by Benedetto Antelami This is the first great known work by Benedetto Antelami and a masterpiece of Gothic art. It originally was part of the ambo, from which the Word of God used to be proclaimed. Looking at the composition carefully one becomes aware of the modernity and humanity that the artist sculpted into the marble. The scene has a strong dramatic impact: Christ is at the centre, his lifeless body supported by John. At the left of the Cross are the gambling centurions, casting dice for the robes of the son of God. Antelami‘s style is very personal, and although he created this work in 1178 he anticipates with remarkable foresight elements of Gothic sculpture.
We enjoyed this tour so very much, a nice diversion for our usual saturday afternoon….